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Plan of Attack (B. Woodward)

2008-01-29 5 min read Books marco

It’s been a while that I wanted to read the Bush trilogy that Bob Woodward put together. In three volumes, the celebrated co-reporter of the Watergate affair describes the inner workings of the Bush administration with the kind of depth that only a journalist with access to the original sources can have.

It sounds like President Bush was eager to have this reporting going on. Maybe he was trying to ensure that there was a full account of what had been going on, so that history could judge on its own with full disclosure, instead of relying on opinions of the uninformed. In any case, the trilogy has been heralded as the definitive account of Bush at War, its tag line.

I chose to start with Plan of Attack because it handled the most controversial topic: the decision by the Bush administration to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Being able to interview the main players directly would certainly allow you to create a picture of what happened that would explain not only why the nation went to war, but how and based on whose input.

From the perspective of the casual reader, Plan of Attack has one major downside: it’s too detailed. The core information is conveyed in just a hundred pages, and the rest is simply the underlying background material. So if you read the book, get ready to a lot of repetition of core themes. Of course, this level of detail is exactly what you’d expect from a serious reporter, and Plan of Attack is a book of outstanding journalism.

From the perspective of the reader interested in knowing how the nation went to war, Plan of Attack gives you two pieces of information you wouldn’t otherwise have access to:

  1. Who were the players, how did they view the war, and in which direction did they put pressure?
  2. What was the information/intelligence that was available to the decision makers, how did they get it, and how did they ensure it was reliable?

If I may add my summary, Bob Woodward’s core thesis on the two points above seems to be:

  • The major players were:

  • President Bush, cautious warrior, but once convinced of the necessity of conflict, steadfast

  • Vice-President Dick Cheney, described several times as being feverish about starting a war (something the President repeatedly denies)

  • Chairman of the National Security Council Condoleeza Rice, mostly concerned about keeping a lid on internal tensions

  • Secretary of State Colin Powell, unconvinced about the case for war, sceptical about the intelligence, but once the decision was made, a good soldier

  • Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, who comes across as a very negative character: obviously self-absorbed, very convinced of his superiority, intractable

  • Commander CENTCOM Tommy Franks, who stands out for never pushing back on anything โ€“ which might be because he got all he wanted, or because he learned the lesson of superiority of the civilians in the hierarchy

  • The information available was very sketchy. The CIA was very concerned about not having any way to penetrate Iraq’s political, military, and security hierarchies until the end, and all other information was very unreliable:

  • Intercepts of phone communications

  • CIA agents on the ground in North Iraq, who by spending tons of cash and connecting with a religious leader got unprecedented insight into the inner circles of the Iraqi dictatorship

  • Comparisons of weapons declared vs. weapons destroyed (there were plenty weapons inspectors had found in 1991 that hadn’t been declared destroyed)

  • Iraqi diaspora, especially Ahmed Chalabi โ€“ in hindsight terrible sources, because they’d do anything to get the war started

  • Friendly entities, like the Jordani and Saudi governments

  • UN weapons inspectors

  • The worst indictment contained in the book is that most of the major players were aware to some extent of how little was known of the actual situation on the ground in Iraq. If there is an accusation the book makes over and over, it’s that it was clear there was no real evidence on the casus belli, and that while the necessity for war was based on an imminent threat, most players knew there was no evidence of such a threat.

Regardless of whether you supported the war or were against it, you’ll find interesting facts in the book. In particular, the tension between the “Veep” and Colin Powell stands out: everybody else is caught in it, and the entire dynamic that led to war can be summarized in the relationship between the two. Woodward points out that for mysterious reasons General Powell always found himself reporting (reluctantly?) to Mr. Cheney, and this fact more than anything else seems to explain why the nation went to war.

So, if the book has a hero, it’s Colin Powell; if the book has a villain, it’s Dick Cheney. All the other players come across as more nuanced. In particular, Bob Woodward portrays a President Bush that is able to put the needs of the Nation ahead of his own ego, that can make decisions based on advice, without being a slave to anyone’s opinion.

Going to war was evidently a hard choice for President Bush, who had to include into his calculations a lot more than was visible to the eye. Ultimately, *Plan of Attack’*s opinion seems to be that the decision to go to war was made quite early on, and that by the time there were serious doubts about the casus belli, it was too late to give up and let Saddam Hussein have his way.

All in all, Plan of Attack is an outstandingly researched, extremely well-written work of journalism โ€“ probably the definitive resource for any historian trying to understand what the Iraq War was all about. I recommend it wholeheartedly for its lack of visible bias.