2002 November 17 Sunday
Bob Woodward: "Bush At War"

Bob Woodward has just released a new book, Bush at War, which is about the inner workings of the Bush Administration as it has responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent developments of the war against the terrorists.

Evan Thomas of Newsweek reports on Woodward's book:

Woodward has CIA Director George Tenet regretting that he did not push the president—either Bush or Clinton—to give the agency the authority to try to assassinate Osama bin Laden before 9-11. But after 9-11, Tenet emerges as a bluff dynamo. The CIA director wants and gets an open-ended hunting license for the agency. He prepares an intelligence “finding” for Bush with entries like “Heavily Subsidize Arab Liaison Services.” Woodward quotes Tenet explaining to the president that “the CIA would ‘buy’ key intelligence services [including] Egypt, Jordan, Algeria.” The CIA spent $70 million renting friends and allies in Afghanistan, Woodward reports; the spooks’ kitty for buying Iraqi colonels and other covert ops is already set somewhere between $100 million and $200 million.

I'm skeptical as to the extent that the CIA can "buy" other intelligence services. They will take the money and then help only in the ways that they choose to help. Also, note that you don't see Saudi Arabia or Pakistan on Iran on the list of countries whose intelligence services have been bought. There are still very important areas from which threats emanate where the US does not have enough visibility or influence.

Woodward told 60 Minutes that the CIA has a lot more freedom of operation:

Woodward: The gloves are off. — There are no restraints on the CIA. — And there's this whole invisible war where the CIA has had foreign intelligence services and police forces arrest or detain terrorists, al Qaeda members, thousands of them.

Its great to hear that the CIA is being very aggressive and is cutting deal with foreign intelligence services. But has the CIA started recruiting and deploying agents to infiltrate radical Islamic groups? Has the CIA improved its own operational capability? Again, this sounds grand. But does it accomplish enough of what needs to be accomplished in practice?

Bush's emotional reaction to Kim Jong Il seems highly appropriate:

Describing his aspirations for an ambitious reordering of the world through preemptive and perhaps unilateral action, Bush turned first to Iraq but then to North Korea and its dictator Kim Jong Il. With the administration contemplating a response to North Korea's nuclear weapons program, Woodward reports that Bush shouted and waved his finger in the air as he vented about Kim.

"I loathe Kim Jong Il," Bush said. "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people. And I have seen intelligence of these prison camps -- they're huge -- that he uses to break up families, and to torture people."

This article by Bob Woodward appears to be excerpted from the book and describes the doom and gloom scenario that Colin Powell argued would follow an Iraq invasion:

With his notes by his side, a double-spaced outline on loose-leaf paper, Powell said the president had to consider what a military operation against Iraq would do in the Arab world. He dealt with the leaders and foreign ministers in these countries as secretary of state. The entire region could be destabilized -- friendly regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan could be put in jeopardy or overthrown. Anger and frustration at America abounded. War could change everything in the Middle East.

It would suck the oxygen out of just about everything else the United States was doing, not only in the war on terrorism, but also in all other diplomatic, defense and intelligence relationships, Powell said. The economic implications could be staggering, potentially driving the supply and price of oil in directions that were as-yet unimagined. All this in a time of an international economic slump. The cost of occupying Iraq after a victory would be expensive. The economic impact on the region, the world and the United States domestically had to be considered.

Is Powell arguing that the only way to go multilateral is to go thru the UN? If so, why? The US has done many things abroad with ad hoc coalitions of countries. It is unlikely that the US invasion of Iraq is going to be any more palatable to the Arab masses if the US gets UN approval. Of course, the UN Security Council is very unlikely to vote that approval anyhow. If the US reacts to Iraq's blocking of the work of UNMOVIC inspectors by invading Iraq will the Arab masses be any less likely to try to rise up and overthrow their governments just because the US did get the UN Security Council Resolution which gives the inspectors authority?

Cheney shows his calm practical attitude:

The book indicates that Vice President Cheney made the decision himself to go into an undisclosed location Oct. 29 after Bush went macho when told there was intelligence about a possible dirty bomb-like weapon.

"Those bastards are going to find me exactly here," Bush said. "And if they get me, they're going to get me right here."

Cheney erupted: "This isn't about you. This is about our Constitution. ... And that's why I'm going to a secure, undisclosed location."

I think the write-ups on this book are exaggerating the importance of the money spent to buy allies. See for instance this AP article:

A new book says President Bush's advisers had grave doubts about the early course of the war in Afghanistan and suggests that the ultimate defeat of the Taliban was due largely to millions of dollars in hundred-dollar bills the CIA handed out to Afghan warlords to win their support.

