Bob Woodward should need no introduction to the politically aware. One of the enterprising Washington Post reporters who sprung the Watergate scandal and destroyed a President, he has gone on to compose, with help, eight nonfiction best sellers. He achieves surprisingly frank interviews with major national figures and weaves the results into persuasive accounts of a federal institution in a time of crisis. He is a journalist, not a historian, nor a policy analyst. He tells a reader what he thinks happened and does not judge.
In preparing Bush at War, Woodward met individually with the President’s war cabinet, their deputies, and with other important personnel to discuss their response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The first 311 pages cover the Afghanistan war, from September 11 to November 12, 2001—only two months, from the moments when the principals are informed of the attack, to the day when the Taliban Afghan government is seen to fully unravel. This meeting-by-meeting, report-by-report, account is followed by a forty-one page Epilogue that ties up loose ends, covers arguments on carrying the war on terror to Iraq, and finishes with Woodward’s final dialogue with President Bush on August 20, 2002.
It is a terrific account, for which we voters as well as future historians should bless Woodward. It tells us a lot about the powerful national security team Bush employs as well as about the President himself. Perhaps it records the birth of an unapologetic American imperialism, of an extended attempt by the U.S. and an activist president to reorder the world.
Director George Tenet and his CIA fought and won the Afghan war, with the endgame assist of the Air Force. President Clinton’s funding and years of covert work during the Soviet incursions into Afghanistan paid off in experienced CIA staff and associations with tribal warlords, particularly in the north. Since there was an unspoken decision not to deploy American troops—until the threat of a “quagmire” in late October made the cabinet scurry for options—“the tribals” would do the bulk of the ground fighting. Tenet and his paramilitary teams spent seventy million dollars suborning, bribing, and equipping Afghan leaders. Then heavy aircraft carpet-bombed holes in the Taliban defenses around Mazar–e Sharif. The Northern Alliance, reinforced by defectors, poured through. After that, Special Service teams from the Defense Department spread throughout the country to designate targets for bombers. The opposition couldn’t gather in any number.
Tenet and his people appear impressive. Rumsfield and the Defense Department do not. They had no war plan and only facilitated the emplacement of special forces and Ranger laser designation teams late in the conflict. On Woodward’s pages, no leader even whispered the idea of a Wehrmacht, Crete-like aerial descent on the oasis city of Kandahar (Taliban Central), which is only a hundred and fifty miles on a desert road from Quetta in Pakistan, with rail and paved highway access to the port of Karachi. What happened to American military boldness? That timidity probably prevented us from capturing Mullah Omar and al Qaeda leaders. The lack of US troops in the south, may have let Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora.
Of course the absence of American “boots on the ground” also prevented US military casualties.
Colin Powell comes off very well. He fought the ideologues Cheney and Rumsfeld and held the coalition together, deferred discussion of a second front in Iraq, and established a post- Taliban regime despite the anti-nation building reflexes of his associates. And, near the end he forced concentration on Mazar-e Sharif. He won most of his battles, even though President Bush was instinctively with the others. Often “in the icebox,” as he called it, Powell appears to have been the essential balance wheel of the group.
The character George W. Bush revealed and what we can forecast from that of his possible future actions is our number one interest. He told Woodward he believes in his instincts, is a gut player, and never has any doubts. In the Afghanistan conflict, he forced the pace, made the right choices even if they went against his prior rhetoric, and kept the country together. In sum, he was an effective leader.
But what of the future? Since President Bush has declared war on terror, not just on al Qaeda, one can assume he will direct his “hurrying” elsewhere. He has fixed his eyes on Iraq. Will North Korea or Iran be next? In the Epilogue, Woodward says about Bush, “His vision clearly includes an ambitious reordering of the world through preemptive and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace.” Will the Powell calming persist; will the president learn the wisdom that creates statesmanship? Will George W. Bush be seen by historians as a great president, a softly speaking Teddy Roosevelt who carried a bigger stick, or will he be seen as the cowboy the Europeans now call him, a figure with horse-killing spurs?
He is likely to have six more years in office, so we’ll find out.