Who's in Charge? | The Nation


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.

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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.

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