One of the great pleasures of speaking one’s mind freely is the ability, when appropriate, to reverse course.
Many months ago I criticized Bob Woodward as an example of what had happened to journalism in the last twenty years, emphasizing his reliance upon top-level sources.
His last two books, Bush at War
and Plan of Attack,
had been especially disappointing.
But the country now clearly faces a crisis, and Woodward has risen to the occasion in his latest, Bush in Denial
It is far denser, better researched, and more tightly written than any book he has ever written, I think, with the possible exception of my previous favorite (from a literary standpoint, anyway), The Brethren.
(The style of The Brethren
was so unlike that of Woodward’s other books that I assume his one-time co-author Scott Armstrong deserved a good deal of the credit for that one.) State of Denial
draws mainly on interviews with second- and third- level officials, many in the military but some within the Bush White House.
Because people who have not become media stars have a much closer relationship to the truth, his interviews with leading figures (especially Donald Rumsfeld) are an appalling counterpoint to what he has heard from those beneath them.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney wisely declined to be interviewed, but Rumsfeld, as the text makes clear, thinks he can fool anyone and get away with anything.
This time, he didn’t.
“If it feels good, do it, and if you’ve got a problem, blame something else.” George W. Bush’s encapsulation of the 1960s is actually a summary of the ethos of his Administration. And what feels good to its leading figures, even more than enriching the wealthy or overthrowing dictatorships, is feeling perfect. The chief function of the Administration is to make clear that it has never made a mistake. What emerges from State of Denial is how easily they find it to blame not only Democrats and wimpy allies, but each other, when things go wrong—and boy, have they gone wrong.
Secretary Rumsfeld is more than anyone the focus of the book, and anyone who reads it will understand why half a dozen prominent retired generals have called for his resignation. He trusts almost no one but himself, insists, like Robert McNamara, in getting into almost everything, and treats his bureaucratic rivals with contempt. He initially insisted upon Pentagon control of both the war and the civil Administration of Iraq, although neither he nor his main subordinates such as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith had any clear idea of how to run postwar Iraq, other than a few quickly exploded fantasies about their protégé Achmed Chalabi. Apparently at the behest of Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld refused to let Jay Garner, the retired general who made the first stab at postwar reconstruction, keep one of the best-qualified State Department officials on his team. When Garner told Rumsfeld that any reconstruction option would cost billions, Rumsfeld replied that the United States would not be spending its money on that—the Iraqis would have to do the job. (He has done his best to keep that promise and we have now officially announced that reconstruction aid has dried up.) When Garner refused to let Rumsfeld override his decisions in Baghdad over who should run Iraqi ministries, Rumsfeld told him he wasn’t a team player. At the moment Paul Bremer (another micromanager) replaced Garner, the Pentagon, apparently, did insist upon the disastrous decision to de Ba-athize (that is, essentially eliminate) the existing Iraqi government and to do away with the old Iraqi Army—Condolezza Rice, the National Security officer, reportedly did not know that that decision was coming. But when Garner immediately complained about de-Ba’athification Rumsfeld, as Woodward puts it (based evidently on what Garner told him), said that de Ba’athification had been some one else’s idea, thereby ending the argument. When Garner returned home told Rumsfeld that de-Ba’athification and the disbanding of the army had been disastrous mistakes, but the Secretary simply replied that there was no turning back. (Rumsfeld told Woodward that he “vaguely” remembered this conversation in 2006.) Then Rumsfeld gave Garner a medal and praised him for the fine job he had done. He had already told Garner that the President had selected Paul Bremer to replace him, but when Garner saw the President, Bush told him the opposite—that Bremer was Rumsfeld’s choice.
It was when things began to go wrong that Rumsfeld’s worst qualities began to emerge. When the US military couldn’t find any WMD he insisted of farming that embarrassing search out to the CIA. Within another year, by late 2004, Rumsfeld had begun announcing that remaining problems were the fault of the rest of the American government (“the interagency,” to use a current Pentagon term), and of the Iraqi people themselves. Rumsfeld’s isolation across the Potomac has become legendary—he sends low-level representatives to interagency meetings and refuses to give them any authority to make decisions. Paul Bremer found that Rumsfeld was refusing to forward his messages to other American government departments—an almost unheard of practice in Washington. Then, when things began going badly in December 2006, Rumsfeld announced that Bremer worked for the White House, not himself, after all. Even Stephen Hadley, the incumbent National Security Adviser, complained rather bluntly to Woodward about Rumsfeld’s attitude towards the rest of the U.S. government. And like all the other leading figures of the Bush Administration, Rumsfeld simply cannot admit that he might have made a mistake. Just months ago he refused once again to acknowledge the most obvious mistake of all—the failure to send enough troops to Iraq in the first place. (Later, publicly, he said the force level was General Tommy Franks’s idea.) He was furious in October 2005 when Rice, now the Secretary of State, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to announce an American strategy of “Clear, Hold and Build,” because he felt the 263,000 Iraqi security forces that his reports told him about should be doing the holding and building themselves. Several high-ranking generals, including NATO commander General James Jones, told Woodward they believed Rumsfeld had completely deprived the military of its right to offer independent advice.
