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Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward
Bush to Issue Ultimatum in TV Address Tonight (Post, March 17)
Video: Powell on ultimatum to Iraq (Post, March 17)
Confronting Iraq Special Report
Confronting Iraq Discussion Transcripts
Woodward talked about "Bush at War" in November
Talk: World Message Boards
Live Online Transcripts

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Bush and Iraq
With Bob Woodward
Assistant Managing Editor, The Washington Post

Tuesday, March 18, 2003; Noon ET

Now that war seems certain, how will President Bush steer the course through it? Has he effectively made his case to the American public? What are the long-term effects on U.S. prestige and foreign policy? Who is advising him?

Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward was online Tuesday, March 18 to talk about Bush at war.

The transcript follows.

Woodward's latest book, "Bush at War" (Simon & Schuster, 2002), is a chronicle of George W. Bush and his administration through the beginning of the war on terror and the lead-up to conflict with Iraq. Based on notes taken during more than 50 National Security Council and other meetings, as well as personal notes, memos, calendars, written internal chronologies, transcripts and other documents. More than 100 people involved in the decision making, including President Bush, were interviewed. His best-selling books include "Maestro: Greenspan's Fed and the American Boom," "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," "The Commanders," "Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA," "The Brethren," "The Agenda" and "The Choice." Woodward also analyzes politics and interviews guests regularly on CNN's "Larry King Live."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Washington, D.C.: Bob,

What happened to Colin Powell? In your book you portray him as the lone dove of the administration. do you think he was pushed to go along, or is being a good soldier, or does he really believe this is the right course of action?

Bob Woodward: All the evidence available suggests that Powell is a good soldier. The president took the diplomatic trail for six months at Powell's urging, and Powell seems to have made it clear that he shares the president's frustration with Saddam and Iraq. If Powell were president, this all might have been handled differently. But Powell is going along, like all good soldiers must.

Washington, D.C.: The U.S. has taken it upon itself to enforce a U.N. resolution in a manner that the U.N. itself has now refused to sanction. In the future, a coalition of Arab states may cite this precedent to justify a war to enforce U.N. resolutions regarding Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. A similar danger may arise between India and Pakistan, regarding enforcement of the 1998 U.N. resolutions concerning their nuclear programs.

Do you think Mr. Bush has thought very deeply about the precedent he's setting?

Bob Woodward: Ultimately, I don't know, but we are clearly in new foreign policy and international law territory. Certainly, it is possible that other countries will invoke Bush's rationale for the use of their own military. But we're going to have to wait for the outcome. So much of the reaction to all of this is going to be measured by the final outcome. If weapons of mass destruction are discovered, if U.S. and coalition casualties are low, and if the Iraqi people rejoice at the end of the Saddam Hussein regime, this probably will look like very wise policy. If there are serious setbacks, that will call the whole doctrine and new approach into question.

Silver Spring, Md.: How many countries have we bought to participate with the U.S. (promised aid or threatened to pull aid)? Why don't we do what President Kennedy did during the Cuban Missile crisis -- throw up a total embargo, block all export of oil and starve them out until they comply?

Bob Woodward: Economic sanctions are in place, but there are obviously holes. And the sanctions have not changed the behavior of the Iraqi regime.

Stockholm, Sweden: Mr. Woodward,

Now that the U.S. (and U.K.) are ready for war, there is absolutely no meaning in searching for a moral philosophic grounds to cover NOW. My only hope that this war is over within seven days to bring some badly needed order in the currently divided world. Do you think this is possible? Can they can finish the job in a week?

Bob Woodward: A lot of military people and experts, both real and self-styled, predict it will be a short war, lasting only a matter of weeks. Again, we're going to have to wait and see. But in the 12 years since the Gulf War, it would be prudent for the military to imagine Saddam arranging several surprises. The big fear, obviously, would be the use of chemical or biological warfare agents. That in itself could cause substantial delay in any battle plan.

Silver Spring, Md.: How involved is Karl Rove in the Bush administration's policy of preemptive war? It is a little frightening to think that a political consultant might be one of the "inner circle" who has decided that this war must take place no matter the credible and logical arguments against it.

