Bush At War
By Bob Woodward
376 pp., Simon & Schuster
In a few words: Bob Woodward's Bush at War, originally published soon after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan but before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is an insider's look at the Bush White House in the 100 days between the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan. More admiring portrait of Bush than critical reporting, it is among Woodward's weakest books, as Woodward's subsequent two sequels would reveal. Nevertheless, Bush at War reflects the depths of Bush's fatal self-deceptions--and the media mentality that enabled them.
The Problem With Bob Woodward
Whether his book is about The Commanders of the first Gulf War, The Secret Wars of the CIA, The Agenda of the Clinton White House or The Choice in the 1996 presidential election, Woodward’s loyal method explains why he has ready access to all those secret memos, legal pads, National Security Council minutes and CIA briefing papers that make up the bulk of his bulky books, and why most principals in the end choose to speak with him as opposed to an actual reporter.
Woodward is the print equivalent of a White House photographer, transcribing official moods and postures usually in a light most favorable to those who do speak with him, and most unfavorable to those who don’t. The books zoom up the bestseller charts for the same reason voyeuristic books about celebrities’ tics and tiffs do: Inquiring minds want to know, and a Woodward book is as close as they’ll get to a reality show from the White House situation room.
The Problem With "Bush At War"
No average consumer of 22 minutes of daily news would be surprised to know that the president is impulsive, intolerant of doubt or second-guessing, that the secretary of defense is tyrannical, that the vice president can’t wait for another war, that the secretary of state’s love of coalitions makes him the odd man out in an administration of shoot-first unilateralists, or that the CIA buys off enemies with trunks of taxpayer cash. (It is surprising that dozens of Taliban chiefs’ defections can be bought off at $50,000 per while lesser foot soldiers have ended up in shackles at Guantanamo Bay.)
If that’s all it was, Bush at War wouldn’t warrant more than the usual reviews and chat-show buzz every Woodward book generates. But even by Woodward’s standards, this is much less a journalist’s book than a White House manifesto, a managed reconstruction of recent events not for the sake of telling the story of those events, but as a projection of events to come.
What B-52s do to soften up enemy ground ahead of a military invasion, Bush At War did to soften up Bush’s coming war on Iraq and possibly more.
"War on Terror" As Pretext
The book’s implications are frightening not just because they raise the very questions that aren’t being asked, but because the “inside” information coincides so accurately with what’s been perceived on the outside all along. The attacks of Sept. 11 were a pretext, and so is the so-called war on terrorism. The aim is much larger. The question is not whether the Bush Cabinet will take on that aim, or whether it can convince Americans to endorse it.
The question is how, and when. And part of the answer is a book like Bush at War, which achieves both the “how” and implies the “when.” It invites that mythical average American to have a seat at those super-secret NSC meetings, to watch the commander in chief in action and to sense his zeal for “world peace.” It turns the reader into a partner in the grand design, an insider who, like most members of the Bush Cabinet, doesn’t question the president’s aims, but tells him what he wants to hear.
“You’re Either With Me or Against Me”
The book’s title summarizes the 352-page manifesto without meaning to be so reductively simple minded. And yet the meaning of the Bush White House is exactly that simple, that mindless. It is about Bush’s war—not the nation’s, not the world’s. To a president who thinks he’s personally doing God’s work and the world a favor, a doctrine needs be no more complicated than “you’re either with us or against us,” with one correction. He actually means, “You’re either with me or against me.” Richard Nixon would be proud.