Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack” – Not Unrelated to Mothers’ Day (17 cents)

There is a lot to think about on Mother’s Day, of course, including the book that I just finished reading, eight years after it was published, Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack”. The second of Woodward’s books about the wartime presidency of George W. Bush, this one tells the story of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, how early the decision was made, who made it, and what sort of preparation it took. As far as the first part of the 21st century, what decision affected more mothers (American and Iraqi) than our national decision to oust Saddam Hussein through a military invasion?

In addition to reading the book (and I think that now is a good time to read it, as enough time has passed to calm some of the emotions), I read several reviews, both professional reviews and Amazon consumer reviews. while generally well received, the book is quite controversial. How accurate does it portray the course of events? Is it ever possible to portray the course of events accurately?

Woodward’s style is not the typical style of a historian, and perhaps not even the typical style of a journalist writing history. His basic research, as he puts it, was accomplished through personal interviews with 75 people connected with the decision to invade Iraq, starting with lower level players, and ending at the very top. As a result of these interviews, the reader gets the feeling that Bob Woodward is clearly somebody special; he is someone that everyone confides in to an extent very difficult to conceive. And he winds up with descriptions of very private, very high level conversations where no written record was made, and he quotes from secret and top secret documents and analyses, which you figure no one else could possibly have obtained.

I can’t say that, even with all of this, there are any real surprises in the book. Those whom we know were hardliners on the topic were, in fact, hardliners on the topic. There is no question as to where Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice and the neo-cons stood. There is no question that the State Department (Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage) were highly skeptical until almost the very end.

The mystery man, in my opinion, is Bush himself. Although he is clearly the key figure in the book, I have a hard time really understanding what he was thinking. Early on, he thought that removal of Saddam was essential. His conclusion was based on a belief that Saddam was a great danger to the United States and (the topic kept coming up, surprisingly) to Israel. He was greatly influenced, not surprisingly by the attacks of September 11, 2001, and very worried that more such attacks could be forthcoming. He believed, based on history preceding and following the 1991 invasion of Kuwait and its aftermath, as well as the earlier war between Iran and Iraq, that Saddam was hiding chemical and biological weapons, and was still pursuing nuclear capacity. When our intelligence did not uncover any smoking guns, Bush believed that the problem was with our intelligence, not with his certainty that weapons were being hidden. Finally, bush believed that the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had accumulated would be made available to terrorist groups, like al-Quaeda, and that there was a close connection (or would be) between the Axis of Evil countries (as he named them in a well known speech, after much controversy within the government as to the effect of doing so) and these terrorist organizations, although clearly there was nothing uncovered to support this connection.

The critics of the book have jumped on many aspects of how Bush is portrayed. Some believe that the role of the President has, in fact, been overstated – that he was duped by Vice President Cheney, and by Paul Wolfowitz, and Don Rumsfeld and others. Others claim that Bush’s role has not been overstated, but has been misunderstood – that he was really avenging his father (whom Saddam Hussein wanted out of the way), or that this was all about oil. Woodward’s book does not show Cheney as a major decision-maker (although it does show him as consistent in his position that military action is the only answer to the problem) and barely mentions the oil issue, other than to say that the United States believed that any damages to the oil infrastructure in Iraq could be quickly remedied, and that the Saudis would, in the meantime, make up the losses to keep world oil supply (and prices) constant.

And then there are the statements of some of those central to the story regarding the book itself. As I understand it, George W. thought the book was well done, and recommended that others read it. I guess I can understand this if Bush continues to believe that his position and decisions were the right ones – of course, to some critics, Bush’s approval of the book is evidence that Woodward did not tell the full story, that he was to beholden to Bush for inside information and that he painted an overly positive picture of the President. On the other hand, if you think that Bush made all the wrong decisions (for whatever reasons), I don’t think that you should conclude that the Bush of the book was painted too positively.

As to other main characters, notably Colin Powell and Saudi Prince Bandar (who was given deferential treatment by book as to both access to and knowledge of the decision making process) have, as I understand it, strongly criticized the accuracy of their portrayals in the book. I have not looked specifically at their comments, however.

