Bob Woodward’s Bush at War was the first inside account of the Bush administration, starting with 9/11, detailing the Taliban War in Afghanistan, and ending with Congress approving action against Iraq.
Therefore on sheer historical context, this 2002 book should be required reading in high school or universities, and definitely for anyone who has an opinion about Bush’s War on Terror.
Bob Woodward, the journalist who investigated Richard Nixon in All the President’s Men (1974) needs no introduction. He had full access, interviews, and documentation to what happened behind closed doors at the National Security Council cabinet meetings with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and their appointed advisers: Powell, Rumsfeld, Tenet, Rice, General Frank, Ashcroft, and others. In other words, the source is authoritative. Subsequent books by different writers also add to this, but in terms of time and context, this is a great snapshot and record of the 9/11 and Taliban War account.
CIA head George Tenet knew Usama bin Laden (called UBL by insiders) was the #1 enemy of the United States. The CIA’s file on UBL was incredibly large. He had told President Clinton about it, and Clinton authorized some airstrikes and spying, but the mentality and atmosphere at the time was never to stage an invasion to get take him out.
Even during the first 8 months of the George W. Bush administration, the official cabinet meeting to discuss the UBL problem never happened. There were memos, but it simply wasn’t high on the “To do…” list. Tenet had warned about the urgency- it was his obessions, and in this book he said he regretted not to force the issue to the president personally about the attack which the CIA determined to be “imminent”. The sad irony is that the official cabinet meeting was ready to be scheduled around the time of Sept. 11.
Again, to frame the historical context: the American public and White House administration had been conditioned that taking full initiative and investing millions into bringing one terrorist to justice with Special Forces and CIA teams was not something that they comfortable doing, especially since they would be stepping on the toes of the host country they would be attacking, not to mention our allies in the Middle-East.
Every member of Bush’s National Security Council cabinet meetings were shocked and hurt at the brutality of horror of the WTC and Pentagon attack. With a plane headed to Washington, D.C., they knew that terrorists wanted to totally take out the government and cripple the nation. It was war.
Reasons why Bush “waited a month” to start bombing Afghanistan:
1) Our U.S. military had NO off-the-shelf plan to attack that nation. None. The entire plan had to be created from scratch, and the sad part is that there was no plan after we eliminated the Taliban and al-Queda. That was done on the fly, just like in every small business or major corporation. And that was decided by Bush and his cabinet.
2) Afghanistan is deep in Islamic territory and negotiating rights for refueling bases, and staging areas to launch search-and-rescue teams (to avoid what happened in Blackhawk Down) took weeks to negotiate and handle logistically.
3) The political stability in Afghanistan was a mess; it was ruled by Taliban by force, with rebel warlords who could be bought off by the highest bidder. The terrain was not ideal. It was far away. It took weeks to get ready. It was truly hell, and the fact that these “freedom fighters” defeated the Soviet Union decades ago was fresh in everyone’s mind could explain why there was no “off-the-shelf” plan for an invasion or government overthrow.
4) This would require a brand new war strategy and foreign policy (the Bush Doctrine- simply defined as taking initiative against any country that harbors or supports terrorism in the Middle East). Bush forced the CIA and military to work together, and the entire strategy was created during intense meetings, just like any business. Bush did not micromanage, he left it up to each cabinet chief to work out the details and report back.
In terms of the personality interactions, motives, and goals of the team that ran this country during these meetings:
President George W. Bush: Idealistic. Strong. Tough. Respected. Perfectionist. Unrelenting. He had the will and desire to crush all terrorists to avenge 9/11 and to prevent it from ever happening again. He was extremely frustrated that the military was unable to strike quickly. He had to listen to delay after delay, and kept pushing to act immediately even though the logistics were simply impossible. In many ways, he was like a boss who wanted a project done NOW without knowing the details of the production operation.
Bush bashers and Bush haters would be sorely disappointed. There is no evidence of any conspiracy theory that he knew specifically about 9/11 or even funded it. Nothing on the record or behind closed door meetings that financial gain was the motive. Nothing that said Bush wanted to prove to his Daddy that he can take out Saddam.
