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Who's in Charge? | The Nation

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Who's in Charge?

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On October 4, 2001--less than a month after that horrific day--George W. Bush and the members of his National Security Council were nailing down the details of the coming war in Afghanistan. Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported that search-and-rescue teams, which would be used to locate and extract any downed US pilots, were to be up and running in Uzbekistan in days. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice discussed the need to get other countries to contribute funds for rebuilding Afghanistan. Then Bush inquired, "Who will run the country?" Darn, Rice said to herself, her boss had raised a crucial matter she and the others hadn't yet considered. Bush, it seemed, was looking around the corner--further than his advisers.

About the Author

David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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This vignette--brought to us by Bob Woodward, scribe to the stars (of Washington)--is one of many in his Bush at War showing that, whaddayaknow, the Commander in Chief is actually in command. Bush a dunderhead who has to depend upon the intelligence of others? Bush a puppet maneuvered and manipulated by Cheney, Rove, Rumsfeld and Rice? Sorry, all you lefties and Democratic partisans who hold fast to Bush-is-a-ninny biases. Woodward's latest history-before-it's-history, and another book by ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum, The Right Man, a tales-out-of-school memoir, cast Bush as the go-to guy of this Administration. It is his White House, his presidency and his war. Each of these two very different insiders offers a strong case that the country is indeed being led by Bush, not by committee or cabal. Scary, isn't it?

Woodward zeros in on the weeks following 9/11 and Bush's step-by-step construction of the war in Afghanistan. His book is, he claims, "largely the story as the insiders saw it, heard it and lived it." That is, Woodward stuck with what has become in recent years his standard MO: Approach each power player and say, "All the other power players are telling me their side of the story, so you should do so as well." Woodward then weaves the various self-serving versions--supplied, of course, on background--into a quasi-official chronicle, with little overt sourcing. He did interview Bush on the record at The Ranch, and when his narrative has Rice thinking a particular thought, it takes little guesswork to suss out who enabled Woodward to be a mind reader. This courtside journalism is a far cry from what placed Woodward on the path to fame. Three decades ago, he and Carl Bernstein, the crusading, superhero reporters of Watergate, excavated a story the big shots didn't want public. Now, he tells us (more so than less) what the powerful do want known.

This in-house form of journalism does have entertainment and enlightenment value. There's good, high-end gossip. Donald Rumsfeld thought Bush père "was a weak CIA director who seriously underestimated the Soviet Union's military advances and was manipulated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger." Colin Powell and George W. had an awkward, no-connection relationship. Army Gen. Hugh Shelton and Rummy were bitterly at odds. Dirt on Cheney? The Veep is not as big a presence in the book as a reader might have expected. (Did he not give Woodward sufficient time?) Overall, though, Woodward is too kind to his sources. He downplays CIA lapses pre-9/11 as he sympathetically depicts CIA chief George Tenet. He raises the issue of whether the Bushies paid enough attention to terrorism and Al Qaeda before the attacks--but does not vigorously pursue the matter. And Top Gun comes out as a strong figure, emotional when the moment dictates, heroic and stoic when necessary. Bush is a man transformed. Woodward, an assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, ends up devoting less attention to Bush's faults and missteps than does Frum, a neocon intellectual/writer who worked for Bush.

On 9/11, without consulting Cheney, Powell or Rumsfeld, Bush proclaimed, "We will make no distinction between those who planned these acts and those who harbor them." Using the word "harbor" was the President's idea, Woodward reports. Thus, the Bush Doctrine was conceived mostly by Bush himself. "The president, Rice, [Karen] Hughes, and the speechwriters," Woodward notes, "had made one of the most significant foreign policy decisions in years, and the secretary of state had not been involved." (Frum has a slightly different take. Read on.) When it came time to slap together a war cabinet, Cheney suggested that someone should chair a group that would develop options and report to Bush. No way, Bush countered. As Woodward puts it, "Bush said, I'm going to do that, run the meetings. This was a commander in chief function--it could not be delegated. He also wanted to send the signal that it was he who was calling the shots, that he had the team in harness."

