The Magazine

The White House at War

Woodward and Sammon on Bush as war president.

Dec 2, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 12 • By FRED BARNES
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Bush at War
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 349 pp., $28

Fighting Back
The War on Terrorism from Inside the Bush White House
by Bill Sammon
Regnery, 400 pp., $27.95

LET'S GET RIGHT to the scoreboard. The winners in Bob Woodward's account of President Bush's response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA director George Tenet, and, to a lesser extent, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley. And Bush himself, who Woodward believes figured out quickly how to be an effective commander in chief.

And the losers, those portrayed unfavorably by Woodward in "Bush at War"? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. Rumsfeld is treated as difficult and cranky and not well liked by the uniformed military. Cheney is the administration's superhawk, and Woodward takes the word of others that the vice president is obsessive about going to war with Iraq. Meanwhile, in "Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism from Inside the Bush White House," Bill Sammon renders the post-September 11 days as a one-man show. Bush is the hero, playing his public and private roles as a wartime president with skill and compassion.

Publication of any book by Woodward is a major event in the Washington political community--and not only because some top government players are boosted, others not. A question always lurks: Who talked to Woodward? The rule of thumb is that those who talk extensively and leak riveting information come off better than those who don't. Maybe, maybe not. But it's clear Woodward had, in writing "Bush at War," impressive access to the people he promotes--to Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, to Tenet and much of what his agency was doing, and to what went on in the meetings of the National Security Council, the realm of the president, Rice, and Hadley. Rumsfeld and Cheney were less helpful. Rumsfeld provided only an on-the-record interview, according to an aide. Cheney was not interviewed for the book.

There's plenty of evidence of Woodward's reporting prowess in "Bush at War"--the inside details (Bush bench presses 205 pounds), the hidden fears (Bush aide Karl Rove worries Powell is protecting his moderate credentials at Bush's expense), the private conversations ("I hope you'll never lie to me," Bush tells Senate majority leader Tom Daschle on September 12, 2001), the interior conclusions of the players (Hadley "thought" Rumsfeld didn't take the CIA seriously enough), and so on. Woodward, famed for his investigative reporting that cracked open the Watergate scandal, is the best pure reporter of his generation, perhaps ever. He uncovers more things than anyone else in journalism--important things as well as trivial, and all interesting. For example, in "The Commanders," his book about the Gulf War in 1991, Woodward revealed the strong reluctance of Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State James Baker to go to war with Iraq.

But in "Bush at War" there's a glaring omission. Woodward misses the turning point in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces. It's as though the most important scene had been left out of a movie, say, where Clark Kent turns into Superman. In Afghanistan, it was the moment when the Bush administration decided to abandon its strategy of appeasing rivals of the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban rebels, and begin carpet-bombing Taliban troops. The date was October 31, 2001, and within days Mazar-i-Sharif fell in northern Afghanistan, with the Taliban fleeing Kabul a few days later. Soon Kandahar, the Taliban headquarters, collapsed.

The author of the bombing restraint was Powell. He had Pakistan in mind, where President Pervez Musharraf was an opponent of the Northern Alliance and didn't want to see it occupy a large part of Afghanistan. Before September 11, Musharraf had backed the Taliban. So to keep Musharraf on board, American bombers had stopped short of striking massed Taliban forces, thus impeding an advance by the Northern Alliance. Not only does Woodward fail to mention Powell's role in limiting the bombing, he also doesn't cite the decision to adopt an aggressive new strategy.

THIS IS ODD because the dramatic shift was reported by William Branigin and Doug Struck on the front page of his own newspaper, the Washington Post, on November 1, 2001. "U.S. Intensifies Bombing," the headline said, and the sub-headline added, "Taliban Lines Hit After American and Alliance Generals Meet." The story said: "The intense bombing reflected a conclusion in Washington that U.S. military escalation should not be deterred by the failure to assemble a broad coalition of opponents to the Taliban inside Afghanistan, a senior administration official said. Previously, U.S. officials said that air attacks on front-line Taliban troops had been restrained in order not to favor rebels of the Northern Alliance, who are rivals of other potential members of a post-Taliban government."

