Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward. Pub: Simon & Schuster, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: 2004. Pp: 467. Hbk: $28.00 / £19.00.
It has long been widely recognised that leading officials of the Bush administration were determined to invade Iraq even before they came to office. But only a privileged few were aware of the details of the process by which the neo-conservatives dominating the White House took their country to war. In Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward describes how the US’s decision to attack Iraq developed progressively, from a sort of a psychopathic fixation on toppling Saddam Hussain into a full military occupation.
With his meticulously reconstructed accounts of the myriad secret meetings that were held on the road to war, Woodward (the investigative reporter who became famous for his exposure of the Watergate scandal) takes the reader into the inner chambers of US policymaking and inside the minds of key Washington power-brokers. Only someone like Woodward, with his unrivalled access to high-level officials involved in the decision-making process, could have achieved this.
The narrative threads Woodward weaves into his account come largely from interviews with “75 key people directly involved in the events,” including cabinet-level officials and their deputies, top military officers, and intelligence operatives. The interviews were given “on background”, meaning that the author could use the information without revealing his sources. However, President George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, his secretary of defence, were interviewed “on the record” for the purposes of the book. In addition, Woodward had access to a wealth of other primary sources “including personal notes, calendars, chronologies, official and unofficial records, phone transcripts and memos.”
Woodward begin with Bush asking Rumsfeld, on November 21, 2001, “just 72 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” about the Defense Department’s plans for war against Iraq. Learning that the Iraq war plan was not “current,” Bush instructs Rumsfeld to “get started on this” and asks that “this be done on the basis that would not be terribly noticeable” (pp. 1-2). From this point onwards, Woodward sets out to inform us of an extraordinary series of meetings in various key US decision-making bodies, including the White House, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the US Army’s Central Command in Florida, tracing the march to war in Iraq mainly through the development of war planning, both militarily and diplomatically, over sixteen months.
In the process, Woodward also exposes rare details of another open secret of the Bush White House: the internecine quarrels, squabbling and in-fighting between the ‘hawkish’ camp, led by vice president Dick Cheney, “who harbored a deep sense of unfinished business about Iraq” (p. 9), Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, among others, on the one side, and the ‘dovish’ camp, led by secretary of state Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, his deputy, on the other. The debate was not about whether Saddam should be toppled but how and when. “The vice president was hell-bent for action against Saddam,” Woodward writes. “It was as if nothing else existed” (p. 175). However, “Powell and Armitage wanted to do it later and in a way that would preserve the anti-Saddam international coalition that had supported the 1991 Gulf War” (p. 39).
But Powell’s problems were not limited to his “sharp and biting” differences with Cheney and company (p. 175). More serious for the secretary of state seems to have been his lack of personal bonding and camaraderie with Bush. “After nearly a year as secretary of state,” Woodward writes, “he had not achieved a personal relationship with President Bush. They were uncomfortable with each other. A sense of competition hovered in the background of the relationship, a high-voltage pulse nearly always present.” This led Powell to often feel being “frozen out by the White House” (p. 79).
Another major thread running through Woodward’s narrative relates to the use of weak intelligence on Iraq’s conjectured arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. The warped and perverse logic employed by the ‘hawks’ to misinterpret fragmentary and scanty evidence to ‘prove’ that Saddam had WMD is frankly incredible. The reasoning was that since Saddam had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, it was safe to infer that he still possessed them. Otherwise, as Cheney argued, “Why in the world would he [Saddam] subject himself for all those years to U.N. sanctions and forgo an estimated $100 billion in oil revenue? It makes no sense.” (p. 298). This spurious and doctrinaire, guilty-by-association reasoning became a substitute for real evidence. Woodward indicates that this reality had dawned on the secretary of state: “Powell thought that Cheney took intelligence and converted uncertainty and ambiguity into fact” (p. 292).
Woodward also recounts a presidential briefing on December 21, 2001, in which the CIA presented its case on weapons of mass destruction. “The presentation was a flop,” and a sceptical Bush turned to George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence at the time, and asked: “I’ve been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we’ve got?” The DCI, a devoted basketball fan, assured him: “It’s a slam dunk case!” (pp. 247-250). This was the remark that cost Tenet his job; he was forced to resign after months of post-war searches failed to find any evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Still further damaging information in this regard comes from a meeting on September 6, 2002, in which General Tommy Franks, commander of the US Army’s Central Command, and Rumsfeld briefed Bush and the US National Security Council on the most recent war planning. During the meeting, Franks addresses Bush saying: “Mr. President, we’ve been looking for Scud missiles and other weapons of mass destruction for ten years and haven’t found any yet, so I can’t tell you that I know that there are any specific weapons anywhere.” (p. 173). Woodward comments: “But it could, and should, have been a warning that if the intelligence was not good enough to make bombing decisions, it probably was not good enough to make the broad assertion, in public or in formal intelligence documents, that there was ‘no doubt’ Saddam had WMD. If there was no doubt, then precisely where were they?” (p. 173).
Some of the revelations in Woodward’s book are about the CIA operation set up in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in July 2002 and the millions of dollars it distributed there. One CIA operative provides colourful, and sometimes even lurid, details of how a four-man-strong CIA team succeeded in recruiting an extensive network of Iraqi spies, nicknamed ‘rockstars’. The network comprised eighty-seven Iraqi agents who were equipped with satellite phones to enable them to communicate with the CIA base in northern Iraq. It was intelligence from an agent in this network that led to the attack on Dora Farms in southern Baghdad on March 19, 2003, just one day before the start of the war, with the aim of ‘decapitating’ Saddam’s regimeby killing Saddam and both his sons.
The book also offers insights on the special relationship between the House of Bush and the House of Saud. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the kingdom’s ambassador to Washington, was not only granted extraordinary and frequent access to the President, but is also given an early notification of the start of war, even before senior officials such as Powell. The Saudis were apparently favoured because of the impact their oil policies could have on the global oil market. “According to Bandar, the Saudis hoped to fine-tune oil prices over 10 months to prime the economy for 2004. What was key, Bandar knew, were the economic conditions before a presidential election, not at the moment of the election” (p. 324).
Plan of Attack is undoubtedly strong on details, including the bizarre, such as an account of a Pentagon briefing in January 2001, at which an uninterested and distracted president-elect Bush behaved like a spoiled child, eyeing and eating other people’s peppermints. He walked into the meeting room of the joint chiefs of staff “flapping his arms slightly, cocky but seeming also ill at ease” (pp. 10-11).
Yet despite all this meticulous attention to detail, one cannot but be surprised at Woodward’s inclination to be non-judgmental and uncritical. It is true that the facts presented are compelling enough. Nevertheless, his aversion to providing an overall analysis of the events deprives the book of a framework that could provide an overarching analytic theme binding the material together. He also avoids exploring the ideological, intellectual and political roots of the Bush administration’s frenzied policies.
However, Plan of Attack makes fascinating and useful reading. It pries loose some of the secrets of Washington’s power-brokers. It provides not only a record of the Bush administration’s drive to war but also insights into the thinking and conduct of the neo-conservatives dominating the Bush regime. But Bush’s recent re-election makes the book harrowing and distressing reading. One cannot but anticipate with anguish and dread what the future might hold for various countries and peoples while Bush is at the helm of power in Washington for a second term. The welter of arrogance, deceit, lies, contorted logic and one-upmanship that Woodward exposes in this book cannot but send a chill down the spines of us all as we prepare ourselves to endure four more years of Imperial America’s being in the hands of such a dangerous, reckless cabal. Who knows what other idées fixées will drive them to mislead their people, and the world, and take them to other adventurous wars?