Bob Woodward's new book "Plan of Attack" tells the story of White House speechwriter Michael Gerson, a former reporter for U.S. News & World Report, who accompanied President Bush to West Point, where Bush announced a signal change in American foreign policy: a call for more pre-emptive actions. Afterward, Gerson told a reporter the speech would be quoted for years to come. The reporter replied, "There's no news in that speech. You don't use the word Iraq."
"Gerson was stunned," Woodward wrote.
That episode tells you in a nutshell how American newspapers and political pundits have fallen down on the job of covering the war in Iraq. Too often, those of us in the media, including moi, concentrate so much on how one statement contradicts another or on the latest superficial question of the week -- Was there rancor between Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell? Is Bush introspective? -- that we can miss the real picture.
That's why the Bushies talked to Woodward and why they recommend his book even if it has provided much fodder for Bush critics. As White House spokesman Ken Lisaius noted, "Plan of Attack" is a "comprehensive account." The Bushies weren't interested in getting a good headline. They talked to Woodward so that they could set the historical record and lay out the context in which they made their decisions.
Yes, the book has launched a number of stories and items that the White House can't like. (You've heard the sound bites: Secretary of State Colin Powell out of the loop. Bush dismissed weapons of mass destruction case as "nice try.") But as media critic Neal Gabler said on "Fox News Watch" over the weekend, people who say "Plan of Attack" vilified Bush "haven't read the book."
Woodward chronicles what impelled the march to war, starting with Iraqi forces firing on U.S. and United Kingdom planes enforcing the United Nations' no-fly zone for years before President Bush assumed office.
After Sept. 11, the administration was alert to the possibility of another big-target attack on American soil. They were terrified at the prospect of a nuclear-powered terrorist attack after a CIA team found a diagram of a dirty bomb and documents on nuclear weapons in Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan sanctuary. Bin Laden had said he had nukes. Where did he get them?
While too much of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was old, Woodward reported, new intelligence showed that the Iraqis were "moving and concealing things" before U.N. inspections. Even Powell, the Reluctant Warrior, believed Saddam Hussein had WMDs because, Woodward wrote, "the dictator had used WMD in the 1980s, hidden them in the 1990s, and if he wasn't hiding anything now, all he had to do was come clean." (That is why Powell took the Bush case to the United Nations.)
The whole tactic of using force to compel Saddam Hussein to agree to inspections put intelligence workers and U.S. allies in great risk. Bush knew that the White House could not hang the sword of Damocles indefinitely over Iraq's head of state through countless re-dos of weapons inspections. So it didn't help when French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin gave Hussein a reason to stall when the diplomat announced that "nothing" would justify war against Iraq.
Readers who chant "Bush lied" should avoid the book. They won't want to read that Bush told CIA Director George Tenet not to stretch intelligence. They also won't want to read that, as Bush probed information, Tenet saw the WMD case as "slam dunk" -- given what he had learned from other classified information.
As for the assertion that Bush never had "a plan," it's hard to argue that after reading "Plan of Attack."
Not all of the reportage is flattering to Bush. Woodward reports facts that support critics who believe that the Bush Defense Department did not send sufficient troops to Iraq. I don't know the answer to that question -- what do I know about troop deployment? -- but I appreciate that Woodward laid out the thinking behind Pentagon decisions on troop numbers so that it is in context.
In the world of punditry, too frequently the troop-number controversy is presented in such a one-dimensional way that you can't take it seriously: One expert pronounces the need for more U.S. troops in Iraq. The next critical din says: There should be more foreign troops and fewer U.S. troops. Then: There should be a draft.
The worst of it is, these critics seem to think that a country can go to war without making any mistakes. They speak as if all the decisions are easy and all the information is clear, but for some smarmy reason, Bush refused to do it right.
And then they accuse Bush of being insufficiently thoughtful.
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