woodwardwar.jpgOnce again, Bob Woodward has written a book that exposes the inner workings of the Bush Administration decision-making about war, The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008.

The book has sometimes been described as an account of the in-fighting over the decision to escalate the number of troops in Iraq; Condi Rice, Stephen Hadley, Rummy, and George Bush have alternately been labeled as the losers of the blame game that results.

But Woodward tells a more important story than that. It’s really the story of how Hadley and Bush side-stepped seven months of advice and review to implement the decision Bush purportedly favored from the start: to "double down" in Iraq by raising the number of troops. Woodward describes Hadley’s understanding of his role as National Security Adviser: "to ascertain Bush’s wishes, and then bring [top advisers] into line." He describes how, in October 2006, when three major policy reviews were under way, Hadley "had already concluded that a surge was the way to go, and he knew the president would want it as an option." Woodward describes Hadley’s "deliberate strategy to bend the Iraqi and U.S. governments to Bush’s will." And he describes Hadley’s delight after Bush ultimately decided to support a surge:

Hadley was more satisfied. He had figured out where the president wanted to go and had brought everyone around to that view. Bush had not adopted the stepping back suggested by Rice and her colleagues. He had rejected the pessimism of the CIA and various versions of a drawdown favored by Rumsfeld, Casey, the chiefs, the Iraq Study Group and most Democrats. Forcing consensus was an art form, Hadley believed, and he had worked it.

In short, Woodward tells the story of how Hadley and Bush ignored a great deal of considered advice, in the process stalling any decision for seven months (which happened to include the mid-term elections), and instead implemented the plan Bush favored anyway. Without–Woodward makes clear–doing anything to foster real consensus except firing the generals who opposed the plan.

As with all of Woodward’s contemporaneous histories of the Bush Administration, there are reasons to question whether people told him the truth. Woodward’s notes show, for example, that the book relies heavily on a May 20-21, 2008 on-the-record interview with Bush, during which (dialogue in the book reveals) Hadley coached Bush and Woodward’s interpretations. From the vantage of May 20, 2008, it is understandable that Bush and Hadley would want to claim early ownership of the surge (President Bush boasted of the success of the surge in another interview just days before his Woodward interview).

But that success story requires a very narrow focus on Iraq. The book doesn’t talk about the way the cost of the war has contributed to our growing economic crisis in the US. It only mentions the impact of these decisions on the Afghan war–and increasing destabilization of Pakistan–when it describes people criticizing Abizaid or Fallon or Mullen or Satterfield for expressing concerns about the region as a whole. That narrow focus may well reflect the Administration’s actual myopia with regards to Iraq, but if it does, Bush’s neglect of the country that actually attacked us on 9/11–and the way the surge makes that country more dangerous because of neglect–deserves more attention. 

And then there’s the curious near-total absence of Dick Cheney from the first three-fifths of the book, the part describing the debates over a new strategy in Iraq, even while Woodward admits Cheney continued to "offer[] his views directly to the president." Cheney’s absence is particularly problematic given the reports that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah "summoned Cheney" to Riyadh to express displeasure (and issue threats) about the Iraq Survey Group’s proposals just before the time when–Woodward reports–Bush made up his mind to support a troop escalation.

According to Hadley, that moment [when Bush decided in favor of a surge] had come when the president called him in mid-December 2006 and said, "I’m getting comfortable with my decision, but I don’t want to give a speech yet."

Particularly given Woodward’s portrayal of the way Cheney later fiercely guards his back channel access through Jack Keane to David Petraeus–breaking the chain of command to protect the surge from all regional considerations–the description of Cheney as distanced from the decision to support the surge seems odd.

The jury is still out on the surge–years from now, Hadley and Bush may regret claiming to be early and insistent champions of it. As Woodward notes in an epilogue, "The next president will face a complex set of organizational, military, political and leadership challenges because of the Iraq War." So we don’t know how this will turn out. But Woodward’s latest provides many of the details we’ll need to understand how we got here. Join me in welcoming legendary reporter and author Bob Woodward to the FDL Book Salon.

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