Aural History

The doyen of capital insiders has written a misleading account of the debate that led to war

The preferred excuse for most journalistic prose—that it is "the first draft of history"—has long found its supposed apotheosis in the work of Bob Woodward. Russell Baker once described the life of the Washington-beat reporter as requiring one to become "a megaphone for the convenience of frauds," and Woodward has alternately upgraded and downgraded the job description. His work with Carl Bernstein helped to bring down a psychopathic President but was heavily influenced by the wishes and timing of (we suppose) a single source. His work with David Broder (The Man Who Would Be President: Dan Quayle) was facilitated by a much more transparent "access," and I can't help noticing that it is no longer cited, not even in the titles assembled on Woodward's own dust jacket.

Oscillating between that zenith and that nadir, the doyen of capital insiders has usually settled for a hybrid of investigation, damage control, stenography, and the megaphone. His book Veil, for example, contained much useful background on the subversion of the Constitution that was Iran-contra, but in its preposterous assertion of a cryptic deathbed confession by William Casey did much to promote the false hypothesis that Ronald Reagan's most trusted spook had acted on no authority but his own. A more recent volume, about the refulgent mystery of Alan Greenspan, is a partial guide to the politics of the Federal Reserve but needs only its title—Maestro—to convey such flavor as it possesses.

With Bush at War, however, Woodward has presented an account that not only was out of date almost as soon as it was published but also conveys a story line that is misleading from first to last. This represents a qualitative decline, both for the author and for the genre of investigative journalism. I am writing this on the opening day of March 2003. By the time you read it, American and other forces may have put an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein and made themselves the masters of Mesopotamia. Or there may have been a world-historical fiasco. In either event, it will be possible to say that the best seller on the origins of the conflict, published while the argument over whether to invade Iraq was at its most intense, was the worst imaginable guide and would appear to have been (in two senses of the term) dictated. Under the guise of disinterest it transmits only the shallowest and most ephemeral interpretation of events.

It has long been possible, even in the outermost circles of the journalistic trade, to guess who talked to Woodward. One looks for the passages of sycophancy and works backward from there. Thus we can tell that George Tenet was helpful as soon as he is described as the "hefty, outgoing son of Greek immigrants"—even before we read that he always grasped the root of the matter.

Tenet had developed an understanding of the importance of human intelligence, HUMINT in spycraft ... Without case officers, Tenet knew, there would be no human sources to provide intelligence, no access to governments, opposition groups or other organizations abroad, little inside information, little opportunity for covert action.

(This is distinctly deferential, obscuring as it does the fact that the only American who managed to penetrate first the Taliban and then al Qaeda was the sorry loser John Walker Lindh, former resident of Marin County.) Then there are the non sequiturs that cover other shameful holes in the apologia for Tenet.

In 1999, the CIA commenced a covert operation to train 60 commandos from the Pakistani intelligence agency to enter Afghanistan to capture bin Laden. But the operation was aborted because of a coup in Pakistan.

In what sense can Woodward claim to "know" this? He fairly obviously didn't research it himself. Nor does he seem to have asked his source any of the obvious questions when he was fed it. Since when did the CIA find conservative military coups making its life more difficult? And was the Pakistani intelligence agency—the ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence, to use its proper name—not one of the engines of that very coup? But any further inquiry along those lines would have disclosed that the ISI was an original patron of the Taliban, a fact "knowable" by anyone yet inconvenient for the ISI's senior partner in Langley, Virginia, to admit.

Another way to be certain that a senior source cooperated is to read Woodward ventriloquizing his or her profoundest inner thoughts. Thus we can be sure that Colin Powell is on board as soon as we learn that he got on a plane in Peru shortly after the aggressors struck on September 11 and "started to scribble notes to himself."

Ever the soldier, he wrote, What are my people going to be responsible for? How is the world, the United States going to respond to this? What about the United Nations? What about NATO? How do I start calling people together? The seven hours of isolation seemed an eternity for the man who could have been commander in chief.

I had no idea that this was what soldiers reflexively did. I do know that if it had been left up to Powell, Kuwait would still be the nineteenth province of Iraq, and Bosnia would be part of Greater Serbia. (I know some of this from reading Woodward's book on the first Gulf War, The Commanders, which has Powell opposing even a token move at the initial warning of Saddam's invasion.)

Richard Armitage must have talked freely to Woodward, because he turns out to be "an outspoken, muscular, barrel-chested man who deplored fancy-pants, pin-striped diplomatic talk." Furthermore, "Even before they took over the State Department, Powell and Armitage talked several times each day. 'I would trust him with my life, my children, my reputation, everything I have,' Powell said of Armitage." In theory, this husky male bonding should have been qualified just a little bit by Powell's dogmatic insistence on fancy-pants, pin-striped diplomatic talk. But since precisely such verbiage is the stuff of moral and political heroism in the remainder of the narrative, this thought, too, is prevented from emerging.

