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George Bush, Self-deluded Messiah

Bob Woodward's new book depicts a president who shuns responsibility, critical thinking and self-doubt, and instead mistakes stubbornness for leadership.
 
 
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It's hard to know which is more disturbing. That George W. Bush misled the public by stating in the months before the Iraq war that he was seriously pursuing a diplomatic resolution when he was not. That he didn't bother to ask aides to present the case against going to war. That he may have violated the U.S. Constitution by spending hundreds of millions of dollars secretly to prepare for the invasion of Iraq without notifying Congress. That he was misinformed by the CIA director about one of the most critical issues of the day and demanded no accountability. Or that he doesn't care if he got it wrong on the weapons of mass destruction.

plan of attackBob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack , illustrates all these points. The full book, which details Bush's march to war, is not yet out, but as is routine for a Woodward book, the more noteworthy passages have preceded the book's release via a well-orchestrated PR blitz (60 Minutes, installments in Woodward's Washington Post, and leaks). And before this book -- which follows Woodward's Bush at War , a mostly pro-Bush chronicling of the war in Afghanistan -- hits the racks, it is already possible to draw conclusions. (Isn't life in the information age wonderful?)

Let's assume Woodward has gotten the story right. He may not deserve the full benefit of the doubt. Everything in the book is apparently drawn from off-the-record interviews except for two sessions with Bush. Some time ago Woodward's Veil, ended with a supposedly secret deathbed interview with CIA director William Casey that did not pass the smell test. But after Bush at War was published, the Bush crowd did not take exception to Woodward's work. So it is clear that he has the access and contacts (particularly with Secretary of State Colin Powell) to pen an insider's account of the Bush crowd.

The disclosure that appears to unsettle the White House the most is Woodward's assertion that in mid-January 2003 Bush decided to proceed with the invasion of Iraq. Woodward also notes that in November 2001, Bush asked the Pentagon to whip up a plan for war with Iraq. Such an order can be defended by the administration as prudent planning. After all, in the post-9/11 world, you never know when you might need such a plan. (Yes, General Tommy Franks lied to the public in May 2002 when he said, "My boss has not yet asked me to put together a plan" for attacking Iraq. Who, though, expects a military commander to reveal his secret plans?) But in the months before the war, the White House insisted that Bush was pursuing diplomatic options in good faith. At a November 20, 2002, speech in Prague, Bush said, "Our goal is to secure the peace through the comprehensive and verified disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction." And in late January, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Nobody, but nobody, is more reluctant to go to war than President Bush....He does not want to lead the nation to war."

But, according to Woodward, Bush was already leading the nation to war, having made the decision on January 11. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- who has become the administration's explainer-in-chief -- suggests that Bush was merely thinking aloud at the time. But Woodward's account is pretty strong, noting that the Saudis were informed before Bush bothered to tell his secretary of state.

Which brings us to another matter. So you're president and you're about to go to war -- wouldn't it be a useful exercise to have your secretary of state tell you all the reasons this might not be a good idea? But when Bush got around to sharing his decision with Powell, no such conversation ensued. Powell merely noted there will be "consequences." Bush did not ask for details. Nor did the two discuss what to do about such "consequences." In fact, Plan of Attack seems to contain few, if any, scenes in which Bush and his aides consider options other than a full-scale military invasion. (At the time, some non-government policy experts were suggesting more aggressive inspections or military action short of invasion and occupation.) Nor, according to the book, did Bush and his aides seem particularly interested in planning for the post-invasion period -- or planning operations to secure the weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly in Iraq.

The Bush-Powell non-conversation comes across as representative of an overall shallowness that infected Bush administration deliberations on the topic of war in Iraq. (Just last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that neither he nor anyone else thought that post-war Iraq would be as tough a mission as it has been. That is simply not true. Many experts -- even in the State Department -- predicted the exact sort of problems that are plaguing U.S. policy right now.) And while Powell does come out positively in the World According to Woodward, he, too, can be held accountable for enabling the simplism of the Bush gang by being the good soldier who promoted and defended in public a policy that he did not believe was best for the nation or the world. What good is being the grownup in the room, if you let the kiddies take control?

Powell's role in the Woodward book -- as a source, as a character -- makes for good public affairs soap opera. Conservatives have quickly attacked him for being disloyal and placing his own agenda ahead of the man he serves. (If only he had truly done so when it counted.) What has received less attention in the ongoing gabfest over Woodward's latest is his charge that in the summer of 2002, the Pentagon, following Bush's orders, spent $700 million preparing for war with Iraq -- upgrading airfields, bases, weapons storage facilities -- and did not tell Congress. Last time I checked Section Nine of Article Two of the U.S. Constitution (this morning), it read, "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." This means Congress decides where the money goes. Congress did not appropriate funds for these purposes, according to Woodward. That is, Bush took money appropriated for other reasons and had the Pentagon use it for his war in Iraq. There are, of course, procedures governing secret spending by a president and the Pentagon, but such spending still -- in theory -- is supposed to be overseen by members of Congress. Then, at least, spending hidden from the public is not kept secret from the public's representatives. But in this instance, if Woodward is correct, Bush assumed imperial power and violated a basic premise of the Republic. Are any of the Republican leaders of Congress interested in an investigation? Don't hold your breath.

