A review of State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, by Bob Woodward

This book documents how president George W. Bush and his principal advisors fumbled with the realities of the war in Iraq, and how the corridor games of this presidential court produced "denial" of its own failures. The reader will find much about the fumblers, but little about those realities, and even less about the intellectual and moral mechanisms of the fumbling and denial. But to those personally acquainted with at least some of the characters, the book rings true. To those who are not, it is at least a valuable insight into the devolution of America's foreign policy establishment.

Bob Woodward questions cleverly. His books are interesting above all because of his unrivaled access to Washington's inner circles. Appearance in Woodward's books or articles is a status symbol for Washington officials-Woodward dixit, ergo sum. Because power players can count on Woodward to tell their story to the world, they line up at Father Bob's to confess their rivals' sins. Hence Woodward is a conduit more for narratives than for leaks. He draws his portraits of his high-level sources primarily through their own words.

Press accounts have given the impression that this book-the third in a series on the Bush team's handling of events post-9/11-is "critical," whereas the others were "laudatory." But the differences reflect primarily changes in the sources' attitudes and the fact that for this book Woodward interviewed second- and third-level officials, as well as principals. Among the new sources are Prince Bandar, the longtime Saudi ambassador and confidant of the Bush family, and Lieutenant General (Ret.) Jay Garner, Bush's original chargé for postwar Iraq. Like many others, they were eager to shed responsibility for the administration's policies. Few acknowledge paternity for defeat.

The occupation of Iraq did not produce the results its authors expected. Woodward knows that the officials he interviewed have not the foggiest idea how to achieve those results, that nevertheless they do not deem them unachievable, and that they cannot think of others they could achieve that would be good for America. Ipso facto, they are incompetent. But Woodward does not tell us what competence is. His characters are obviously dysfunctional. But the reader must supply the bases for comparison.

Whereas the first book in this series covered the administration's understanding of the war on terror in general (see "Confusion and Power," CRB, Spring 2003) and the second focused on the planning for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this one focuses on the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Like the others, it consists of hundreds of brief reports of conversations, events, and documents. Because neither the pieces nor the chapters bear any relation to one another, the reader experiences something like a fast-moving slide show, arranged in rough chronological order. Woodward might argue, correctly, that reality unfolds in this disjointed way, that this is how reporters experience it, and that historians impose more order on events than their contingent character warrants. Whatever Woodward intended, he produces neither a history nor a coherent critique, but rather a set of notes and portraits-the raw materials for critical history.

He quotes candidate George W. Bush as telling Bandar-sent by the senior Bush to teach his son about the world-"I don't have the foggiest idea about what I think about international, foreign policy." He seems to have had few ideas about anything. Karen Hughes, his "communications czar," remembers him asking her to come up with a central theme for his campaign: "There has to be a compelling reason to run." He expressed surprise to find himself running on tax cuts. Elected, he told Karl Rove: "I want a plan of action." His reasoning had to come from others, and this would make him easy prey for those authorized to advise him.

Bandar, for example, was someone to whom Bush was supposed to listen-and he did. On August 27, 2001, Bandar threatened that Saudi Arabia would not take "into account American interests anymore because…the United States [is] adopting [Ariel] Sharon's policy." This was a vague, impotent threat, which any competent diplomat would have discounted. But it was enough to cause Bush to set aside longstanding U.S. policy and instantly support an independent Palestinian state. No surprise, then, that a man who campaigned against U.S. involvement in "nation building" ended up staking his country-never mind his presidency-on building Iraq.

Bush seems either to accept uncritically whatever he is told or to refuse to listen. When, on September 12, 2001, CIA director George Tenet equated terrorism with al-Qaeda, "game, set and match," when he assured the president that the case that Saddam had WMDs was a "slam dunk," Bush did not ask, "How do you know?" Similarly, when Tenet assured him that the CIA could not confirm that Saddam had "authority, direction and control" over anti-U.S. terrorist activities, Bush did not say, "Why should anybody care whether Saddam's control of terrorism meets an arbitrary standard of stringency? Does it not make more sense to look at how his intelligence service is infiltrating, influencing, and inspiring terrorists, not to mention harboring and financing them?"

