Bush at War, Bob Woodward, (Simon & Schuster) 352 pages, $28
With his occasional malapropisms, nervous laughter and goofy jokes, President Bush has been an easy mark for urban liberals and the intellectual elite. But the commander in chief we see in Bush at War is anything but fodder for late-night comedy routines. He's a real commander. Bush has a laser-like focus on the war on terror, in Bob Woodward's latest book, boring in on everything from war plans to public relations to diplomacy. Nothing, it seems, escapes the notice of this leader.
Where does this stature come from? Did many people underestimate Bush, who rarely traveled outside the U.S. as a young man and whose sole foreign policy experience as Texas governor extended to neighboring Mexico? Did Bush, as with some past supposed-underachieving presidents, simply rise to the occasion? Or is someone pulling the levers behind the curtain? Perhaps his father, the first President Bush? Maybe the shadowy Vice President Dick Cheney?
One will never know from reading this book. Because it seems Woodward, a Washington Post editor and the Boswell of Official Washington, didn't ask the right questions, even though he had access to many of the key players, including Bush, who -- he all but crows -- sat down with him for 3 hours and 55 minutes during two sessions. The author writes that he "asked questions or made short comments 300 times."
What one is left with are some nice vignettes. There is also an unvarnished debate on tackling terrorism among the sniping Cabinet members, mostly because Woodward wrangled the notes to more than 50 National Security Council meetings and other high-level sessions.
The notes reveal the concern within the Cabinet about the initial slow pace of the war in Afghanistan, the lack of movement by the Northern Alliance troops against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces, along with the ineffectiveness of the initial U.S. bombing. There is talk of a secret contingency plan to send in some 55,000 U.S. troops. The word quagmire was seeping into the media reports.
In one dramatic moment, Bush presses his top advisers. "I just want to make sure all of us agree with this plan, right?" he asked, looking around the table. "Anybody have any ideas they want to put on the table?" There was silence. "You know what? We need to be patient," Bush said. "We've got a good plan."
Yet overall there is a thin quality to Bush at War. What's missing is an analysis or a context one would receive from a more fluid writer and seasoned observer of government, say a David Halberstam.
Woodward, author of a number of books on the inner workings of Washington, including The Commanders, about the Persian Gulf War, and Veil, a look at the CIA during the Reagan administration, also employs the journalistically questionable technique of attributing "thoughts, conclusions and feelings to participants" either from the person himself, a colleague or the written record.
And it's clear that those who cooperate with Woodward get better treatment in the book, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, who comes off as reasonable and steadfast. Then there are those who clearly did not offer themselves up, such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who is generally portrayed as peevish, at one point blaming the stalled Afghanistan campaign on the CIA.
The book is set not only in Washington but also in Afghanistan, where Woodward charts the activities of a senior CIA agent, only identified as "Gary," who helps spread part of the $70 million in taxpayer money that will enlist the Afghan warlords in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda. But the tale is less dramatic than the numerous stories that have come out over the past year about CIA operatives and U.S. Special Forces soldiers operating behind enemy lines.
In the epilogue, Woodward offers a compelling look at Powell's successful efforts to approach the United Nations on Iraq, rather than undertake a go-it-alone U.S. approach advocated by Cheney and Rumsfeld. But he devotes too much time on a failed Powell trip to the Middle East to try and jumpstart the Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Instead, Bush at War should have cleaned up some loose ends on the war in Afghanistan. For example, why weren't more U.S. troops sent in -- above the several hundred CIA operatives and Green Berets -- particularly during the December battle around Tora Bora? Such a move may have led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden and his entire leadership.
Tom Bowman, the military affairs reporter for The Sun for the past five years, has been closely following the war on terrorism, and reported from Afghanistan earlier this year. Before his Pentagon assignment, he covered the Naval Academy in Annapolis and the National Security Agency. He received a master's degree in American Studies from Boston College, focusing on the Kennedy administration.