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.”