George W. Bush, by the book
Some critics think President Bush looked much worse in the 60 Minutes coverage of Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack than he did in the book itself. In selling books and setting a tone for media coverage, 60 Minutes is a powerful force. In this case, we had Mike Wallace wondering who gave Bush the right to decide which nations to liberate. The Wallace interview with Woodward reflected the conventional media view that Bush is strange and erratic.
In fact, Woodward's portrait of Bush is generally positive. Which is why many Bushies are recommending the book. Take the issue of whether Bush massaged intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction. At one point Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin comes up with a report on Iraqi WMDs, and Bush says he thinks the evidence is too thin: "Nice try," he says, but Joe Q. Public isn't going to believe that.
Woodward has Bush telling CIA chief George Tenet clearly and repeatedly not to massage the evidence that Saddam has WMDs. The direct quote is: "Make sure no one stretches to make our case." Readers will have no doubt that Bush believed the WMDs were there. He was hearing it from allegedly sound sources. Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, passes on to Bush this word from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: "Our intelligence has confirmed there are mobile labs for biological weapons." The National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, filled with ambiguous material, begins with the unambiguous declaration that Saddam has chemical and biological weapons.
Tenet was loudly sure about it, too. In December 2002, Tenet rises excitedly from a couch in the Oval Office, throws his arms in the air, and exclaims, "It's a slam-dunk case!" Bush presses Tenet: "George, how confident are you?" Tenet throws up his arms once more: "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk!" If you were president, how long would it take you to fire this man?
Though Woodward's reporting doesn't sustain the "Bush Lied" mantra that has overtaken the left, there are anti-Bush notes about the WMDs the author could have sounded but didn't. In his 2003 State of the Union message, why did Bush use the discredited claim that Saddam sought uranium in Africa? Tenet, correct for once, had told the White House to cut that line from a Bush speech four months earlier. So how did the uranium line get in? Woodward writes: "Tenet had not reviewed the State of the Union speech, and Hadley (Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who vetted the speech) had forgotten the earlier CIA warning." That's it? A story that doesn't check out somehow drifts back into Bush's most important speech simply because one man forgot? Some of us would have liked more reporting here.
Settling scores? Woodward leaves the issue hanging because he is not interested in arguing with people and wanted to avoid what he calls a "toxic" book. And as always with Woodward's work, the people who grant him access come off looking good. This is somewhat true of Bush and even more true of Colin Powell, who opposed the war but stayed on as secretary of state out of loyalty to Bush (though, of course, he somewhat disloyally talked about his dissent while still in office).
Bush's critics have focused sharply on Bush's early interest in planning for war with Iraq. "We won't do Iraq now," Bush says to Condoleezza Rice at Camp David on Sept. 16, 2001.
This fits the left's current theory, sounded in recent books by Paul O'Neill and Richard Clarke, that Bush was always itching to get Saddam, no matter what. But Woodward's earlier book Bush at War depicted a much more restrained Bush at the same Camp David meeting. He describes Bush as having strong reservations about attacking Iraq and not wanting his advisers to use the war on terrorism to settle an old score with Saddam. This emphasis is missing in the new book.
Besides, drawing up "secret war plans" for a possible attack on Iraq wasn't irrational. The low-level war against Saddam was 12 years old, with no end in sight. American and British pilots were getting shot at, sanctions weren't working, and Bush was getting warnings that Saddam had all those terrible weapons and would use them against America.
Bush would have been a fool not to draw up plans. Gee, wait till the critics find out that FDR, without ever informing the media, was plotting to fight Japan and Germany before Pearl Harbor.
This story appears in the May 3, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.