Woodward, working in part off notes taken by the principals (where's the White House call for plugging these leaks?), covers meetings where Bush was in the driver's seat, defining the mission and cracking the whip. In the early sessions, Rumsfeld kept pressing for expanding the war beyond Al Qaeda--meaning, Iraq. Bush said his instinct was first things first--start with Osama bin Laden. Even though he disagreed with Rumsfeld on heading straight toward Baghdad, Bush from the get-go did display a unilateralist impulse. When Powell argued that an Al Qaeda-plus strategy would fracture the international coalition he was assembling, Bush said he wouldn't stand for other countries dictating the terms or conditions of the war on terrorism: "At some point we may be the only ones left. That's okay with me. We are America." No surprise there.

When Tenet proposed a broad program of covert action--including assassination--against Al Qaeda, Rumsfeld was gung-ho but thought Tenet's proposal was written too broadly. Bush rejected Rumsfeld's attempt to scale it back. After it was decided the State Department would issue an ultimatum to the Taliban--give up bin Laden or else--Bush concluded it made more sense for him to make the threat.

In scene after scene, Bush establishes control. While he was prepping for a September 20 address before Congress, Rumsfeld urged him to raise the possibility that weapons of mass destruction might be used against the United States. "It's an energizer for the American people," he argued. (It also was a reason to place Iraq on the immediate target list.) Bush said no. He feared that such a reference would end up dominating his entire speech. "We have to be patient about Iraq," he said. (Bush was hardly soft on Saddam. He told his crew, "I believe Iraq was involved [in the 9/11 attacks], but I'm not going to strike them now. I don't have the evidence at this point.") In another decisive step, Bush told his National Security Council comrades, "We'll just have to put some of the most sensitive stuff not on paper." And before the NSC principals had turned to the issue, Bush was pressing for a humanitarian aid drop in Afghanistan. "Can we have the first bombs we drop be food?" he asked. As Kabul fell--almost unexpectedly to the Bush crowd, which had been keeping some of the less encouraging military reports from the public--Bush was focusing on a fertilizer plant that might be a weapons lab and issuing orders to inspect every SUV in the northeast.

In Woodward's telling, the members of Bush's posse were deferential to him. They looked to him to lead--them and the country. They might not always agree with his decision, but they respected it. A running subplot is Powell's occasional discomfort with Bush and the others. Powell, according to Woodward, "believed" the President made harsh, we'll-do-it-ourselves statements, "knowing they might not withstand a second analysis. Tough talk might be necessary, but it shouldn't be confused with policy." Wishful thinking? Cheney, though, "took Bush at his word. He was convinced the president was serious when he said the United States would go it alone." (Powell has since come around. With his recent presentation to the United Nations, he signaled war was the only option, with or without the UN. Poof! One of Washington's favorite dramas--Powell and the striped-pants set versus Rumsfeld and his warriors in suits--was gone.)

Is this a believable portrait of Bush? Political handlers always endeavor to show their client as the conductor swinging the baton. That may well be true in this case. But Bush's leadership is not the only point worthy of consideration. What does it say of Bush that he was predisposed to believe--without evidence--that Saddam was a 9/11 mastermind? Woodward, embracing access over analysis, doesn't explore such terrain. He engages in minimal evaluation of what he reports. But his on-the-surface account prompts important questions. "Bush's leadership style," he writes,

bordered on the hurried. He wanted action, solutions. Once on a course, he directed his energy at forging on, rarely looking back, scoffing at--even ridiculing--doubt and anything less than 100 percent commitment. He seemed to harbor few, if any, regrets. His short declarations could seem impulsive.

What might it mean for a nation to be guided into war by such a fella? Woodward leaves that to you to decide. He shows that Bush and his colleagues agreed on a go-get-'em strategy without looking too far down the road to imagine what might be wrought by their actions. Striking back at Al Qaeda and the Taliban was justified. But it would be reassuring to see Bush and the others pondering possible consequences (good and bad).