I think we may be sure that Condoleezza Rice was a willing accomplice in Woodward's enterprise, and not just because she is depicted at Camp David on the first traumatic September weekend, leading the team after dinner "in a sing-along of American standards including 'Old Man River,' 'Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen' and 'America The Beautiful.'" Wish I'd been there to see it. (Who guessed that so many Republicans knew the words to the first two?)

Literal rendition may be the price that journalism pays for access, and every reporter in Washington knows that some massaging of sources is necessary from time to time. It's not just the abjectness of Woodward, however, that causes the gorge to rise. He purports to describe a serious division of opinion within the Administration, certainly the most momentous internal dispute seen in Washington in many years; but in default of a courtier relationship between himself and those involved, he simply declines to state their cases in full or, in some instances, to state them at all. In his index appears the entry "Rumsfeld, Donald H., author's interviews with, 319-321." That doesn't sound like very many pages, now does it? Turn to these pages and you find the following: It seems that in January of 2002 Woodward and his Washington Post colleague Dan Balz interviewed Donald Rumsfeld and asked him about his desire to include Iraq in the riposte to the previous September's attacks. The Secretary of Defense intemperately refused to discuss the question and suggested that classified material must have been leaked in order for it to be asked. Woodward smugly condenses what was a nineteen-page transcript into twenty-three lines of text. The remaining page and a half is devoted to a chance encounter two months later between Woodward and Rumsfeld on the steps of the Pentagon, where the Secretary orated briefly about the number of warnings of terrorist attack that had been overlooked in the past.

"They'll hit us again," Rumsfeld said in a matter-of-fact tone. "We have them off balance." He then jabbed three of his fingers into the center of my chest, tipping me back and slightly off balance. Nice wrestling move, I thought, but then I shifted forward, taking the bait. I said that it was not enough because I had regained my balance rather quickly.

I doubt that Woodward could produce a tape or a second source or any of the usual pedantic Washington Post requirements to confirm this story, which represents Rumsfeld as an oddball with apparently contradictory views and scant respect for a reporter's "personal space." It also chances to represent Woodward himself as a man whose wits (and wit) are about him at all times. No doubt some meeting of the sort occurred. But these flimsy paragraphs call attention to a rather peculiar fact. Apparently nobody senior at the Department of Defense was willing to talk much to Woodward. Surely this is something of a shortcoming in a book titled Bush at War.

As it happens, I know without asking that the Pentagon team members decided to be closemouthed and were annoyed to find that their rivals at State had burbled so freely. Not only did they burble freely but—and this must count as a great Washington twofer—they got credit from Woodward for being discreet! Only one page after his truncated and essentially valueless descriptions of those brief collisions with Rumsfeld, he writes,

One of Powell's greatest difficulties was that he was more or less supposed to pretend in public that the sharp differences in the war cabinet did not exist. The president would not tolerate public discord. Powell was also held in check by his own code—a soldier obeys.

Here the book becomes a satire on itself—not only because it reports with some satisfaction that Powell was given to rolling his eyes when Iraq was mentioned in high-level meetings (something Woodward certainly didn't learn from a neutral attendee) but also because it gives great weight to something that everybody knows about: Powell's public rudeness when Wolfowitz spoke of state-supported terrorism. Powell made an open, on-the-record statement that the deputy secretary of defense could "speak for himself." "Public discord" doesn't begin to describe it. "More or less" must have been inserted in the preceding excerpt with a last-minute editorial blush. For many months Colin Powell happily ridiculed anybody who thought that Saddam Hussein was an enemy, or could even turn out to be one.

Those who read this book after January of 2003 must have found it bewildering. By that time Powell and Armitage and Tenet and Rice had made and were making big names for themselves by slamming Iraq for its habitual connection to the underworld of international gangsterism, denouncing Saddam Hussein for his long history of aggression, and exposing his regime's chronic contempt for arms control. From being lectured by the United Nations, Colin Powell became someone who lectured back. Now, why and how was that? How did events or arguments persuade the ethereally detached Powell to change his mind?

I should perhaps answer my own question here. At least three elements evidently played their part in the Secretary of State's U-turn. He was plainly irritated by the exorbitant national egotism of the French political leadership. He was evidently impressed by the flagrancy of Iraq's defiance of Resolution 1441. He must have been correspondingly struck by the amount of incriminating evidence, produced by a rather reluctant CIA, of the overlap between Baathist and bin Ladenist designs. But, as his whole career has illustrated, ever since his days as a conformist White House fellow during Watergate, Colin Powell has been a maestro (to employ a Woodwardism) when it comes to attaching himself ultimately to the winning side. This means, logically, that all the time that Woodward was writing his book, someone other than Powell was steadily winning over the President.