Woodward notes that initially Taliban forces were off-limits to attacks in hopes they would break with al Qaeda. When they didn't, there was growing pressure to hit Taliban targets. Woodward mentions that Rumsfeld raised the question of these targets shortly after the war began on October 7, 2001. Two weeks later, he writes, the Northern Alliance wanted the Taliban front lines hit before its forces attacked. Later in October, a CIA operative in Afghanistan reported that the Taliban "had never been hit hard" and figured they could survive the American intervention. Around that time, Powell is quoted by Woodward as declaring, "I don't know that the opposition can take Mazar, much less Kabul." But Woodward fails to cite Powell's role in restraining attacks on the Taliban. Finally, Woodward writes that Cheney cited a CIA analysis to the effect the Taliban hadn't been bombed enough. "Do we need more sorties?" Cheney asks.

The answer was yes, though Woodward doesn't mention that such a decision was reached and implemented. The next thing we know it's November 5 and Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, is reporting to the National Security Council that "they were turning up the heat [and] hitting the front lines and troop concentrations of the Taliban and al Qaeda." Four days later, Army Lieutenant Tony Crawford rushes into Rice's office with the news: "Mazar has fallen." The decision to hammer the Taliban--the most critical decision in the entire war in Afghanistan--had worked. And on November 12, Woodward quotes General Richard Myers as saying that in three days the Northern Alliance had gone from controlling 15 percent of Afghanistan to holding half the country.

There's a final point about the gap in "Bush at War." Woodward mentions that on October 30, 2001, two columns appeared on the op-ed page of the Washington Post calling for the lifting of restraints on the bombing. One was by William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, the other by columnist Charles Krauthammer. Powell's diplomacy was specifically cited by Krauthammer as the source of the restraint. Two days later, a White House aide sent Krauthammer a congratulatory note along with a Post story that said a bombs-away strategy had begun. The aide should have sent the story to Woodward, too.

TWO PORTRAITS in Bush at War--of the president and Powell--stand out. Powell, while treated kindly by Woodward, seems a bit full of himself. "Powell's advisers were convinced their boss had clearly provided the margin of victory many, many times over" for Bush in the 2000 presidential race. And Powell appears to have been quite candid with Woodward in revealing his distaste for Bush's intention to take unilateral military action against Iraq if necessary. Woodward reports Powell's thinking: "Going it alone was precisely what he wanted to avoid if possible. . . . He believed the president made such statements knowing they might not withstand a second analysis. Tough talk might be necessary. But it shouldn't be confused with policy. . . . Cheney, in contrast, took Bush at his word."

As for Bush, Woodward casts him as an unusually confident commander in chief from the start. When Cheney suggests someone be assigned to run the war cabinet meetings, Bush instantly responds that he'll do that. Further, Bush knows the military must be prodded to act. He says, wisely, that his job is "to stay ahead of the moment." Bush told Woodward that one of his jobs is "to be provocative . . . to force decisions, and to make sure it's clear in everyone's mind where we're headed." And at war cabinet sessions, while others must explain themselves, he doesn't have to, Bush said. "That's the interesting thing about being president."

I DON'T MEAN to give Sammon's "Fighting Back" short shrift. Sammon, the White House correspondent for the Washington Times and a wonderful political writer, doesn't have Woodward's breadth of sources or access to CIA and State Department officials (and their leaks). But the book is highly readable and filled with telling anecdotes. Sammon returned to Florida to interview the schoolteacher in whose class Bush was sitting when he learned a second plane had flown into the World Trade Center. When Bush's session with her students was over, he took the teacher, Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell, aside and said he was sorry he couldn't deliver a planned speech at the school. As they talked, "she sensed that a transformation had taken place." She was "astonished by his heartfelt sincerity, especially since Bush hadn't had any private time to gather his wits." The point here is that Bush was calm and composed from the start of his war presidency.

One of the episodes in "Fighting Back" brings back the sorrow of September 11. When Bush landed by helicopter to visit ground zero on September 14, he walked over to greet some firefighters. "When he got to the fourth one--a big, burly guy--the president stopped in his tracks," Sammon writes. "Two enormous tears were rolling down the brute's cheeks. Bush reached up and cupped the fireman's face in his hand. The scene prompted a number of grown men to break down." It would have been hard not to.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.