Getting Bush Right

Bush Was the Decider
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 22 2008 10:33 AM

Getting Bush Right

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Oliver, Ron, and Jacob,

Ron, I'm struck that you feel we don't have a general understanding of the cause of the Iraq war. You write, "The reasons we invaded Iraq remain largely shrouded in classified files, lost conversations, carefully guarded secrets." While significant new information may one day come out, I strongly disagree. I believe there is already an expansive record in the Bush library, and the work that has been done on the Iraq war answers this question.

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The foremost cause, in Bush's mind, was 9/11. It set an atmosphere of "We are in peril, we need to do something." Bush believed Iraq was a threat. The second was, I believe, his conviction that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction. Recall that the House and Senate voted on a resolution to give the president support and authority to use the U.S. military in Iraq as he deemed "appropriate and necessary." The atmosphere at the time was very much "We are threatened, there is trouble. Saddam Hussein is a threat." Too many officials and people believed this. Third, the war plan that was presented to President Bush in a dozen or more briefings, and subsequently outlined in several books, shows that it was thought the invasion would be comparatively easy and that it got easier as the war plan was refined. Fourth, there was an undeniable momentum to war at the time. Fifth, in Oliver's movie and in many of the books, the portrait of Bush is that of "the Impatient Man." When some intelligence suggested that the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, was not being fully forthcoming, Bush ordered war.

The military was ready, and the invasion looked like it was going to be easy. Congress and the public supported it. And the press, very much including myself, was not inquisitive enough to dig deeper into the allegations of weapons of mass destruction.

While there certainly may be some substantial revelations yet to come, the idea that this is basically unanswerable, I think, is wrong. In Plan of Attack, I quote from a top-secret memo of Aug. 14, 2002, called "Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy." One of its stated purposes was to "minimize disruption in international oil markets." Oil was put on the table as one of the reasons for war, and I think this adds to the background noise. Ron, you say of Bush, "He knew more than he's letting on." I think there's truth to that, but I also believe he let on quite a bit. To those of us who dug in the vineyards of the Bush administration, the basic causes of the war in Iraq are there.

You also write that Bush "made choices of his own free will." I think that's exactly right. He was heavily influenced by Cheney and a number of others, but the decisions were his. As he said to me, "I believe we have a duty to free people," to liberate people. Many have said this is something that was concocted after weapons of mass destruction failed to surface. But I watched him jump in his chair when he said it, and I think it is a deep and genuine conviction on his part. Certainly many would disagree with it, but I think this conviction was one of his primary drivers. I doubt very much that there was some mysterious, Oedipal force at work or that there is a secret reason that remains carefully guarded. The drivers in all of this are not really shrouded.

My caveat, obviously, is you don't know what you don't know.

Jacob, you make note of the scene in W. where Bush and his advisers debate whether to go to war. In it, the Colin Powell character makes his case against the invasion. The problem is, as best I can tell, no such meeting ever took place. The president never called the National Security Council and the top advisers together to have a real knock-down, drag-out, come-to-Jesus meeting. It gives Powell more credit than he deserves. This is the broad meeting that Bush should have had to hash it out among his advisers. Powell's plea to the president in August 2002, which he recently affirmed, was that the administration needed to look at the consequences of war, but he never argued openly to the president that he should not invade Iraq.

You also make the point that Cheney's comments in this mythical gathering of Bush's war Cabinet did not occur. The idea of "empire," which certainly may have resided in the minds of some, including Cheney, was to my knowledge never really put on the table. The idea that the real issue was Iran, again, may have been in their minds, but there is no record of this discussion at that time. Additionally, I think you have a good point about the pinning of the Willie Horton ad from the 1988 campaign on George W. Bush. I've seen no evidence that this was the case.

At the same time, there is an overall sense or feel in the movie that gets a number of things correct. Bush's notorious casualness and inattention to detail are on full display. The movie conveys his disengagement, his odd and frequent sense of being removed.

I think one of the best scenes in the movie is when Bush makes it clear to Cheney that he's the boss—that Cheney can push and argue and have his say, but Bush is the boss. That's why I say (and I think Bart Gellman agrees with this in Angler, his book on Cheney) that the vice president was incredibly important, powerful, and persuasive, but that President Bush made these decisions on his own. He did so, as Ron said, "of his own free will."

The issue for history in the coming years and decades will be further examination of how Bush exercised that free will. I don't think he felt the constraints of his father's legacy, or even Cheney's influence or Powell's distance or Rumsfeld's attitude of "I'm in charge of the military." Again, I think Ron has hit on it: It's a question of the president's free will. In the end, the movie shows that.

I think the bending and distorting of history were not necessary for this film to make its point, but it does show that the Iraq war was and is George W. Bush's.

Bob Woodward is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter and the author, most recently, of The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008.

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