The money alone wasn't going to buy a shift in control in Afghanistan. The ability of the US special forces soldiers to call down incredibly accurate air strikes was more important. Any place where the Taliban tried to form a front line they just got shredded by JDAM bombs. Also, moving convoys could be struck by laser guided bombs. Also, a lot of that money went to the Northern Alliance forces who were already opposed to the Taliban. So the argument that the war was won by bribing groups to switch sides is an exaggeration. Yes, faction leaders were bribed to switch sides. But that by itself was not decisive.

Powell appears to have complained a lot to Bob Woodward about internal divisions within the Bush Administration. I find his complaints to be self-serving and peevish. Would he have complained about the lack of an internal debate to hash out the pros and cons of policy options if everyone had agreed with him? Probably not. Yet if there had been no internal divisions critics on the outside would have been complaining that the Bush Administration was a big Borg Mind which didn't question its own assumptions. This would have been a more justified criticism. It is helpful to have some healthy disagreement which forces people to justify their positions more fully. A president who is hearing only one position isn't being well served. Also, what harm came from these internal divisions? The disagreements didn't seem to interfere with the Bush Administration's ability to formulate and execute policies.

A Secretary Of State is not an elected position. He's answerable to the President and the President has ultimate say in foreign policy. Also, foreign relations are no longer just the province of the State Department for obvious reasons. Countries have dealings with each other across a large number of policy areas that involve many different government departments and agencies. Powell is just upset that ideologically speaking he's not in the mainstream of this administration. But no one is making him work at the job. If he really disagrees with the direction of the Bush Administration that much then he's always free to resign.

Update: It appears that Woodward had much better access to Powell than to Cheney or Rumsfeld and therefore Woodward's narrative tends to describe the internal disagreements and events from Powell's perspective. Woodward may even favor Powell's viewpoint because he appears not to try to make arguments for why the opposing viewpoint may be reasonable. There are questions I'd like to put to Mr. Powell which Woodward doesn't appear to address. For instance, does Mr. Powell really believe that inspections can work? Or is he in favor of inspections just as a necessary prelude for getting governments in the Middle East to be more supportive of a US move against the Iraqi regime? Does he want the inspections as a way to make it more obvious to Middle Easterners that Saddam will not be reasonable? Exactly what does he expect the UN inspections to accomplish?

Update II: The Monday excerpts from the Washington Post can be found here and here. The Tuesday excerpts can be found here and here. The excerpts provide quite a bit of insight into Bush's management style. Probably the most important insight is that Bush is acutely aware of the importance of good management style and has some pretty good ideas on what techniques are effective for getting the best out of high level manager subordinates.

Bill Sammon has also written an account of the insider decision making process of the Bush Administration post-9/11: Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism from Inside the Bush White House.

Update III: Tony Blankley has the same reaction that I did: Colin Powell and George Tenet gave Woodward better access and therefore the story gets told from their vantage point:

Mr. Woodward's book more aptly should be titled: "What I shrewdly saw, brilliantly thought and nobly did in the Bush adminstration by Colin Powell and George Tenet, as told to Bob Woodward." Not surprisingly, Mr. Powell and the CIA turn out to be the heroes of this story.

Update IV: Howard Kurtz links to some of the reactions to the Woodward book. One article he links to is by David Frum:

For more than a year, we’ve been reading nasty little stories in the papers about Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld and condescending stories about President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice. Careful readers have understood that these stories emanated from the State Department – but until now, Powell has taken care to protect his personal deniability. Now he has abandoned that polite pretense.

In the Woodward piece, Powell scorns the president for his “Texas, Alamo macho.” (I guess Powell thinks Col. Travis should have negotiated.) Powell complains with Senate Democrats that acting against Iraq “would suck the oxygen” out of the anti-terror campaign. He denigrates Rice, snidely observing that “she had had difficulties” keeping up with what Bush was doing. When the president over-rules him, Powell complains that he thought he had a “deal” – as if cabinet members bargain with their president rather than taking orders from him.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 November 17 02:58 PM  Military War, Rumours Of War

charles kerst said at November 24, 2002 3:24 AM:

mr woodward's book provides a unique insight into the executive branch during a time of crisis.
mr. parker seems to have based his criticism entirly on some sort of partisan agenda. i don't care about the politicking of the whole thing. i am perfectly happy with a well reported, fair, and important chunk of journalism.

Randall Parker said at November 24, 2002 1:27 PM:

Charles, do you think that Colin Powell, in agreeing to talk to Woodward, was not trying to say things that would help him pursue his own agenda? It would be naive to suppose he wasn't. The book is still a useful contribution to the historical record. But it would be naive to ignore the motives of the people who provided the information and it would be naive to accept uncritically what it says. It would also be naive to ignore the fact that not all the major principals provided information and that the book is slanted toward the viewpoints those who did speak. This is the standard criticism that has been made repeatedly about previous Woodward books. It seems correct to me.

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