“It’s not pretty, but it’s progress,” says Vice President Dick Cheney, taking a break from one of a seemingly endless series of National Security Council meetings in the aftermath of 9/11.
Cheney’s words seem especially apt in relation to Bush At War, Bob Woodward’s account of the current administration’s response to last year’s terrorist attacks. The book, which reveals the administration’s trial-and-error approach to the war against terrorism, feels like a rough draft of some final, more complete version. As good a journalist as he is, Woodward has only one major source: the administration itself.
In Bush At War, which begins with the events of Sept. 11 and ends with Iraq’s acceptance of U.N. weapons inspections, Woodward analyzes Bush as a wartime president. His portrait is flattering: the public Bush has his faults, but his apparent passion for justice and humanitarianism on a global scale outstrips his malapropisms. The more compelling Bush, however, is the adept facilitator of the numerous cabinet meetings faithfully reconstructed by Woodward.
Contrary to popular perception, Bush’s ideas and principles guide his advisers—not the other way around. Bush has a self-described “ability to recognize talent, ask [his advisers] to serve and work with them as a team.” He leads by instinct, personal charisma, a zeal for “real action” and a mandate to “provoke people…make sure it’s clear in everybody’s mind where we’re headed.” Woodward characterizes Bush’s long-term goal as “an ambitious reordering of the world through preemptive and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace.” Such a vision comes off as admirable if not a bit hubristic.
Woodward’s efforts to sketch Bush’s ideological and personal characteristics lead him to detailed portrayals of key players in his cabinet. Surprisingly, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice emerges as Bush’s most trusted and efficacious adviser. She is a consummate “coordinator” who moderates Bush’s desires and relays them to the rest of the team, who negotiates the concerns of each cabinet member and mediates disputes among them.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, on the other hand, inhabits the outskirts of Bush’s inner circle, marginalized by his moderate and multilateral views and by a lack of personal rapport with Bush. He’s most alienated from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose calls for an expansion of the war—especially against Iraq—recur throughout Woodward’s narrative. Bush navigates a middle way between these two advisers, working both for an international coalition and for the termination of states that sponsor terrorism.
Bush At War also reveals the CIA’s prominent (and hitherto secret) role in combating terrorism. The book begins by introducing CIA director George Tenet, who is desperate to figure out “when or where or by what method” bin Laden will attack the U.S. As many as three years before Sept. 11, Tenet recruited 30 Afghan agents (the Seniors) to trail bin Laden throughout Afghanistan. They succeeded, but lacked the legal authorization to take lethal action against him. After 9/11, agents deployed by Tenet’s CIA used $70 million (in cash) to buy allegiance and cooperation from Northern Alliance and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. This initiative was perhaps the most successful of the U.S. campaign: it mobilized Afghan resistance against the Taliban at a relatively low cost, allowing the U.S. to support, rather than direct, the Taliban’s eventual overthrow.
Woodward also depicts less positive aspects of the war, particularly the administration’s inability to give the war a clear definition or direction. The cabinet conceptualizes the war only in terms of what it is not: not the Clinton administration’s response to terrorism, not the Soviets’ disastrous foray into Afghanistan, not Vietnam. This may explain why the cabinet’s strategies have been largely unsuccessful, from the anticlimactic air campaign to, most egregiously, the failure to locate bin Laden.
Overall, Bush At War presents a detailed and informative picture of the current administration’s response to 9/11. Woodward writes informally and clearly. His journalistic style—which includes chronological markers, snapshot-like descriptions, punchy assessments and quick concluding sound bites—helps process and pace his wealth of material.
Most successful is Woodward’s use of anecdotes. Two days after 9/11, for example, Bush refuses to evacuate the White House and insists instead on a hamburger. Noting Bush’s penchant for healthy living, Woodward jokes that the request is a sign of Bush’s acceptance of fate and quotes Bush counselor Karen Hughes: “Well, you might as well have cheese.”
The exclusive access that allows Woodward to recount such stories, however, makes us doubt the authenticity of his account. We do not know if he has truly bypassed the administration’s de facto blanket on information about the war. His privileged access to key players may have enabled him to get a story that the rest of his colleagues could not, but it also means that his story is circumscribed by what the administration chose to reveal.
Woodward’s favorable presentation of Bush may highlight a major pitfall: that Bush At War reflects the administration’s desired portrayal of itself instead of a more objective perspective. Woodward’s few criticisms never pertain to any of the exclusive material (which includes notes taken at National Security Council meetings and four hours of interviews with Bush) he has received. Any negative judgments reflect information widely available to the public, such as televised speeches or radio broadcasts, suggesting that Woodward’s access to official sources may have been tightly controlled. Still, in the last analysis, a potentially lopsided view of Bush at war is better than none at all.