Bob Woodward: Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, is not involved in the closed-door war cabinet meetings. At the same time, he knows and has said publicly that Bush's performance in the war on terror will likely determine his political future. I have not found any evidence that raw politics is driving the decision making. But Bush is a politician, and politics is always, at least background music to every decision.

washingtonpost.com: Bob, after the president's speech last night, we saw a lot of comments from readers reacting to the president's urging of Iraqis not to set their oil wells on fire. A common reaction was that this is a clear indicator that oil makes up a large part of the U.S. strategy in this part of the world. How credible is that accusation?

Bob Woodward: First, during the Gulf War a dozen years ago, the Iraqis set the Kuwaiti oil fields on fire. It was an environmental and economic disaster. Bush wants to avoid that for the future Iraqi government. Without the oil revenue, the prospects of transition to some sort of democratic regime become more and more difficult, if not impossible. Bush has effectively pledged that the oil and oil wells will not be seized by the U.S. forces, but that those oil reserves and revenue belong to the people of Iraq.

Council Bluffs, Iowa: Timothy O'Brien commented last night on "Charlie Rose" that the UN would be shut out of the rebuilding phase in Iraq. Do you have any insight on this? Won't this add billions of dollars to the taxpayers' bill?

Bob Woodward: It certainly could, and I'm sure in the aftermath Bush and Powell and the whole U.S. government will be working hard to bring other nations into the rebuilding and refinancing process. Obviously, that will be difficult, but I'm sure a large effort will be undertaken.

College Park, Md.: Do you think we should go to war given all you know?

The discourse of Iraq's capabilities have changed since last fall. This all started with the idea that it has a nuclear arsenal. This has been proven not the case, and it even has come to light that the "evidence" that proved this was doctored. The weaponry they do have apparently reaches a 100 miles. They have a glorified balsa wood "drone." Why are we going to war? Didn't we contain the Soviets for 50 years before their implosion and collapse?

Bob Woodward: President Bush's core argument is that the potential threat is so great that, as he said last night, it would be suicide to not act. If large caches of weapons of mass destruction are found, or if the Iraqis use such weapons, I expect there will be widespread belief that Bush acted properly. If they are not found, then all kinds of questions are going to be raised, quite legitimately, about the intelligence that was available and the decision-making process. The military and the CIA are going to undertake a massive effort to not only protect themselves and our forces inside Iraq, but attempt to document the extent to which these terror weapons were hidden. I'm sure everyone anxiously awaits their findings.

Pembroke Pines, Fla.: You have followed this and previous administrations for many years. Is Sept. 11 the only or even primary reason we are moving into Iraq? What is the real provenance of this action, in your view? Surely it was not telegraphed to the American electorate as part of the 2000 campaign, yet 15-year-old atrocities, et al., are given as the primary reasons for this incursion.

Bob Woodward: The primary reason that the president and his advisers have stated is simply that 9/11 was a shock and a major attack the likes of which had never been seen. This forced an alteration of national security doctrine, according to Bush. His argument, in a sentence, is it would be imprudent, unacceptable and derelict to not act against the potential threat. The course of the war, as I tried to suggest earlier, will establish in fact how big that threat was and is.

Charlotte, N.C.: Do you think your democratic leanings greatly influence your reporting and writing on what have been largely Republican administrations?

Bob Woodward: I have no partisan leanings one way or the other, and I guess the best evidence of that is I've been accused of leanings both ways. For the nickel it may be worth, I'm attempting to find out what happened. And a partisan approach, looking at these events through a partisan lens, won't help me get at what those events and motivations and decisions are.

Minneapolis, Minn.: I support the president's objective to remove Saddam from power but I am very concerned that he is less committed to the far more important objective of creating democracy in Iraq. Do you see evidence that he and his advisors have the will and ability to garner U.S. and world support for this critical second objective?

Bob Woodward: That's an excellent question. I know they've spent a lot of time on it within the war cabinet. And Steve Hadley, who is the deputy national security adviser, wrote an op-ed piece in The Post about two weeks ago outlining the effort and the goals. It's worth reading.

washingtonpost.com: The Plan for a Postwar Iraq (Post, Feb. 28, 2003)

San Jose, Calif.: Sen. Daschle said that President Bush has failed miserably diplomatically. If so, are we as a nation in deep trouble when it comes to other threats such as North Korea, etc.?

Bob Woodward: The failure of diplomacy in the confrontation with Iraq does not necessarily mean a greater threat from North Korea. The president has said the North Korea problem is a "regional" issue, and his administration is trying to get China, Japan and South Korea involved in the diplomacy to deal with the North Korean nuclear weapons.