Are there clues in Woodward's book as to what will happen next (as if we need any)? He observes that "the president and his team had found that protecting and sealing the U.S. homeland was basically impossible." Consequently, "Bush believed a preemption strategy might be the only alternative if he were serious about not waiting for events." Bush at war is clearly not a person burdened by nuance. ("Either you believe in freedom, and want to--and worry about the human condition, or you don't," he tells Woodward.) To pre-empt or not to pre-empt is not a question for Bush. If you have to ask it, you already have your answer. His view is that of a sheriff who feels obligated to prevent all possible threats from reaching his town. That urge just so happens to jibe nicely with the desires of the geostrategists--Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and various outside-the-government neocon crusaders led by Bill Kristol--who see an Iraq invasion as part of an overall campaign to project American influence and power into the Middle East either for messianic purposes (spreading democracy) or reasons of security (neutralizing a supposed regional threat), or both. In his recent State of the Union speech, Bush implicitly conceded that Saddam does not pose an immediate danger when he said, "If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions...would come too late." Yet, from where he sits, the absence of a discernible imminent threat is no reason not to go to war. A conceivable threat is sufficient.

And he is the one who has to make the call. In his interview with Woodward, Bush, perhaps summing up the lesson he learned from his first serious foray into foreign policy (the campaign in Afghanistan), says that UN and international coalitions might not be the best way to deal with rogue states. "Confident action," he remarked, would create "kind of a slipstream into which reluctant nations and leaders can get behind." In other words, if I go to war, others will follow (rather than howl). "His vision," Woodward writes, "clearly includes an ambitious reordering of the world through preemptive, and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace." The White House can't be too upset with such a cursory conclusion.

Frum, too, serves up Bush the Visionary. You might recall Frum's brush with Washington fame. A onetime writer for the right-wing Weekly Standard, he had favored John McCain over Bush in the primaries but joined Bush's White House speechwriting team several weeks into the Administration. After the 2002 State of the Union address, Frum's wife zapped out an e-mail to friends crediting him with penning the "axis of evil" line, which was the highlight--or lowlight--of the speech. Whoops. Protocol calls for speechwriters to be humble. Only the Big Man deserves the spotlight or the microphone. (Actually, Frum had suggested the phrase "axis of hate," and chief speechwriter Michael Gerson had transformed the epithet into something a bit more religiously cast.) A month later, Frum left the White House. In The Right Man, he explains--or claims--he had submitted his resignation before the State of the Union speech and had not been booted. But his departure was widely perceived as a warning: Don't cross el jefe.

So no hard feelings? Frum has opportunistically capitalized on his White House days by writing about his service to Bush in a fashion that should please and occasionally aggravate his former comrades. Like Woodward, he places Bush firmly at the helm, steering the ship of state and following a course of his own determination. But he takes a few swings at his former boss. Overall, it's a net win for the Bushies, though I imagine many of them wish Frum had kept his laptop shut.

Frum is, to an extent, an insightful observer, and the book is written in a sprightly fashion. He does, though, share the biases of his conservative claque. While he argues that the Clintons were "morally slack" (no argument there), he sees Bush as a beacon of probity. The evidence? He "scorned the petty untruths of the politician." (I suppose Bush's dishonest statements about his Enron contacts, his tax cuts, his Social Security and Medicare proposals, and his pledge to be a Uniter Not a Divider do not qualify as "petty.") Frum claims Bush tried to be nonpartisan, tried to compromise, tried to be civil, but those mean Democrats--nasty Tom Daschle, in particular--rejected his overture. Look, Bush even placed a Democrat in his Cabinet. (Fact-checker query to Frum: Didn't Clinton do the same by appointing Republican William Cohen as Defense Secretary?) And, Frum maintains, the real point of the Kyoto global warming accords and the International Criminal Court treaty--both of which Bush refused to sign on to--was to restrain American power.

