Magazine

Inside the White House After September 11


BUSH AT WAR

By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster -- 376pp -- $28

Several months ago, a colleague and I were quietly ushered into Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office for an interview. Unaware of our presence because his back was to us, Rumsfeld told an aide: "You know, I don't agree with Colin on a single point in this memo." We didn't know the document's subject, but it didn't matter--the comment could have applied to any number of issues faced jointly by Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

The much-publicized conflict between the two is a recurring theme in Bob Woodward's Bush at War, an account of the Administration's first 100 days after September 11. The Washington Post assistant managing editor provides readers with a wealth of fly-on-the-wall detail from deliberations within the Cabinet. But don't expect much insight into the Rumsfeld-Powell tiffs. Do they reflect different personalities, world views, or institutional imperatives? Or, perhaps more significantly, is the cleavage evidence of continuing tension between the Pentagon's civilian leadership and the uniformed services, for whom ex-General Powell seems to have more affinity than Rumsfeld does?

The events following September 11 show that the fights between Defense Dept. suits and the generals can have serious consequences. Readers, contemplating the services' delay in providing a war plan and troops for Afghanistan, will long to know if this was a slap at Rumsfeld, who had made clear his contempt for the military's failure to adopt what he saw as 21st century notions of war. Woodward is of little help on such matters.

Why is it that Bush often talks tough like Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney but then acts like the more moderate Powell? Is this a conscious strategy of throwing rhetorical bones to the GOP conservative base while avoiding deeds that might upset U.S. allies? Is it an indication of a behind-the-scenes alliance between Powell and influential National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice or simply evidence of a vacillating foreign policy?

Again, Woodward's treatment is disappointing. He conducted interviews with more than 100 officials and obtained access to numerous top-secret intelligence memos and notes from more than 50 confidential National Security Council meetings at which the war on Afghanistan was planned. Yet Woodward seems like a dog who finally catches a car and doesn't know what to do with it. He's long on access but short on critical analysis.

Nevertheless, the abundant facts presented in Bush at War are illuminating. Often, it seems, lively debate within the national security team leads to sounder policy. At two meetings on the day after September 11, for example, top officials discussed how to respond. Bush said he wanted to focus simply on al Qaeda--an approach he felt the American people would understand and support. Rumsfeld argued for a broader, global campaign against terrorism. Powell agreed with Bush, saying it would be easier to enlist a broad coalition and even U.N. support for a purely anti-al Qaeda offensive. Cheney wanted to hit state sponsors of terrorism, arguing that the goal should define the coalition rather than the other way around. Rumsfeld then raised Iraq as a possible target. In the end, the Powell-Bush view prevailed, but hashing out the benefits and risks of each option made for wiser choices.

Woodward's portraits of the participants are, for the most part, superficial. One who receives more attention--and a thoroughgoing defense of his conduct both before and after September 11--is Central Intelligence Agency Director George J. Tenet. In fact, Tenet comes across as perhaps the critical figure in the entire effort. Woodward tells how the CIA devised the Afghanistan plan and won the support of key Afghan warlords--in part by shelling out millions of dollars. In this light, despite pre-September 11 intelligence lapses, Tenet's post-September 11 performance is easy to defend.

The book also contains revealing material on Bush and his relationship with Rice. Deeply religious and a bit of a fatalist, the President finds the strength and conviction to return to Washington immediately after the terror attacks despite warnings of ongoing danger. Bush also comes across as an impatient boss who pushes his troops, yet Rice has the ability to rein him in. On Friday, Sept. 28, for example, the war team--which included Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney, and Tenet--was scheduled to meet and decide when to launch an Afghan attack. Bush wanted to move, but Rice informed him on the night before the gathering that the Pentagon and CIA weren't ready. Then, she told Rumsfeld to expect a disappointed President, and she urged the Defense Secretary to give Bush a realistic time frame for action. At the meeting, Bush eased off, allowing the attack to be delayed until preparations were in order.

Once the offensive got started, progress proved agonizingly slow. This, Woodward asserts, caused officials far more concern than they displayed publicly. According to Bush at War, the most unflappable player during this period was Bush himself.

That kind of patience will be needed in the future. Recent bombings in Bali and Kenya show that the war against terrorism is far from over. Neither, I suspect, is the scrutiny of the Bush team's performance during that 100-day period. Woodward's book is just the first, very rough draft of that key time in America's history. By Stan Crock


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