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.