Woodward can give you no idea who. That is only partly because if one doesn't talk to him, one is not a player. It is more that one who doesn't oblige his deadline or his narcissism is a tree falling in a clearing with no sentient witness. A book about war and the rumor of war should be able to convey some idea of alternative world views and strategies, and of how these were debated. This account does not fail in this task merely by omission. It gives a false picture of the argument as it actually occurred.

Here I can only state how I tried to satisfy my own extreme curiosity. Last November I crossed the Potomac (no harder for me to do than it would have been for Woodward, since we both live in Washington) and talked briefly to Paul Wolfowitz, in a government building that was still recovering from rather a major hit. It took me a while to persuade him to let me quote him, and I don't have permission to report all of our conversation. Still, some basic reporting can be done (and I think I can say without self-flattery or self-abnegation that I am not a conduit of choice for national-security leaking). Wolfowitz has a photograph on his wall, as Washingtonians tend to do. It shows a meeting in the White House situation room on a Sunday in February of 1986. President Reagan, in a plaid shirt, gazes down a table that seats George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, George H.W. Bush, Philip Habib, and William Casey. Somewhat to the side sits a very tired-looking Wolf-owitz. What is going on in this picture? It captures the moment when the U.S. government told Ferdinand Marcos, of the Philippines, that his one-man rule was a thing of the past. The Reagan Administration, with some reluctance, had come to the view that tolerating dictatorship was too high a price to pay for military bases or for a "stability" that had become simultaneously sickening and chaotic. (Wolfowitz had argued this case to the Soviet ambassador in Manila, who had—with amazing consistency—recognized Marcos as the victor in an election that Cory Aquino actually won.) From then on, Wolfowitz told me with some satisfaction, there had been "corner shots" that led to democratic revolutions or evolutions in South Korea, Taiwan, and, eventually, Tiananmen Square, by which time we were in the annus mirabilis of 1989.

How does this bear on the apparently septic tank of the Middle East? Well, in the late 1970s Wolfowitz and others identified Saddam Hussein as a megalomaniac with ambitions to dominate the Gulf, and wrote reports that doubted the rightness of deputizing the Shah of Iran as an American proxy. The subsequent Iran-Iraq war did nothing to make them alter their original calculation. Nor did Reagan's decision to back Saddam against the Iranians as the "defender" of a Gulf that the Iraqi openly coveted. Nor did the first Bush Administration's lamentable decision to ignore the warnings of an assault on Kuwait. Nor, after the stench of Desert Storm had dissipated, did the decision to leave Saddam in place lest worse befall. Those who say that Wolfowitz has been fighting an old battle against a long-standing foe are quite right. (I interrupt myself briefly to say that Henry Kissinger, to whom Wolfowitz is often compared as a "policy intellectual," endorsed the Shah to the end, opposed the decision to dump Marcos, defended the Chinese Communist Party's massacre in Tiananmen Square, and regarded the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe as destabilizing.)

Never mind whether I agree with the "hawks" or not; this is a vital set of facts no less than it is an important element in even the most quotidian analysis. Stated tersely, the serious "realist" view is that pluralism is less hazardous than a corrupt and autocratic client state. It's pretty obvious—here I rely on induction—what made the difference between 2001 and 2002 in the war councils of President Bush. The apparently trustworthy Saudi Arabians, who had pleaded for an early end to the war against Saddam in 1991, also turned out to have been the moral and ideological incubators of Osama bin Laden. Their credit was very suddenly exhausted, as was that of those (Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell) who had taken positions similar to the Saudi one. Those who thought there was a "root cause" of September 11 and that it lay in the poxy proxies had a theory, and some proposals, and a record of correct predictions. Wolfowitz appears, slightly to his embarrassment, as the character Phil Gorman in Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein. This fiction gives an admittedly superficial portrayal of the politico-philosophic school of Leo Strauss, at least as expressed through the somewhat ambiguous life of the late Allan Bloom. It's another "Chicago School," this time carefully grounded in the encoded study of Plato and Machiavelli. Again I'm guessing, but I think that Paul Wolfowitz isn't overly disconcerted by a political program—involving such things as the subtle destabilization of treacherous "allies"—that cannot be fully affirmed in public.

It's obviously too much to expect that Woodward would give himself to the analysis of The Republic or The Prince. But a good deal of Wolfowitz's political background is openly available, through "accessible" works such as Senator Richard Lugar's Letters to the Next President and The Generals' War, by Michael Gordon and General Bernard Trainor. So it's not just that Bush at War fails to prepare its readers even for a simple analysis of what has already happened, or that it occludes one side of a critical argument. The book does not try to be objective. It contains shifty untruths from those who collude, and represses basic factual material, gleanable from aides or from the public record, from the side of those who do not. It despises history and, as a partially ironic consequence, is outpaced by the present. It purports to be hard-headed, but is consistently wide-eyed and credulous. Pseudo-objectivity in the nation's capital is now overripe for regime change.