Getting Bush Right

Deposing Saddam vs. Going to War
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 24 2008 11:16 AM

Getting Bush Right

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Director Oliver Stone (standing, center) on the set of his film W., with (left to right, seated) Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), George Tenet (Bruce McGill), George W. Bush (Josh Brolin, seated on table), Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) and Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss). Photo credit: Sidney Ray Baldwin. Click image to expand.
Oliver Stone and the cast of W.

Jacob, yes, I have read and underlined many portions of your book. Here is the problem, as I see it—and this is based on extensive conversations, many at the time in 2002, with those directly involved:

It is crucial to make the distinction between 1) a decision to "depose" Saddam and 2) the decision to go to war to do it. First, the Rice-Haas conversation, as best I can tell, was really about the decision to get rid of Saddam, not necessarily to go to war. Recall that Powell, with Bush's blessing, launched a rather active diplomatic effort at the United Nations that lived for months. In fact, in news coverage, the unanimous 15-0 U.N. Security Council resolution in November was depicted as a big victory for Powell and diplomacy. In addition, the October 2002 congressional resolutions supporting a war were viewed as tools designed to give more weight to the diplomatic track.

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Second, detailed reporting on the so-called Downing Street memo shows that Richard Dearlove insisted that the minutes were not accurate at the time, and within a week they were redone to reflect what he maintained he had said to Blair at the briefing. It is much less dramatic and conclusive than the Downing Street version. I have never been able to get a copy of the redone minutes, but numerous people directly involved say they show less-sweeping conclusions.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Bush did not think diplomacy would work, and there are elements of a Japanese Kabuki dance in all of this. But I don't think he had decided finally on war at that time. As he has said, in August 2002, he had not yet seen a war plan that he thought would work. Yet he was pointing toward war, and there was an inescapable momentum toward war.

The Rice-Haass conversation and the Dearlove briefing (as allegedly corrected), however, don't really support the conclusion that there was some charade or that Bush had made a final, secret decision on war. That charade came later, in January 2003, when he had decided yet publicly insisted that he had not. Historians will be able to pick through the various records someday and, I hope, answer these questions in a more definitive way.

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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