What I took away from “Plan of Attack” is that there was meticulous planning, over months and months, as to how the attack would take place, with General Tommy Franks having the major role, communicating with Secretary Rumsfeld, who was a constant critic not of the policy decisions, but of the details of how something would be carried out. Many things were in issue – how many men would be required, how much air power, how to avoid civilian casualties, how to make sure that there would be food for civilians whose lives would be disrupted, how much time was needed both to plan and carry out the plan, how do you get everyone in place without the world seeing what you are doing, how to you choose the targets to attack (there were thousands of designated targets). This was very detailed planning, and things were revised and revised and revised, as more questions were asked.

Yet throughout this planning, it is also clear that not nearly enough thought was being given to what would happen after Saddam was ousted – there was a general feeling that opposition groups in the country should be supported, but who were these opposition groups, and how strong were they? There was a belief that the United States could withdraw completely within a couple of years, and that Iraq would be on its way to a democracy. No one seemed to foresee the inevitability of Sunni/Shiite/Kurdish divisions and what that would mean to a Shiite majority country long dominated by Sunnis. There was very little thought given to the seriousness with which the Iraqi infrastructure would be affected, and the amount of havoc the invasion would play on normal, civilian Iraqis. There was a groundless assumption (based in part on Iraqi opposition groups assurances) that American invaders would be welcomed with open arms. It’s not that these issues weren’t discussed at all; they were. But the discussions always ended with the opening assumptions converted to conclusions. And on to the next topic.

Much attention in the book is given to the disagreements between Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld. It appeared that everyone involved at a high level, with the exception of Powell and Armitage, wanted to keep the State Department as much out of the mix as possible (even to the extent that Rumsfeld, and I think the President, wanted the Defense Department of have overall charge of reconstruction efforts in Iraq). But you could not do that completely, and the decision was therefore made, once presidential decision making had been completed, to have Powell act as the messenger (as in the infamous UN speech), on the theory that if Powell (good soldier that he was) became the voice of the hard line, everyone would fall into place.

And a surprising number of people did – especially Congressional Democrats, too many of whom, in spite of earlier misgivings, supported the war policy. If the Democrats had acted more like some of the European and other foreign heads of state, especially Chirac of France, the President of Chile and certain others, perhaps the invasion would not have occurred. As to Tony Blair, he was obviously right in line with George Bush, which put him at odds with many i his own party, and led to his need to get Parliamentary approval (it seemed essential to Bush that the UK was allied with us). This required, according to Blair, that the UN Security Council be given every opportunity to resolve the matter (i.e., the withdrawal of Saddam Hussein from leadership in Iraq) through sanctions rather than military means, which led to the interesting negotiating of the first “give him time, but if he doesn’t act, look out” resolution, and the subsequent attempt to get a second “let’s go to war” resolution. The second attempt was aborted, when France made it clear it would veto the resolution, and Bush and Blair determined they had the legal right to go forward based on the first resolution alone.

George Tenet, who headed the CIA, and who was in charge of intelligence gathering, comes in for extreme criticism in the book. Woodward emphasizes the lack of effective intelligence we had in the country (somewhat surprising, I would think, since we had been heavily involved with Iraq since the 1991 invasion, and maintained a no-fly zone over two thirds of its land mass), and it is clear that Tenant overstated what we had, and the reliability of what we thought we knew. I don’t recall that Woodward did a particularly good job of determining why Tenet acted in this manner – was he simply trying to support the president and give him what he wanted to hear, was he incompetent and trying to cover up his incompetence, or what? It’s unclear.

On the positive side, however, Woodward diverts from all of the intra-Washington shenanigans, when he discusses “Tim” (a fake name), an ex-Navy SEAL, CIA operative, fluent in Arabic, who is sent into northern Iraq, under very difficult circumstances, to establish an intelligence outpost (high in the cold, remote mountains) and develop a network of informers. Miraculously, he appears to do so, coming up with just under 100 individuals, fed with a lot of American dollars and promises that they and their families would be protected, who provided very helpful information for the United States, information that, while not necessarily helpful in the “should-we, or should-we-not” decision making process, was very helpful in the implementation process.

This book is all about the decision to attack. It is not about the war itself, or its aftermath. That would await further Bob Woodward books.

Again, on this Mother’s Day, it is appropriate to think of the Iraq War, and all wars, and their effects upon so many mothers in so many places. Another perspective typically ignored in the always optimistic planning process.


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