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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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."