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Bob Woodward's new book on Bush's "war against terror"
White House whitewash

December 13, 2002 | Page 11

JOURNALIST BOB Woodward's Bush at War is supposed to be the insider account of what really happened in the White House after September 11. But as LANCE SELFA explains, the book is packed with myths and shameless flattery--what administration hacks want us to think about Bush.

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IT'S TOO bad you have to slog through 352 excruciatingly dull pages before you get to the "money quote" in Bob Woodward's Bush at War.

The book closes with a description of U.S. Special Forces and CIA paramilitary troops in occupied Afghanistan dedicating a makeshift monument to the victims of the September 11 attacks. After reading a prayer, a U.S. operative "consecrates" the monument with these words: "We will export death and violence to the four corners of the Earth in defense of our great nation." These words remind readers of what's really going on in Bush at War.

The book claims to be a behind-the-scenes account of how George W. Bush and his top advisers reacted to the September 11 attacks, focusing mainly on war in Afghanistan. But wrapped inside that package is the administration's latest attempt to lionize its leaders and justify its war on the world--with the collaboration of one of the country's best-known journalists.

Bush at War is tightly focused on meetings between administration heavies--Bush, Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and CIA Director George Tenet--and their underlings. That crowds out any critical assessment of the White House.

We read a few things that anyone who kept an eye on the news during the last 18 months would probably have known already--that the CIA bought mass defections from the pro-Taliban Afghan militias with suitcases of cash, or that Bush and his team worried that the war in Afghanistan wasn't progressing as quickly as they wanted it to.

The media establishment's misleading conventional wisdom about the Bush White House appears everywhere: hawks Rumsfeld and Cheney battling it out with the more reasonable Powell; Rice acting as Bush's alter ego; Bush embodying the aspirations of ordinary Americans.

Some of the reconstructed insider accounts sound like the script from a bad made-for-TV movie--as when Bush reacts to warnings that terrorists might be planning another attack on Washington: "'Those bastards are going to find me exactly here,' the president said. 'And if they get me, they're going to get me right here.'"

"'Whoa!' Rice thought. 'This isn't about you,' Cheney told the president. 'This is about our Constitution.' He was focused on their responsibility to ensure continuity of government if something happened to Bush. 'And that's why I'm going to a secure, undisclosed location,' he said."

The anecdotes in Bush at War bring to mind the old joke about the two government-controlled newspapers in the former USSR, Izvestia ("News") and Pravda ("Truth")--what's news isn't true, and what's true isn't news.

Woodward's picture of his central character--Bush--is as flattering as it could be. In the world according to Woodward, Bush never stumbles over his sentences. He comes off as a master geo-strategist and visionary leader.

Think the "war on terrorism" is about punishing "evildoers" or seizing Iraqi oil reserves? Woodward's Bush would never stoop to such trivial matters. "'I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals,' Bush tells Woodward. 'There is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace.'"

Naturally, the Christian president is always looking out for his fellow man--even when he's bombing him. "'I was sensitive to this [accusation], that this was a religious war, and that somehow the United States would be the conqueror,' Bush confesses to Woodward. 'And I wanted us to be viewed as the liberator [of Afghanistan]…We've got to deal with suffering.'"

Besides boosting the image of a can-do administration determined to remake the world, Bush at War seems calculated to erase any doubts about the "war on terrorism," or the people conducting it.

You wouldn't know from this book that by spring 2002, the administration was on the hot seat, doing its best to bury evidence that it had ignored numerous warnings about the September 11 attacks.

The closest Woodward comes to acknowledging this comes in a description of Tenet's first briefing of Bush, Cheney and Rice. Tenet outlines three major challenges for the incoming administration: Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the rise of China as a power in Asia.

An administration fixated on China and pushing for a "missile defense" system didn't assign a high priority to bin Laden. "The question that would always linger was whether they had moved fast enough on a threat that had been identified by the CIA as one of the top three facing the country, whether September 11 was as much a failure of policy as it was of intelligence," Woodward writes. But that's as much as Woodward has to say about this question.

How they exploited a tragedy

ONE POINT comes through loud and clear in Bush at War. Bush and the hawks running his foreign policy viewed the September 11 attacks as an opportunity to fulfill their wildest dreams of expanding U.S. power around the world.

Only hours after the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz were baying for a war against Iraq. At a National Security Council meeting held at Camp David the weekend after September 11, Wolfowitz urged Bush to attack Iraq rather than Afghanistan. "The terrorist attacks September 11 gave the U.S. a new window to go after Hussein…[Wolfowitz] estimated that there was a 10 to 50 percent chance Saddam was involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks."

Every time Bush's advisers worried about sinking into a quagmire in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld suggested extending the "war on terrorism" to another country--from the Philippines to Yemen. In the end, Bush and his advisers decide to put off the Iraq war until after Afghanistan.

The administration "moderates"--Powell and Rice--never really disagreed with the idea of going after Iraq. To them, it was a matter of timing--and lining up the necessary United Nations cover.

If Bush's bluster in his final interview with Woodward--conducted last August as the administration was ramping up its anti-Iraq rhetoric--is any tip-off, the war in Iraq is the first of many more to come. "I loathe Kim Jong Il!" Bush shouts at Woodward. "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people. And I feel that way about the people of Iraq, by the way," Bush adds.

After witnessing this outburst, Woodward assures us: "[Bush's] vision clearly includes an ambitious reordering of the world through preemptive and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace." The White House couldn't have written it better.

Worthless as history or journalism, Bush at War serves no purpose other than to propagandize for its hero's plans to "export death and violence" around the world.

A professional flatterer

BUSH AT War is the latest in a long string of embarrassments for Bob Woodward. His career as a journalist peaked in the mid-1970s when his reporting helped expose the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon.

Since then, though, Woodward has become a despicable toady to those who hold power in Washington. His best-selling "insider" books about presidents and policymakers never fail to make his subjects look good.

Medieval princes retained court painters to make flattering portraits of themselves. Today's Washington insiders just have to grant "access" to Woodward.

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