Well, Bob Woodward has partially redeemed himself. His last book, Bush at War, read like a superhero comic book mistranslated from its original Serbo-Croatian. Everyone in the Bush Administration was portrayed as they might have wished: brave, steadfast, determined to protect America from evildoerdom, no matter the cost.
Because Colin Powell and his aides evidently decided to tiptoe off the reservation in preparation for their long-overdue departure, the new book, Plan of Attack, has texture. There are conflicts. Not everybody can be right about everything. And while the book does gloss over many of the Administration's most nefarious characteristics--its serial dishonesty with Congress and the media, for instance--the trust Woodward earned with his hagiographic first account put him in good stead to expand our understanding of how these people go about making their catastrophic decisions and then denying them. Here's what I learned:
1. For foreign policy purposes, Dick Cheney is President: Cheney wanted this war from way back when; it was Bush who needed convincing. As Slate's Tim Noah points out, "The closest Woodward comes to showing Bush making a final decision is when Bush pulls Rumsfeld aside in early January 2003 and says, 'Look, we're going to have to do this I'm afraid. I don't see how we're going to get him to a position where he will do something in a manner that's consistent with the UN requirements, and we've got to make an assumption that he will not.'" When the President is not around, Administration officials refer to Cheney as "the Man," as in, "The Man wants this" or "The Man thinks that."
2. That's too bad, because unfortunately Cheney is nuts. As Powell puts it, Cheney was in the grip of a "fever," no longer the "steady, unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Gulf War. The vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Saddam. It was as if nothing else existed." Woodward gives us the backstory: Cheney, confirmed by his equally fevered aide "Scooter" Libby, repeatedly pitched--as he does today--the apparently imaginary meeting between Mohamed Atta and Iraqi intelligence in Prague. Powell/Woodward aptly term this contention "worse than ridiculous." It goes on. "Cheney would take an intercept and say it shows something was happening. No, no, no, Powell or another would say, it shows that somebody talked to somebody else who said something might be happening. A conversation would suggest something might be happening, and Cheney would convert that into a 'We know.'"
3. Rumsfeld's Pentagon, led by Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, caught Cheney's nutty fever too. The war party in the Pentagon was no less obsessed than Cheney and Libby with finding the nonexistent link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Powell considered them to be "a separate little government" and referred to them as the "Gestapo office."
4. George W. Bush cannot be bothered to listen to the views of those with whom he disagrees, even (particularly?) people who clearly know a great deal more about the topic than he does and hold Cabinet responsibility for it. Bush told Woodward that when he saw Powell for twelve minutes in the Oval Office on January 13, 2003, it was "not a meeting to have a discussion. This was a meeting to tell Colin Powell that a decision had been made and that the president wanted his support."
5. Which is also too bad, because Bush lives in a dream world. This from the transcript of Larry King Live,:
WOODWARD:...I said, OK, you've found no weapons of mass destruction, and one of my bosses at "The Post" said, The question is, did you deceive us or were you deceived? And I got two very emphatic, No. No.
KING: On both?
WOODWARD: On both.
6. The United States Constitution is meaningless to these people: The Bush Administration decided to lay out $700 million on a "massive, covert public works program" in Kuwait in 2002, even though, as Woodward aptly notes, they did not inform Congress. This is a violation of Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution, which vests the power of the purse in Congress, along with various statutes that bar the executive from unilaterally moving money out of areas explicitly mandated by spending bills. It is, moreover, an explicit violation of the post-9/11 emergency supplemental bill, which gave the President discretion to direct the $40 billion it appropriated but specifically required him to "consult with the chairmen and ranking minority members of the Committees on Appropriations prior to the transfer" of any funds. There is no evidence of any such consultation, and indeed the White House is not claiming any exists.
The Administration has reacted to this revelation with (a) dishonesty: On CBS's Face the Nation, Condoleezza Rice tried to argue that "resources were not taken from Afghanistan." This is false--Bush removed Special Forces from Afghanistan in 2002 to send them to Iraq, as David Sirota of the Center for American Progress notes; and (b) disingenuousness and more dishonesty: White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy told an interviewer that the "significant buildup" in the Persian Gulf region before the war was not necessarily preparation for an invasion. (Apparently it was in preparation for a regional swim meet, to be held on a date yet to be determined.) Duffy also said the Administration wanted to be ready to aid weapons inspectors. This is ridiculous. The record demonstrates that the White House went out of its way to undercut the weapons inspectors in order to justify its obsession with war. For the past year, the goofball President of the United States and his Defense Secretary have been denying that inspectors were ever even allowed inside Iraq--something that goes all but unreported in the US media because reporters apparently find it too weird (see my last column).
There's plenty more in Plan of Attack, like the Saudis playing with our elections and stuff, but those are the lowlights. Read it and weep.