The fratricidal relationship between the administration's various personages and departments is perhaps the most salient feature of Woodward's account. He describes ad nauseam the resentments and machinations against Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld by the State Department and CIA, sometimes joined by the NSC staff and even by the president's chief of staff. He describes copiously Rumsfeld's own bureaucratic highhandedness. And of course the CIA waged open warfare against the president. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage were not so open but just as disloyal. While some of the bones of contention were petty, others were vital. Should America run Iraq at all? If so, who should run it? What should we be willing, and unwilling, to do to get our way? Should American troops impose the preferred order of one of Iraq's warring sides on the others; or America's order on all; or should it just protect the State Department's effort to reconcile and build? Who are America's enemies there? What precisely is the mission? Do the means match the mission? Bush's subordinates pulled in different directions while skirting the hard questions. Again and again, Bush told them to "work it out" among themselves; but working it out was his job.

As one or another official tells Woodward of an impossible situation, a senseless directive, a mistake made, a disaster looming, he asks something like, "When you were with the president, did you tell him these things?" Invariably, the answer is no. Bush's style-faux frat-house familiarity toward people from whom he, in turn, demands formality-practically guaranteed pleasant superficiality: "some upbeat stories, exaggerated good news, and a good time was had by all." Still, although Bush did not encourage hard truths, he did not forbid them. The supporting cast of fumblers shares responsibility for skirting reality, if not denying it.

George Tenet, for example, revealed to Woodward that on July 10, 2001, he had warned the president through Condoleezza Rice that al-Qaeda was about to strike the U.S. He expressed anguish that the Bush White House had foolishly neglected his salvific warning. Woodward, however, drew Tenet out on the "intelligence" that had prompted the "warning." He reports that it was a hodgepodge of inherently meaningless traffic-what Tenet's counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, called "voodoo." Many press accounts of Woodward's book played up Tenet's charge, thus furthering CIA's longstanding campaign against the Bush Administration. The president seems to have questioned the CIA less competently than did Woodward.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, "a mountain of a man," projected intimidation. He made no secret of his disdain for Bush, and especially for people at Defense and NSC. Always ready to undercut policies that did not suit him, this bully nonetheless never gave the president his unvarnished opinions. Bush did not ask, and so endured the subversion.

Donald Rumsfeld, who enjoyed wholesale and retail control of his department, as well as the president's total confidence, knew that the U.S. political and military missions in Iraq worked at cross-purposes-but never told his president, nor did he suggest his own plan for victory. Ferocious defender of his place in the chain of command, he protected his part of the mission and insisted that the other parts-and the failing whole-were none of his business. Like, or even more than, the other courtiers, Woodward's Rumsfeld is about getting the maximum deference while giving the minimum-and substance be damned. Echoing Rumsfeld, General John Abizaid, the U.S. commander in Iraq, replied to the question, "What's the strategy for winning?" with "That's not my job." It appears to be no one's.

Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State, cuts a small figure. Recruited by Bush père as another teacher for his son, she became his facilitator. Potentially powerful because the president is disposed to deem her authoritative, and because her connection with him is familial, nevertheless she proved perhaps the weakest (one of Woodward's sources suggests "the worst") person ever in her position. Having no agenda of her own, awed by Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell, and devoted to the president, she tried to please and support all. When asked hard questions such as, to whom do we give power in Iraq, she would not answer-perhaps in order not to make decisions that her president had not, and would not make. Though Vice President Cheney declined to be interviewed for this volume, the judgment of all who have worked with him-which Woodward shares, as do I-is that he does not contradict his boss. The courtiers pass the buck up, and the president passes it down again.