Brookline, Mass.: Does anyone in the Bush administration really think that the postwar blueprint we've heard about can possibly work?

I keep thinking it's going to be a combination of all the worst aspects of Yugoslavia and Vietnam. And when it's finally time for them to hold and election, what are we going to do when they elect a head of state we don't like?

Bob Woodward: They certainly are trying to make it work, but you raise some very good questions, and I'm sure if there's a successful military plan, Iraq will be disarmed of its weapons of mass destruction, so an immediate new threat from a new Iraqi government should be minimal, even if we don't get on with the new leaders. But that is the problem with nation building, and we are going to be able to watch the anatomy of one of the most complicated undertakings known to men and women in this century.

Boston, Mass.: Mr. Woodward,

It is great to have this opportunity to learn about your insights. Can you comment on the prediction that the U.S. may be tempted to "stay" in Iraq even after its work is done in order to neutralize the threat arising from Iran, particularly in light of the recent disclosures about the nuclear program in Iran?

Bob Woodward: It would not be a very good strategy to deal with the potential Iranian threat by staying in Iraq. Iraq is going to have to reconstitute itself with assistance, and hopefully a new government will emerge that will be its own counterweight to its longtime foe across the giant Iraqi-Iranian border. But we don't know the answer to how or when or how effectively any of this might be achieved.

Skokie, Ill.: Mr. Woodward,

What is your view of the antiwar protests that have occurred over the last several months? Do you think that they have had any affect upon the administration's plans on Iraq?

Bob Woodward: I think, because as I indicated earlier, politics is always background music to presidential behavior, the protests have been noted. Personally, I think it's important that people find a way to express their views. If there were millions of people flocking into the streets, it would have an impact, but at this moment the protests have been significantly smaller, particularly in this country. And it's one of the things people in the White House you can be sure are watching.

When I talked to President Bush for my book, he brought up Vietnam repeatedly, and was quite aware of what he thought went wrong and the impact on this country. No president of his generation could overlook a massive or significant protest movement.

Santa Monica, Calif.: Why is that the GOP believes war with Iraq is a great idea now, but accused Clinton of "wagging the dog" in 1998?

Bob Woodward: I am shocked to see that you have uncovered an inconsistency in the statements of those in politics. The circumstances were indeed different, and Bush would argue, and I'm sure many Republicans would, that in 1998, it was a pre-9/11 world. And the terrorist attacks have changed the thinking and apprehensions of everyone, particularly the leaders. But when the exhaustive history of the 12- or 13-year confrontation with Iraq is written, in retrospect it's going to look like more should have been done earlier by both Republicans and Democrats.

Washington, D.C.: If not for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, what do you think Clinton would have done about Iraq?

Bob Woodward: Excellent question. Nobody knows. But it's clear the scandal was an immense distraction, and without it, Clinton might have spent more time more successfully on Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and even the Middle East peace process. Scandals always extract a price.

Manhattan, Kan.: If Bush fails to find Saddam, Saddam will become another underground Arab terrorist hero, such as bin Laden. If bin Laden, with his money and band of terrorists, and Saddam, with his riches and supporters, team up and plague the world with vengeful violence for the U.S. invasion, will Bush be seen as a having failed twice in his war against terrorism? He pledged to get his man, but he missed with bin Laden. If he fails again, what will history think of him?

Bob Woodward: The question with bin Laden, obviously, is still hanging. But to the credit of the FBI and the CIA and other agencies in our government, there has not been a major terrorist attack inside this country since 9/11. That's the important achievement, not having bin Laden's scalp on the wall. Saddam also will become a symbol, and if he escapes and is able to plot some sort of actions against the United States, it would be a terrible setback. But it could be a nightmare on many fronts if Bush were running for reelection and bin Laden and Saddam were both on the loose and unfindable.

washingtonpost.com: So is it safe to say that the 2004 election is a significant factor in the planning of this war?

Bob Woodward: To my knowledge, they don't sit down and talk about war issues and politics simultaneously. But Bush and all of his advisers and team know that performance matters. Of course, they want to succeed in what they're doing. And the evidence I have is that it doesn't come out in the open. But of course, politics is humming throughout the whole enterprise. For example, in business, for lots of people the goal is making money. But when businessmen meet, when boards of directors meet, they often talk about performance and sales and achievements, while the issue of money is humming in the background.

