Bush's decisiveness leaves no room for doubt

May 17, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The word around town is that White House aides have been encouraged to plug Plan of Attack, the best-selling book by Bob Woodward that chronicles how President Bush took the country to war against Iraq. The question is why.

What's remarkable about the White House's touting of the book is that, at least to one reader, it doesn't make the president and those around him look all that good in light of how we got into the war and how it has unfolded ever since.

Mr. Woodward draws heavily on observations by the president from more than three hours of interviews, as well as long conversations with such principal players in the drama as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others.

Once again, Mr. Woodward has demonstrated a rare access to high government officials and an equally rare talent for getting them to speak to him on and off the record, providing revealing comments and inside stories that make the reader feel he is peeking under the tent.

But from the outset, the book describes Mr. Bush as basically duplicitous, intentionally pursuing two tracks. As Mr. Woodward puts it, "He was planning for war and he was conducting diplomacy aiming to avoid war. At times, the war planning aided the diplomacy; at many other points, it contradicted it."

As strategy, saber-rattling to persuade Saddam Hussein to yield to diplomacy was a conventional enough notion. But there is nothing in the book to support the idea that Mr. Bush was just bluffing to squeeze the Iraqi dictator to crumble. In fact, the opposite seems apparent -- that the president was hellbent to go to war from the outset and pursued the diplomacy track only under heavy pressure from associates, mainly to mollify them.

Most prominent among these were Mr. Powell and Mr. Bush's chief ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mr. Powell's severe reservations about the wisdom and efficacy of the invasion are rife in the book, and Mr. Blair is presented as practically begging Mr. Bush to give diplomacy more of a chance through U.N. inspections, for the sake of his own political survival at home.

On the other side of the equation, Mr. Woodward paints the president as being under relentless prodding to go after Iraq by Mr. Cheney, described as "the self-appointed examiner of worst-case scenarios," and particularly by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary.

Although early planning for an invasion began only a couple of months after 9/11, Mr. Bush continued to dissemble by saying "there are no war plans on my desk."

The picture of Mr. Bush as a commander in chief that emerges from the book does reinforce the impression of the man as decisive and sure of himself. But it is not likely to be reassuring to those critics who see him as stubborn and lacking any self-doubt, even in the face of obvious misjudgments, as in post-invasion expectations.

Mr. Woodward describes him, in the eyes of CIA Director George J. Tenet, this way: "The new factor [as compared with President Bill Clinton] was the absence of doubt at the top. Bush displayed no hesitation or uncertainty. It might be prudent to overrule an earlier decision, step back and debate the merits, but Bush was not that way.

"Tenet was finding you paid the greatest price by doubting. There were often a hundred reasons not to act. Some people got overwhelmed by problems and did 50 permutations about why it was insoluble, ending up nowhere. But if you were not afraid of what you had to do, then you would work your way through the problems. ... Suddenly there seemed to be no penalty for taking risks and making mistakes."

Such certitude at the top no doubt bolstered the invasion planners, as Gen. Tommy Franks, the chief commander for the region, acknowledges in the book. In the execution of the invasion itself, it paid off. But the aftermath has been another matter, and there apparently remains no penalty in this administration for mistake-making when plans go awry.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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