In fact, Bush comes off as heroic: he refused to hide in the bunker under the White House every time a threat was reported. He said something to the effect of “It is what it is, if it’s my time to die, so be it”. Publicly, there is a reason why he had a 90% approval rating: he was steadfast in his resolve to be strong and to fight terrorism straight on. He freely used his political capital to make things happen since other countries and Congress were sympathetic about 9/11.
Ironically enough, Bush did not want the U.S. to be involved in nation building. The problem is he had no endgame. Like most Republican U.S. foreign policies, he wanted us in, out, quickly assign a leader, leave some troops there at a base, but the U.S. would not govern Afghanistan at all.
If there is any objective criticism of Bush from the reader (Woodward just reports the facts, and doesn’t lean either way), it is that Bush’s plans called for the U.S. to be the world leader and do everything with very little support, except from the British.
The other major issue was that he simply didn’t utilize Colin Powell, the most capable of all of his cabinet, due to philosophical differences, and seeing Powell as a rival and internationalist, someone not ready or willing to act quickly.
Bush comes off as wanting to make the world a safer place, and to leave a lasting legacy of taking initiative, whereas previous administrations refused to.
National Security Condoleezza Rice: Bush loyalist. Mediator. Juggler. Straight-laced. Organizer. Bush is like a father to her (she lost her father, and her mother died, too), and she has the utmost respect and regard for the Oval Office and Bush personally. She would organize “pre-meetings” with the other cabinet members to make sure the president doesn’t see them argue and get bogged down in micromanaging. She wanted everyone on the same page. Sometimes she still failed anyway.
She respected Colin Powell and secretly didn’t think he should have been on the outside of their crew. She mediated sit-downs with Bush and Powell, and although they walked away on the same page, as soon as Cheney and Rumsfeld (and Republican campaign guru Karl Rove) got into the president’s ear, the administration would “set up” Powell for public failures.
Rice is depicted as a dutiful worker and trooper who works overtime, and goes above and beyond to have everyone on the same page and to follow the president’s orders, no matter what they are. If she had any ulterior motives, they were not mentioned in this book.
She is Bush’s most trusted cabinet member, and he would actually blow off steam to her when things weren’t going well. But she absorbed it, and never manipulated Bush into going to war.
Vice-President Dick Cheney: Cowardly. Manipulative. Always had Iraq on his mind. Argumentative. Influential. Cheney had always read the daily intelligence reports and always feared that a terrorist attack would occur, especially with biological weapons or a suitcase nuke. The record in this book shows that he is a right-wing hawk who wanted terrorism stopped in every country, and that Iraq was the logical next country to invade because of Saddam’s threats.
However, his motives were simply to protect American citizens, not some ulterior shadow conspiracy to win no-bid military contracts. He had no intention to have prolonged wars, either. But he did want total wars, not weak Clinton airstrikes.
Cheney was quick to volunteer to be transported to an undisclosed location after 9/11. There was nothing macho about it; he didn’t even ask, he just did it. He also saw Powell as not part of the team. Cheney and Rumsfeld were generally together, although they had some disagreements, and were too dominant at the meetings, and had Bush’s ear after the meetings.
Cheney and Rumseld were against capturing or killing Usama Bin Laden “too early” in the war, as they feared the general public and other countries would say “let’s end this War on Terror now, you got your guy”. Bush agreed that the War on Terror is bigger than one man, and all terror must be stamped out. Therefore, although he gave authorization for anyone to take out Usama, it wasn’t the goal of the mission at the start.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: Powerful. Intelligent. Truth-stretcher. Spin-doctor. Manipulative. Withholding. Political. Ambitious. Egotistical. Combative. Don didn’t want to work with the CIA or have them call the shots. He later took over operations, but didn’t want to with the CIA agents. He saw Afghanistan as a military operation which he wanted to be in full control off. Don was the 1st to even mention Iraq after 9/11, as possibly being involved, and definitely had an agenda, although the book doesn’t mention what the motives were.
Don doesn’t hesitate to lie to the MEDIA, and even withholds “small details” to his fellow cabinet members and president. Facts changed daily with him, as did time-lines and promises. Behind the scenes, he was a control freak and had temper problems. He is a master talker and has full command over double-speak and revisionism. George Bush didn’t see any of this, and relied heavily on his opinions on the war effort and public spin. Don would pick and choose what data and information to bring to the meetings and to the general public.