Seattle, Wash.: The Washington Post is currently reporting that in a recent Post/ABC poll seven out of 10 Americans favor Bush's action in Iraq. Do you think that this information is credible?

From my vantage point in Washington State I just can't believe it!

Bob Woodward: Sure, because last night the president effectively declared war. We have 200,000 to 300,000 men and women from the U.S. military there. The president has the Constitutional authority as Commander in Chief to deploy those forces. The Congress has supported and given him authority to use the force against Iraq as he deems "appropriate and necessary." As we get closer to war, I suspect those numbers will go up, because as a nation, the president and the Congress have committed us. It doesn't mean everyone's going to like it. But the democratic process has brought us to this moment.

Inverness, Scotland: If the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore been elected, would we now be about to invade Iraq?

Bob Woodward: Easier to describe the creation of the universe.

San Leandro, Calif.: I have never been political in my life, and now I and many of my friends are, because of President Bush and his administration. I have two questions for you. First, do you think our invasion of Iraq is the first action based on the President's National Security Strategy, what I call evangelical democracy? Second, since this administration has polarized and motivated a great deal of this country, do you think it may motivate the majority of eligible voters, who do not vote, to vote?

Bob Woodward: All of these decisions are going to be tested in the forum of public opinion, and quite likely, at the ballot box next year. I'm pretty sure the White House would not agree with your characterization of the Bush Doctrine, but there are a lot of people who share your view. The best evidence I have, and I have looked as hard as I can, it is not religion or any evangelical mission that is driving the president. When I talked to him for hours last year, he kept stressing his humanitarian goals -- to alleviate suffering and starvation, to get people out of prison camps, to bring democracy and freedom. There was never any hint that somehow he wanted to bring about a religious conversion of people abroad or in this country. He did say his religion gets him, perhaps, to the humanitarian goal. But I think you're misreading the basic motivation, though it is worthy of further inquiry.

Arlington, Tex.: Bob:

How confident should we be that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security will be able to protect us here in the United States from terrorist "sleeper" cell attacks? If ever a sleeper cell were going to launch an attack here, this would seem to be the most likely time to do it (right after the U.S. crosses into Iraq).

Bob Woodward: I share your worry, and it is an almost impossible task to stop all terrorism. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly and publicly noted it is just not possible to prevent every attack or roll up every sleeper cell or terrorism-motivated individual. That is true. So again, we're going to have to wait and see if the process set up in the last 18 months by Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security director, and the FBI and the CIA, can effectively make the country safe. It's one of the important elements that are going to have to be closely watched in the coming weeks.

Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Mr. Woodward,

What is your take on "the Turkish question?" Second to the viability on the U.N., I see this as the major undertone of this conflict, as Turkey seems poised to be quite a player on the global scene for the foreseeable future. Did Bush mention this to you at all, or Powell or Rice?

Bob Woodward: Back last August, according to information I got from National Security Council notes, Secretary Powell raised the Turkish issue and said it was going to have to be handled very carefully. Obviously, at least up to this point, diplomacy and a rather large multibillion-dollar carrot did not win Turkish agreement. I think there's some indications they may even change their minds today or this week, but it may be too late.

Keene, N.H.: Mr. Woodward,

Has the president systematically analyzed all of the possible consequences for military action? Has his staff been briefed as to the possible strategies Saddam might use to combat an American invasion?

Bob Woodward: Good question. I don't know the answer. Obviously, some of these issues have been addressed, but whether fully and completely, I don't know. War is so unpredictable that it just might be impossible to consider every angle.

Raleigh, N.C.: My biggest concern is that the first bomb dropped in Iraq will set off a terrorist was on our own home ground in the U.S. Do you think Pres. Bush will, in effect, bring the war home when he orders the first strike?

Bob Woodward: Last night the president said it was possible but not inevitable that we would be attacked. Of course, if the attack came from terrorists in the al Qaeda network, it might suggest the linkage with Iraq that the administration has, quite frankly, not been able to prove. To establish who did it and who supported it would take a vast amount of time, and there might never be certainty. But the Homeland Security problem could not be more real, not just because of what might happen in Iraq, but all of the intelligence evidence that al Qaeda is still an active force, capable of planning and carrying out multiple attacks. I'm sure this is why they elevated the threat alert status.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company