Woodward's riddle.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 19 2004 9:52 PM

Woodward's Riddle

Who declared war on Iraq?

There's been much Washington buzz lately about when, precisely, President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq. This was a riddle Bob Woodward failed to answer in his last book, Bush at War, which focused on the war in Afghanistan. But Woodward addresses it head-on in his new book, Plan of Attack. The answer is: never.

You could argue that this riddle isn't worth solving. It was so inevitable Bush would wage war against Iraq that it was scarcely necessary for Bush to say, "I've decided we're going to war." In Plan of Attack, Woodward writes that two months after 9/11, Bush "clamped his arm" on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, drew him into a small cubbyhole, and told him to get cracking on a secret plan for war against Iraq. Some secret! In Against All Enemies, former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke describes wandering, on the day after the 9/11 attacks, into the Situation Room, where Bush told him to find out whether Saddam Hussein was involved. When Clarke answered that he'd never found any meaningful link between Iraq and al-Qaida, Bush got testy: "Look into Iraq, Saddam." In Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill says the fix was in for an Iraq invasion from day one of the Bush presidency. (One week after the inauguration, a National Security Council agenda made reference to a paper titled, "Political-Military Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq.") One week before Bush's inauguration, in TheNew Yorker, Nicholas Lemann raised the likelihood that Bush would go to war. In Rise of the Vulcans, James Mann suggests that overthrowing Saddam flowed so seamlessly from the post-Cold War conceptual framework built by Paul Wolfowitz, Lou Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, et al., that Bush made his decision simply by hiring this crew of brainy hawks. Everything else was just details.

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You can probably follow the chain of historic inevitability back even further. Still, at some point Bush must have made the final decision that this is it, we have to do it, if the blood of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians be spilt, so be it, let's go, gentlemen now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here. But judging from Woodward's book—well, judging from reading Washington Post excerpts of Woodward's book and then looking up all index entries under "Bush, George W., decision to go to war made by"—that moment never came. Bush didn't make a final decision.

Vice President Dick Cheney did. Riddle solved.

The closest Woodward comes to showing Bush making a final decision is when Bush pulls Rumsfeld aside in early January 2003 and says,

Look, we're going to have to do this I'm afraid. I don't see how we're going to get him to a position where he will do something in a manner that's consistent with the U.N. requirements, and we've got to make an assumption that he will not.

This, Woodward writes, was "enough of a decision for Rumsfeld." But according to Woodward, Bush then asked Rumsfeld when his "last decision point" would be, a question indicating that, in Bush's mind, no final decision had been made.

We then turn the page and read, "From their almost daily conversations, Cheney had come to realize that the president had made his decision." Woodward's use of the word "realize" is mere source-greasing politesse. A more apt phrase would be "persuade himself." Cheney, impatient with waiting for Bush's decision, took matters into his own hands. He called Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar into his office on Jan. 11, 2003, showed him the plans for the invasion, and asked whether he was in or out. Bandar said he wasn't going to commit until he knew the invasion was really going to happen. Rumsfeld, putting Bush's query about his "last decision point" out of his mind, told Bandar: "You can count on this. You can take that to the bank. This is going to happen." Then Bandar asked whether Saddam would be killed; he didn't want in if Saddam would still be around to kill those who'd betrayed him. Cheney answered, "Saddam is toast."

All that was left was for Bandar to be told the same by the president himself. When they met the next day, Woodward writes, Bush simply asked, "Any questions for me?" Bandar said no, and Bush replied, "The message you're taking is mine." But it was Bush's message only because Cheney and Rumsfeld had already told him it was necessary to say so. Then Bush called in his secretary of state, Colin Powell, whose advice he had not sought, and told him we were going to war. That must have been especially sweet for Cheney since by then, Woodward tells us, Powell and Cheney were barely speaking.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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