Reading Bob Woodward's The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, is like reading raw transcripts of documents and interviews from a sensational murder trial: you know what happens, and you know who the victim and the perpetrator are. But to read their actual words is chilling. It's the In Cold Blood of national security journalism.
I read it last night, cover to cover. Yes, it's written in that frustrating Woodward style, with little or no attribution for much of what he writes. (He does provide sketchy footnotes, but they mostly say: "The information in this chapter comes primarily from background interviews with firsthand sources.")
Still, much of it is astonishing. And I don't just mean the juicy tidbits that Woodward gives us – that the United States spied on Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, that a supersecret, high-tech assassination program killed large numbers of militants beginning in May, 2006, and so on. I'm talking about the dangerously sycophantic advisers surrounding Bush, the ones who stroked the ego of a know-nothing president as The Decider doubled-down on his failed war in Iraq. And I'm talking about the machinations of a rogue general named Jack Keane and his rump staff of strategists at the American Enterprise Institute who worked with Steve Hadley, the national security adviser, to promote the January, 2007, escalation called "the surge."
How's this for sycophantic? Here's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Bush on the brink of ordering the surge, speaking to a man who most historians consider America's worst president, ever:
I think you probably have to do it. But this is going to be one of the most consequential decisions of all time. You are probably, because of the things you've chosen to do, one of the four or five most consequential presidents--maybe in our history, certainly in the last 100 years, but maybe in our history.
Or take Steve Hadley, who orchestrated the surge plan, on Bush's "greatness":
Those of us who are here believe in him. Believe in him and believe he has greatness. He has greatness in him. … This guy is really strong. And … we're strong because he's strong.
What Woodward unfolds, page after horrifying page, is the story of how Hadley, Keane, John McCain, and the gang from AEI rode roughshod over the widespread establishment opposition to the surge. Keane, in particular, emerges as the principal advocate and facilitator of the surge strategy and as a sneaky, back-channel operator working at the behest of Dick Cheney's office and General Petraeus. When Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tries to "get Keane back in the box," and tells him point blank to stop his secret meetings with Cheney and Petraeus:
Keane called John Hannah in Cheney's office to report what had happened. … Vice President Cheney had noticed Admiral Mullen putting the hammer down on Keane. He didn't agree, so he had sent a note and talked to [Defense Secretary] Gates about how important Keane's assistance had been. The president had also requested that Keane be allowed back in Iraq.
During 2006, Woodward makes clear, the overwhelming consensus, both among the public and in Washington was to end the war, to start the drawdown of U.S. forces. That was the belief of General George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, General John Abizaid, the CentCom commander, and nearly all of the uniformed military. It was the view of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, the State Department, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. In 487 pages, Woodward details how all of them were steamrolled. Consider this: had they not been rolled over, today, two years later, the war would largely be over.
The picture of Bush that emerges is not a flattering one. He is portrayed as a man convinced of his utter righteousness. "Not one doubt," says Bush. And: "We're killin' ‘em. We're killin' ‘em all." Yet at the same time, Bush is blissfully detached, relying on Hadley for everything. His decision to order the surge, taken in November-December, 2006, was a tough one, Bush told Woodward. "Now, this is a period of time where I've got, I don't how many, holiday receptions."
In case you've forgotten that the war in Iraq was about something real, about the extension of American power into the heart of the world's oil region, here's an account of Condi Rice outlining the whole thing:
"Let's say that we have to live with the Iranian revolutionary state for some time," she said. "Would I rather live with the Iranian revolutionary state with American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf and Central Asia. You bet. When I hear the Iranians are just sitting pretty, I think, well, how does their neighborhood look to them? What has really happened is that starting with Gulf War I, but really after 9/11, the center of American power has moved." Following World War II, the United States had moved the epicenter of its military power to Europe. … Now American power had shifted to the Middle East.
Woodward asks Bush about that, about United States "hegemony" in the region. Hadley, sitting nearby, warns Bush about "the implications of the word ‘hegemony,'" which Woodward notes "carries "overtones of empire." Then this exchange:
"It's a loaded word, as you know very well," the president said.
"It is a loaded word," I agreed.
"It's a very tricky, Washington loaded word. It was very tricky, Woodward. Very tricky," Bush said.