The Bush team's Iraq is not on the Tigris and Euphrates, but on the Potomac (with an extension in Baghdad's Green Zone). The contrasting ambitions of U.S. officials turn Mesopotamian reality into a fantasy. In this fantasy Iraq, the fight (leaving over 2,800 Americans dead, 20,000 wounded, and more than 60,000 Iraqi civilians killed) is between "the terrorists" (al-Qaeda and a few Sunni allies) and an Iraqi people that yearns for democracy and unity. Equally dangerous are the militias of the Shiites and Kurds, which would make Iraq, respectively, a theocracy and a disunited, failed state. Either would lead to its becoming a haven for terrorists. Hence America must defeat the Sunni insurgents while preventing the victory of their Shiite and Kurdish enemies. If American troops were not fighting the terrorists in Iraq, the terrorists would be coming to kill us in America. (The argument requires us to believe that the Iraqis who are massacring one another would prefer to kill Americans. If so, why don't they abandon Iraq, where they face our troops, and come feast on our suburbanites?) Hence we must win by building a moderate, united Iraq.

In truth, just about nobody in Iraq wants the "united, democratic Iraq" that the Bush team wants. As for terrorism, it is the political currency of the region. All sides use it. And the sides' objectives differ. Kurds want to be left alone. Shiites once wanted to dominate Iraq, but now just want to be left alone. Robert Blackwill, who headed Bush's Iraq team in Washington, offered the Sunnis "status and privileges consistent with their roles and number in Iraqi society." They answered, in effect: "You don't understand. We want to run Iraq." That is why they made war. But the Bush team did not understand. It never decided to make war on them, or on any concrete set of persons, only on abstractions. The only way to realize the Bush team's vision would have been forcibly to overcome the preferences of nearly all Iraqis-to quash all their dreams alike. But the Bush team is neither prepared to force Iraqis into its preferred mold nor, rhetoric aside, to let them determine their future. So its "nation building" operations in fantasy Iraq amount to spitting weakly against strong winds-a project messy, undignified, and counterproductive.

And so, while American public discourse oscillates between more or less perseverance in nation building, State Department and CIA officials enjoy ruling and manipulating and giving out contracts in Iraq. Senior military officers build their careers, don't think of victory, can't wait to leave, and try to minimize their troops' exposure, while the troops themselves die primarily from roadside bombs.

The words "state of denial" imply either psychological disorder or mendacity. But Woodward's interviews document incompetence. Incompetence begins with the corruption of language.

Consider "intelligence." Simply put, CIA passes off opinion, speculation, and hearsay as knowledge. Woodward's quotation from George Tenet concerning foreign services, "We created the Jordanian intelligence service and now we own it," shows CIA's shocking ignorance, imprudence, and gullibility. Tenet supposes that foreign officers (whose lives and fortunes, as well as possibly their affections, are tied to their countries) put CIA's interests above their own. On what planet? Having mentioned that CIA's information on terrorism comes almost exclusively from intercepts and foreign intelligence services, Woodward points out that intercepts are necessarily halves of conversations, mostly between people we do not know who are in the middle of discussing subjects about which the analysts can only guess. But the White House treats guesses as gospel.

Consider "strategy." Schools and dictionaries teach that it is the intellectual connection between ends and means, a concrete plan for getting from here to there with a given set of means. The U.S. government, it turns out, has a 500-page document, classified secret/noforn, titled "The Strategy for Iraq." It consists of general statements about what we want to happen, and mostly of a list of U.S. programs. But it does not explain why A will produce B. Hence members of the Bush team are quoted complaining of a lack of strategy. In June 2005, Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor, had "assigned his NSC director for Iraq… to comb through the classified documents that he thought outlined their strategy and see what could be made public…. The document was given the title ‘National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.'" Bush spoke around the country under a banner proclaiming "Strategy for Victory." But it was more wishes, and the same programs. Nothing in between.

This is no mere intellectual inadequacy. By 2005 it had become clear that the ever deadlier roadside bombs that were killing the majority of U.S. troops were coming from Iran. Philip Zelikow, Rice's Counselor at the State Department, the man who directed the 9/11 commission, recognized that this "was arguably an act of war by Iran against the United States." But he told Woodward, "If we start putting out everything we know about these things…the Administration might well start a fire it couldn't put out." In other words, this administration will pretend that Iran (and Syria for that matter) is not waging war against America, because it is afraid to fight that war. But to project the illusion of strength, it keeps our troops in war's way.

Thus it invites more war.