After reading the below piece, Bob Woodward called to tell me that he thought that the article was “dishonest” and “unfair” and that I owed him an apology. During a calm but passionate conversation, I promised to print as long a reply as he would care to write. He said he would send something along soon. So watch this space….
Bob Woodward writes insider accounts of wars and the policymakers who wage them. He does so by talking to the most senior Bush administration insiders, who–obviously–tell him what they wish to tell him. No doubt, Woodward does capture some (maybe even most) of what occurred. But what happens when the insiders try to spin Woodward or share with him a rather selective rendition of an important event? Does he buy it and sell it (literally) to the rest of us? The leak of a British memo recounting a January 31, 2003 conversation in the White House between George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair affords Woodward’s readers a rare opportunity to factcheck the fellow who imbues his behind-the-scenes storytelling with an omniscient tone.
The Bush-Blair meeting came as Bush was moving closer to launching the invasion of Iraq. UN weapons inspectors were back in Iraq–thanks to a resolution passed by the UN Security Council the previous November–but the hawks of the Bush administration, including Bush himself, were by this point eager to declare the inspections a failure and to get on with the show. At issue was whether the Bush administration needed a second resolution from the UN that would authorize military action against Iraq. Blair wanted one. The prospect of war was unpopular in England; he needed the cover of a second resolution. Bush and his senior officials were not enthusiastic about going back to the UN once more. Bush had just delivered a State of the Union address that lay out the WMD case for war, and Colin Powell was about to make a more detailed presentation at the United Nations on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and purported ties to al Qaeda. With the war preparations picking up speed, Bush and Blair met at the White House.
Now let’s turn to Woodward. This is how he described the conversation between Bush and Blair in his book Plan of Attack:
Blair told Bush that he needed to get a second UN resolution. He had promised that to his political party at home, and he was confident that together he and Bush could rally the UN and the international community.
Bush was set against a second resolution. This was a rare case in which Cheney and Powell agreed. Both were opposed. The first resolution had taken several weeks, and this one would be much harder. Powell didn’t think it was necessary….
But Blair had the winning argument. It was necessary for him politically. It was no more complicated than that, an absolute political necessity. Blair said he needed the favor. Please.
That was the language Bush understood. “If that’s what you need, we will go flat out to try and help you get it,” he told Blair. He also didn’t want to go alone, and without Britain, he would be close to going alone. The president and the administration were worried about what Steve Hadley termed the “the imperial option.”