Frum hails the Bush White House for being marked by "moral fervor." Bushies do not curse. They always stand when the President enters the room. The first words he heard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were "Missed you at Bible study." Bush people were "determined to keep our White House clean, both literally and metaphorically." (Secret meetings with corporate lobbyists and contributors regarding an energy plan? Nothing unclean about that.) But not everything in Bushland impressed Frum. He found "a dearth of really high-powered brains" on the White House staff. (What does that say about Bush? Frum doesn't speculate.) And Bush, Frum reveals, was not always so swell: "Bush's fiercest critics paid tribute to his likeability, but in private, Bush was not the easy, genial man he was in public. Close up, one saw a man keeping a tight grip on himself." Frum quotes a prep-school classmate of Bush: "George is smart: not the smartest guy I've ever met, but smart. But as a boy, he always used his intelligence to hide his intelligence. And he's still doing it."

Frum is especially ungenerous toward Karen Hughes, the television reporter who years ago became Bush's number-one spinner: She "rarely read books and distrusted people who did--anything she did not already know she saw no point in knowing." She was obsessed with increasing Bush's appeal through the use of simple stories that address big themes and that would resonate with the American public overall: "children, health, jobs, faith, patriotism." After watching Bush and Hughes interact, Frum felt compelled to ask several colleagues if the two ever had an affair. All were "astonished by the idea." Searching for a deeper understanding of the intercourse between Bush and Hughes, Frum places W. on the couch: "When he ran for governor, he recruited Hughes--a woman very like his mother (she even looks much as Barbara Bush did in her mid-40s), but who offered him the unqualified admiration his mother never did. His wife was his mother antidote. His aide was his mother substitute." Meow! There is something to be said for hiring only loyalists. They rarely resign and go on to diss your mom. Frum also takes a whack at chief political wizard Karl Rove, noting that he was excessively consumed with patching together a winning coalition. Rove's desire to bag New Mexico's five electoral votes, Frum reports, drove the White House to commit an early PR blunder by deep-sixing a stricter regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency on arsenic in drinking water. (The regulation was projected to cause a hike in water costs in the Southwest.)

Sure, Bush needed both Rove and Hughes, but he was the man pulling the levers behind the curtain. He fiercely edited his speeches, once slashing up a draft and handing it back to Frum with the explanation, "The headline is: BUSH LEADS." He made the ultimate decisions on the energy plan--not Cheney--after Cheney and Hughes slugged it out over conservation and alternative energy. (Guess who wanted less emphasis on these topics?) Once Frum suggested "to Bush that he use the phrase cheap energy to describe the aims of his energy policy." Bush shot back: From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, American cars became more fuel-efficient, then in 1995 progress stopped with the rise of the gas-guzzling SUV. And what do you think, Bush asked, fueled the SUV craze? "Cheap energy?" Frum replied sheepishly, and left.

"Bush was not a lightweight," Frum writes. "He was, rather, a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight. Words often failed him, his memory sometimes betrayed him, but his vision was large and clear. And when he perceived new possibilities, he had the courage to act on them." Still, Frum acknowledges that come the summer of 2001, Bush's vision wasn't helping him much. He had scored his big tax cut that favored the wealthy. (Always call it "tax relief," Hughes demanded.) But after Senator Jim Jeffords left the GOP and handed control of the Senate to the Democrats, the Bush yacht seemed to be floundering. Gas prices were on the rise, the economy was sluggish. His faith-based initiative was sinking. He had employed an old Washington dodge and passed Social Security reform to a commission. The energy plan was out of steam. Frum was even avoiding parties, in order to evade antagonistic questions from his conservative pals. One bright moment for Frum was Bush's decision on stem-cell research. Before releasing his policy, Frum recalls, "he did something I had never seen him do: He brooded." But Bush tried to have it both ways on stem cells, by allowing some limited research to continue while preventing the development of new stem-cell lines to widen the research possibilities. Frum considered this a majestic, Solomon-like resolution. But to this ideological wrestler from Canada--who in years past had decried the American conservative movement for going soft--the future looked bleak. The White House was considering unveiling proposals to encourage e-mail between children and their grandparents, and to promote positive stories in newspapers.

Then came 9/11, and the vision man was back. Maybe not that first day. Frum recalls that he and his fellow speechwriters were dismayed by the speech Bush delivered that night from the Oval Office. (Hughes had chucked the speech written by the team and drafted her own.) The problem was that Bush "referred in passing to a 'war on terrorism,'" but "he offered no explanation of the attack and promised no retaliation." Worse, for Frum, Bush "offered instead a doughy pudding of stale metaphors." For instance: "America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining." It was not, alas, "a war speech." It did, though, contain the line about making "no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." And Frum cannot resist informing us he had been the one to insert that thought into every draft of the speech.