Secretary Rice emerges as a person who wants to do the right thing, but who is too concerned with appearing to be on top of things to find out what that actually might be. (Woodward reports her thoughts on a number of occasions, suggesting that she gave off-the-record interviews.) Having no background in the Middle East, she frequently tried to explain events optimistically with reference to Communist Eastern Europe, her real area of expertise. She was not, however, a forceful bureaucratic player, and she failed as NSC adviser to do anything to reign in Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, although she occasionally tried. (The President at one point had gently to tell his Secretary of Defense to return her phone calls.) And she essentially refuses to listen to any truly bad news. When in late 2004 two trusted subordinates told her we needed 40,000 more troops in Iraq, she blew them off. She clearly cannot acknowledge that the Administration of which she is a part might have made a fundamental mistake. Her meticulous attention to her own appearance reflects her view of her job, as well. When a new Iraqi general was appointed to head the “Fallujah brigade” in the spring of 2004—an experiment that failed—she went ballistic. “Oh, God,” she shrieked. “He looks like Saddam Hussein! Can’t they pick somebody who doesn’t look like Saddam?”
The book includes remarkably little about Vice President Cheney and his staff, and that in itself must be significant. Cheney’s absence reminds me of the reaction to Joe Klein’s novel about the Clintons, Primary Colors. The press widely reported that his portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton was off base, and that she did not, in fact, swear like a trooper, but I heard at the time from a very trustworthy and well-placed source that she did. It occurred to me that that showed whom everyone in the Clinton Administration was really afraid of, and Cheney’s almost complete absence from State of Denial tells a parallel lesson about the Bush team.
President Bush, with whom Woodward had long conversations during his first Administration, declined all Woodward’s interview requests this time. Ron Suskind argues that in meetings he focuses on sizing his interlocutor up, and Woodward portrays a number of meetings in which he showed an astonishing lack of curiosity—particularly when, as in a meeting with WMD-seeker David Kay, his interlocutor has no very good news to give him. But in November 2003, when a CIA briefer told him that “we are seeing the establishment of an insurgency in Iraq,” he demanded more data. “I don’t want to read in The New York Times that we are facing an insurgency. I don’t want anyone in the cabinet to say it is an insurgency. I don’t think we are there yet.” Like Rice, who seems to be the closest Administration figure to him personally, he is obsessed with appearance, with making it clear that we want the best for the Iraqi people. At times he shows real idealism, insisting, for instance, in late 2004 that the first round of Iraqi elections go forward. And his naiveté about how he is perceived seems genuine. At one point, without a trace of irony, he suggested that we should promote Iraqi nationalism to mobilize Iraqis against Al Queda’s “foreign fighters,” totally ignoring the impact Iraqi nationalism was having on Iraqi attitudes towards the US presence in Iraq. He was genuinely surprised when Paul Bremer told him that Secretary Rumsfeld did, indeed, micromanage. He had trouble on numerous occasions in making his own views stick, for instance in regard to the sharing of intelligence with the British. Even in public he likes to ascribe responsibility for major decisions to others, repeatedly telling the American people, for instance, that his military commanders have never asked for more troops in Iraq. (Even Woodward could not find out whether that claim is true.) Woodward quotes Richard Armitage (who seems to have talked to him) and Colin Powell (who seems not to have) musing that Bush and Cheney simply could never allow a scintilla of doubt about the rightness of their course to creep in, because it would be too threatening. Being right, apparently, is what "feels good" to them.
Andrew Card, who stepped down as Chief of Staff early this year, gave Woodward a lot of material, much of it about his own decision to step down after he had repeatedly tried and failed to get Rumsfeld replaced. Card quoted many of his own conversations with the President. They are both poignant and pathetic, because Card, by his own account, could not bring himself even to suggest that the Administration was on a wrong track or that Bush had made mistakes, much less that he no longer believed in the President’s leadership. Instead, he persuaded the President (and a hard job it was) that Card had to leave for the President’s own good. The kind of certainty of righteousness that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld share is actually the sign of a deep lack of self-confidence. Everyone with a long relationship with George W. Bush, it seems, instinctively bolsters his self-image. Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and William II of Germany had a similar effect upon those around them.
The crisis of Vietnam and Watergate made Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein national figures. They uncovered the scandal not so much because of Deep Throat, whose role has been vastly exaggerated by the media (although not by them), but because they went as far down as they could into the Nixon re-election campaign and got the same information that honest Americans were giving to federal prosecutors. Now, in a new and perhaps even worse crisis, Woodward has once again gone below the top level of the government, and in great depth, to let us know what is really happening in Washington. He has done his part; let us hope that we can all do ours. The President, faced with a truly serious crisis at home—the probable loss of one house of Congress—is staying in character, most notably in his full embrace of Dennis Hastert, which in my opinion is almost certain to compound a spreading electoral landslide. On September 1, the web site electoral-vote.com (linked below, although the results it shows do not update every day, as they are supposed to), which simply summarizes all available independent polling data, showed the Republicans leading in 52 Senate races. On October 1 that lead was holding steady, and Republicans led 219-216 in the House. Today, exactly two weeks later, the Democrats lead in 50 Senate races with Tennessee tied and George Allen’s lead in Virginia dramatically narrowing—and in the House the Democrats now lead 226-205 with four ties, a swing of twelve seats in two weeks, or almost exactly one seat per day. Should these trends hold up, the Democrats--who have really done remarkably little to awaken the public--will have to prove that they actually have some idea of how to get the country back on course. Whoever can do that may actually earn a great place in American history.