Tuesday, May 01, 2007

State of Denial (Review)

Bob Woodward's third book about the Bush presidency, State of Denial, is well written, factual, unbelievably thorough, and a great record of events around the waging of the Iraq war. He had unprecedented access to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and a zillion other major players in the White House and military. As one reviewer said, this a book that historians will use as a major resource in 100 years.

And yet, and yet. This book is a dense pile of facts without premise or conclusion. But a book like this must have premises and conclusions. At a minimum, they permeate the questions he asked and how he reported the responses. Either Woodward is hiding his conclusions, or he is confused himself.

The closest he gets to a conclusion is on page 490 (the second last page of the book), when he lists some of the questions he asked. "Didn't anyone at the White House notice that the actions being implemented on the ground in the months after the invasion were almost diametrically opposed to the plan that had been briefed to Bush?" And so on. But most of the questions are not just too obvious, but also dependent on other assumptions. The question "When did they realize that there would likely never be weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq?" implies that they truly believed at some point that there were WMD in Iraq - a premise that defies credulity once you read other sources.

At other points, Woodward is so deep in the projected world view of the Bushies that he loses sight of how the world works. He seems flabbergasted that in his interviews, Bush and Rumsfeld refuse to admit how dire the situation is in Iraq. But why would they? It's not shocking that the President and Defence Secretary put a brave face on a war during the war. It doesn't mean that they're in a state of denial. Does Woodward really think that he has such stature that nobody would prevaricate when he interviews them? Seemingly so.

Woodward's lack of credulity (or unrealistic belief in his own abilities) means that the book presents (in part) a picture of Bush & co. that is exactly what they wanted him to see. The impression that Woodward gives is that all the three-word slogans used during the war were completely heartfelt. These are a bunch of good guys doing what they think is best. The only reason they invaded is to protect the world from attack by Saddam Hussein. True, Rumsfeld comes in for some heavy drubbing, but I got the impression that Rumsfeld's biggest crime is that the war went badly.

In terms of revelations in the book, the thing that really blew me away is how much of the problem was basic mismanagement. Again and again there were multiple bosses and no clear chain of command. On several occasions in the book Bush gave direct orders that were ignored (it seems that his subordinates have very little respect for him). Bremer acted as if he reported directly to Bush, but Bush said he reported to Rumsfeld. At one time Rumsfeld declares that Bremer reports to him and at another time Rumsfeld says that Bremer reports to Rice. Some of this stuff is just big government bureaucracy, but there are giant gaffes like having a theater of war that had two supreme commanders. Even Condoleeza Rice calls the government "dysfunctional".

Don't get me wrong. I learned a lot from the book and I enjoyed reading it. But when I was finished I had to give my head a shake to correct some misimpressions of Bush and his White House. That's not the way it should work.


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