He and Powell had “heated discussions” in front of Rice, and Don and Dick did their best to cut Powell out of the inner circle.
Don saw himself as an architect of a new form of warfare: send the CIA to buy off warlords, cause internal discord to strengthen to rebel alliance, bomb the crap out of the country, send special forces to hunt and kill terrorists, appoint a puppet leader (in Afghanistan’s case Hamid Karzai), leave American troops there to protect the puppet, and have the U.N. worry about clean up.
Don would even fight with the generals.
Secretary of State Colin Powell: Military man who obeyed every order. Would not step outside of his jurisdiction and get involved in tactics and strategy (that was General Tommy Franks and Don Rumsfeld’s role). Peacemaker. Mediator. Tough yet rational. Able to contain his emotions at the meetings. Professional.
Obviously he was the odd-man out at these meetings, although Rice tried her best to tap into his genius. “Bush’s brains” Karl Rove (who was not allowed to be at the meetings), saw Powell as a political threat (even though Powell’s wife forced Colin to not run for presidency) since he was so popular and intelligent, and was able to cut through partisan squabbles.
Powell handled negotiations with other countries for basing rights and to get their okay with the War on Terror. He wanted to build the international coalition in a fair yet firm way. But while he was away, the other cabinet members would change the rules and plan. The book details how Powell was “set up” by the cabinet as they kept changing the his orders while he was in negotiations.
After the Taliban were defeated in Afghanistan, and Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld wanted Saddam ousted because of a future attack against Israel and the U.S., Powell wanted Bush to appeal to the U.N. to say that we would be enforcing the U.N. resolutions as opposed to going at it solo.
Bush did respect Powell, and they did have closed door meetings together (with Rice sitting in), where Powell professionally laid everything out on the table, but it was clear that Powell was alone in his questioning that the U.S. impose the Bush Doctrine on countries without a true coalition of European and Arab nations.
Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet: Explosive. Patriotic. Overloaded with bureaucracy. How does one actually plan a global attack on terror in 90 countries especially since after the Cold War the CIA had been losing importance and funding? He had complied data on al-Queda and UBL for years, and regretted not forcing full action pre-9/11. Post 9/11, he was scrambling to head undercover special team operations to set up rebel alliances in Afghanistan, and to gather more intelligence.
Tenet is a straight-shooter and tried his best given the resources. His agents put their lives on the line. Walking around with suitcases of millions of dollars in Afghanistan to buy off warlords is risky business. He only lost one agent, who was murdered by the Taliban.
The CIA operations were much more smooth than Rumsfeld and the generals’ air and ground ops.
Tenet obviously regrets not acting on his intelligence pre-9/11, and has to live with that. There was no conspiracy between he and Bush.
Tenet wanted a global black ops special teams to work with other countries and unofficially take out terrorist organizations.
John Ashcroft and the FBI are not the focus in this book, but they did appear at some meetings. Ashscroft wanted the FBI to have full power to uncover any terrorist activity within our borders. Bush gave him the okay, and thanks to Congress passing the Patriot Act, the FBI had that authority. They uncovered over 300 people with links to al-Queda with info within our own borders, but data that was not released to the public at the time because Bush knew it was cause a panic.
In conclusion, this book is worth reading because it put things in perspective and context. There are some facts that are depressing: our administration had no plan for Afghanistan before 9/11. With Iraq, they rushed into it without the details of a post-Saddam world, and ignored Colin Powell’s reservations. It’s sad that everything is done on the fly.
I was hit with a dose of reality that the choice of cabinet heads was paramount. These unelected officials that the president appoints create history and mold our nation. The president’s greatest choice is who he appoints and how he juggles their advice. It was fun to read dialog during the meetings. Since Bush already leaned to the right, it’s natural that he would side with Cheney and Rumsfeld’s opinions for unilateral preemptive strikes. Rice and Powell followed orders, as their job description calls for.
Ultimately, the actual Afghan operation was a relatively quick success and accomplished the goals of destroying Taliban’s stranglehold on the people, although UBL escaped. The U.S. liberated the women who were slaves there, and gave tons of food and money to the people.
For those left-wing conspiracy theory types, and for those of you who think Bush is a war criminal and Satan himself, sorry if the facts get in the way of your perception of him…
…at least in this book; Woodward has three other books written after this, which I will read and review for you.