Republicans and conservatives, instead, are paying more attention to Woodward's account of a December 21, 2002 meeting at the White House, when senior CIA officials briefed Bush on the evidence the agency had regarding Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction. When Bush expressed doubts, CIA chief George Tenet reportedly said, "It's a slam-dunk case." A-ha, Bush supporters cry, this shows Bush did not misrepresent the evidence. What's the president to do when his CIA chief tells him the evidence is solid? Well, Bush could have asked to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq himself. It was only 90 pages. And White House officials have conceded that neither Bush nor Rice read that document, which had been produced the previous October. The summary conclusions of the NIE did say that Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, but the NIE also noted that various analysts took exception to key findings of the NIE. If Bush had read the NIE he would have seen there was internal dispute over what Hussein had and whether he posed a serious WMD threat.

Moreover, Tenet's assertion does not get Bush off the hook for his own misleading assertions. Many times Bush exaggerated the WMD threat in public. He said Hussein might possess a nuclear weapon, when the CIA had told Bush he did not. He claimed Hussein was maintaining a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons, when the CIA had only reported Hussein had a development program. Bush accused Iraq of maintaining a "growing fleet" of unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to strike the United States with biological and chemical weapons. The intelligence community said that Iraq, at most, was developing such UAVs (although U.S. Air Force analysts, the best experts on this subject, disagreed that these UAVs could be used for such attacks). And, as is well-documented, Bush said that Hussein was in cahoots with al Qaeda, even though U.S. intelligence had no evidence to support such a bold statement. Tenet might have believed -- wrongly -- that he had a "slam-dunk case" on the WMDs, but Bush still regularly misrepresented what his government knew about the WMD threat.

Woodward also notes that after the December 21, 2002, session at the White House, Tenet told associates he should have said the evidence on weapons was not ironclad. So if Woodward's telling is accurate, this is the situation: The CIA director misleads the president, who then subsequently misleads the public and the world in order to start a war that causes the deaths of thousands and many other troubles. Is Bush upset by this? Not at all. How can we tell? First, he has retained and repeatedly praised Tenet, who committed one of the biggest errors ever made by a CIA director. Second, Bush says so himself.

In his "60 Minutes" appearance, Woodward told Mike Wallace that when he mentioned to Bush that people were concerned about the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, Bush replied, "You travel in elite circles." Bush was not only saying that he was not mad about this, but that the missing WMDs were of minimal importance because the matter only bothered elite intellectuals. Discussing this, Woodward said he believed Bush had a disdain for "the fancy-pants intellectual world." Is this chilling? A president takes the country and the world to war for a very specific reason, and then this reason turns out to have been wrong. Yet that does not bother him in the least, and he brushes aside the matter by suggesting only elitists care about it. Talk about denial. A frightening mental mechanism is at work here. If Bush can dismiss all concerns and criticisms of his actions as merely the gripes of too-smart-for-their-own-good snobs, he then is free to live untroubled in a reality of his own (or Dick Cheney's) making, one unencumbered by competing views and ideas. The leader of the free world is in a bubble.

Bush told Woodward that he remained certain the war had been the right move because he has a "duty to free people." That is not how he had depicted his obligations before the war. Then he claimed his duty was to defend the United States. This remark -- coupled with Bush's comment that "there is a higher father that I appeal to" -- does make it seem that Bush believes he is on a mission from God. That might scare some, but it would not be so problematic if Bush also believed that God expects him to engage in self-examination and critical and honest discourse before mounting an action that claims thousands of lives, and if Bush took into this heart the fact that God (assuming God exists) created intellectuals, experts, skeptics and critics as well as cowboys, oil rig workers, and truck drivers (not that any of these folks cannot be fancy-pants eggheads as well).

The Woodward book is not a full-fire blast like Richard Clarke's book. But it is in several ways more disquieting. Clarke assails Bush and Company for getting the policy wrong -- before and after 9/11. Woodward depicts a president who eschews accountability and responsibility, who is embedded in a world detached from critical or challenging perspectives, who appears incapable of self-doubt, who mistakes stubbornness for leadership, and who, while looking to serve that higher father, is likely to provide Woodward more material for the next book -- if he gets the chance.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and the author of "The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception" (Crown Publishers).