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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Bush At War, A Book Review

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Bush at War, by Bob Woodward
Reviewed by Dicky Neely

Bush at War, Simon&Schuster, 2002, by famed journalist Bob Woodward, gives an incredible view into the inner workings of the Bush administration during the 100 days following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.
Using his amazing access for interviews with the principals involved, notes taken as he was able to sit in on National Security Meetings and other sources, he explains his methods in the introduction, Woodward has produced an unmatched narrative with a deep insight into the making of recent history.
Someone, (regrettably forgotten) said his book has a “fly on the wall” quality about it. Quite true, as the narrative unfolds the reader is made a witness who observes, seemingly unknown, as decisions are reached at the highest level in the land. Indeed, the President and his inner circle, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, C.I.A. Director George Tenet, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, are presented in vivid living color, showing strengths, weaknesses, tempers and jealousies, in other words as complicated, intelligent human beings. There are many other characters in this drama, some also rise to a high level of interest.
The book reads like a combination of a Tom Clancy thriller and the TV series “West Wing,” all the more stunning because it covers real events still being played out today.
The book begins on that terrible September 11, 2001. George Tenet is having breakfast with former Oklahoma Democratic Senator and former head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, David Boren. Amazingly they were discussing Osama Bin Laden. Tenet had told Boren that Bin Laden was his biggest worry of our foreign enemies. The CIA had been after him for more than five years. But no clear plan had emerged because of the ban on assassinations in force in the U.S. Government. As they ate a C.I.A. security guard approached, and after being given permission to speak in front of Boren, informed that the World Trade Towers had been attacked.
Tenet was handed a secure cell phone and he ordered a meeting at C.I.A.’s Langley headquarters. “This has Bin Laden all over it,” stormed Tenet to Boren as he made his exit. Woodward writes that Tenet immediately recalled the case of Zacharias Moussoui, the Morrocan/French citizen who was then, and still now, under arrest after acting suspiciously at a flight training school.
An informed reader might recall that in the wake of the attacks there were attempts to lay blame and point fingers in some quarters. This passage reveals that Osama Bin Laden was clearly on the radar screen and that Al Qaeda was being watched with expectations of a major event being launched. Also some statements were made in the immediate aftermath that “We could never anticipate they would use an airplane in their attacks.” This was clearly erroneous as that was known as a distinct possibility.
Woodward’s book is objective and draws few conclusions but the manner in which he presents his information enables the reader to judge for himself the way things were done in the Bush White House. Bush supporters and opponents will have interpretations of the book colored by their own political viewpoints.
The inner circle and the president seemed confused and unfocused in the scenes shortly after the Trade Towers attack. The President wanted action but had to temper his desire for vengeance when it was clear that there were big holes in their intelligence and no usable military assets or access in place when it was decided to carry the war to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Bush and company often expressed disdain for Clinton's anti-terrorist efforts, emphasizing they didn't to be seen as "pounding sand," a disdainful reference to the unsuccesful cruise misslile attack on Bin Laden during that administration.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book dealt with CIA activities in theater as they used special teams to go into Northern Afghanistan and pay off the Northern Alliance, a group of warlords actively opposing the Taliban. The CIA reportedly spent about $70 million in this effort and gained important allies. Today it remains to be seen if these “allies” will stay on our side now that the Taliban has been subdued.
Turf wars abound between the “inner circle”, Cheney and Rumsfield clash, Powell and Rumsfield clash. Rice attempts to sooth the waters and present their suggestions to the President as a unified team. During one tumultuous group discussion Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage blurted “Who’s in charge here anyway?” This resulted in one of those pregnant moments as everyone looked at each other and then at the obviously piqued President, who emphatically asserted “Well. I’m in charge!”
Throughout all the anecdotal episodes in the book President Bush is pushing for action. He enjoys salting his talk with phrases like “boots on the ground,” a term for having special operations and other specialized land forces in place. The president also appears to be obsessed about not appearing “Clintonesque.” He refers often to the failed attacks against Bin Laden that had been launched with cruise missiles during the previous administration as “pounding sand.” That phrase recurs throughout the book.
The president appears proactive but he is dependent on his inner circle for information, advice and direction. Indeed, if this depiction is accurate, the decision making process is rather insular and Rumsfield comes off as a “big dog” in the pack. The friction here between defense and state is clear in the book and recent events, such as Newt Gingrich’s recent attack on the State Department, many thought at the behest of Rumsfield, reinforces such an impression.
Woodward writes as if he were an eye witness to the events. Many fault him for this. Some of his critics point out that he refuses to name his sources. He also does not use footnotes or list those he interviewed. The reader is forced to either believe in his credibility or not. Woodward says he must promise not to name his sources or he would not be given the access he seems to enjoy with even the highest public figures.
His methods must be working because his version of events have only rarely been challenged.
Bush at War is a book for political junkies. It is a good read and the pages turn quickly. Political junkies will not find any revelations or exposes in the book. They will find a fascinating sketch of characters and method in the Bush White House. There is grist here for Bush supporters, they can say he is portrayed as a decisive leader with a steady compass, ready for action in the war on terror. His detractors may find support here too, he seems to be uninformed about most military matters and the kinds of logistics and political arrangements with other nations necessary to project massive power to isolated areas of the globe. Also they might be able to maintain that Bush is too heavily influenced by his inner circle who always tries to interpret events in a way that supports their own agenda.


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