As speechwriters do, Frum focuses on Bush's rhetorical replies to the attacks. And he argues Bush did get his mojo working after the "Awful Office Address," and the nation was able to see "a new Bush." It appeared when Bush spoke at a National Cathedral memorial ceremony ("This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing") and when he delivered an address to Congress in September ("Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"). But words had to be coupled with action, and, Frum notes, within the White House, "opinion divided between those who wanted to fight the smallest possible war and those who wanted to win the biggest possible victory." In other words, blast Iraq or not.

Frum, a hawkish Sharonista, favored the big-victory school, though such decisions were above his pay grade. (Powell and Rummy were battling it out, with Rice drifting toward the Defense Secretary.) Then Frum got his chance. The junior speechwriter was asked to draft a memo for a speech that would explain why Saddam had to go. He ruminated and concluded that "terror states and terror organizations formed an axis of hatred against the United States," and the "United States could not wait for these dangerous regimes to get deadly weapons and attack us; the United States must strike first and protect the world from them." Thus, in his first State of the Union speech, Bush wagged his finger at the Axis of Evil. There is something disturbing in the notion that the axis-of-whatever formulation was hatched by speechwriters, not policy folks. Frum's axis was more a rhetorical device than an actual organization. Still, he reassures the reader, Bush "understood all its implications. He backed them with all the power of his presidency." He graciously observes, "Once [Bush] uttered it, 'axis of evil' ceased to be a speechwriter's phrase and became his own, and he defiantly repeated it over and over again."

Frum's phrase struck a chord with Bush because he sees the world in the starkest of terms. Some might call it simplistic and rigid but Frum considers it bold and visionary. It was Bush, not Frum, though, who had to live with--and act upon--the "implications." Did the use of such aggressive language cause North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to feel directly threatened and behave even more belligerently than he otherwise might have? It's possible. Nevertheless, those words did set Bush on a road toward war. What do you do with an "axis of evil"? Obviously, you have to smash it. And Saddam, you're first. (North Korea? Well, we'll get back to you on that, it's more complicated. In the meantime, Kim, don't take it so damn literally. Iran? Well...) Frum had accomplished an important neocon mission: locking Bush--I mean, helping Bush lock himself--into that course of wider confrontation yearned for by the hawkish geostrategists. Bush's post-Axis of Evil use of severe rhetoric toward Iraq has increasingly left him little wiggle room beyond ordering war.

Stating the obvious, Frum notes that before September 11, Bush "was not on his way to a very successful presidency." He was "in danger of becoming his father: a candidate elected by the dwindling conservative coalition, who generated less and less enthusiasm within that coalition." His "political vision"--while existent--"was unclear." He "lacked a big organizing idea." His "Compassionate Conservatism" was no more than an "agglomeration of little ideas...wrapped together to look like a big idea." After Osama bin Laden attacked, Bush became a "superb" wartime President, Frum proclaims, demonstrating "moderation, persistence, and boldness." Frum asserts that "the record shows"--at least for now!--"that at every turn Bush has behaved with remarkable caution, circumspection, deliberation." He adds, "using only conventional weapons, the armed forces of the United States could have obliterated in any single afternoon after the fall of Kabul not merely Iraqi military power, but Iraq's existence as an organized society. But Bush waited and waited and waited." Let us praise Bush for not raining total destruction upon the men, women and children of Iraq.

Ultimately, Bush is not much of a mystery, in the world according to Woodward and Frum. As Frum advises, read Bush's speeches and statements, and you can usually tell what he intends to do. Forces swirling about Bush within the Administration may deserve analysis and sorting out. But Bush operates at face-value level. Moreover, he is the fellow in the lead chariot. The country--and perhaps the globe--is in his hands, not Rumsfeld's, not Cheney's, not Powell's. Make of that what you will.

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