Why Bob Woodward always misses the point.

Military analysis.
April 21 2004 6:35 PM

Sideshow Bob

Why Woodward always misses the point.

Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, is like a play in which the most important scenes occur offstage. In a "Note to Readers," Woodward writes:

The aim of this book is to provide the first detailed, behind-the-scenes account of how and why President George W. Bush, his war council and allies decided to launch a preemptive war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Yet this is precisely what the book does not provide. Woodward never tells us why Bush decided to go to war. Nor does he pin down just when he made his decision.

His opening anecdote—and, as usual, Woodward furnishes lots of great anecdotes (the book is worth reading for the chuckles alone)—has Bush dramatically taking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld aside, after a National Security Council meeting on Nov. 21, 2001 ("just 72 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks"), and asking him to update the war plan for Iraq.

Yet, 24 pages later, we learn that Rumsfeld "raised with his staff the possibility of going after Iraq as a response" just two hours after the attack. Woodward goes on, "The next day [i.e., 9/12], in the inner circle of Bush's war cabinet, Rumsfeld asked if the terrorist attacks did not present an 'opportunity' to launch against Iraq." Much later in the book (Page 410), at a dinner celebrating the toppling of Saddam (or at least of his statues), Vice President Dick Cheney tells conservative defense analyst Ken Adelman that "after 9/11 … the president understood what had to be done. He had to do Afghanistan first, sequence the attacks, but after Afghanistan—'soon thereafter'—the president knew he had to do Iraq."

So what is the significance of this Nov. 21 meeting that Woodward opens up with so breathlessly? Evidence he cites elsewhere indicates that Rumsfeld already had Iraq on the brain—as did, for that matter, Bush. The November meeting does seem to have kicked off a formal review of the war plan. But what prompted Bush to order it? Why was Bush thinking about Iraq in the first place? Why, at this point or any point in the narrative, did he think war was necessary? Woodward never says.

We're led to understand that Cheney had something to do with it. On Page 4: "On the long walk-up to war in Iraq, Dick Cheney was a powerful, steamrolling force." On Page 301 (after CIA Director George Tenet makes the case for a link between Iraq and al-Qaida): "Bush finally backed Tenet 100 percent on this issue in the face of Cheney's pressure." On Page 391: "[Secretary of State Colin] Powell noted silently that things didn't really get decided until the president had met with Cheney alone."

Yet Woodward shows us just one scene where Bush and Cheney meet alone. It takes place on the eve of war, when the CIA has picked up intelligence about Saddam Hussein's location; Cheney agrees with all the other advisers that it's worth the gamble to try and kill Saddam in a prewar airstrike. Aside from that, we never see Cheney's influence at work, never see the president and vice president so much as interact. The "powerful, steamrolling force" scarcely makes an appearance.

The explanation may be that Woodward interviewed Cheney only briefly and got virtually nothing out of him. Woodward expresses his frustration in the book. On Page 419, he writes that, while interviewing Bush, "I said that Cheney had emerged as kind of a Howard Hughes, the reclusive man behind the scenes who would not answer questions."

Woodward never even explains why Cheney advocated war. He sees Cheney mainly through the eyes of Powell, who clearly thought the vice president was batty on the subject. "Powell detected a kind of fever in Cheney" (Page 175). "Powell thought Cheney had the fever" (Page 292). "Powell, who had seen a fever in Cheney" (Page 416).