The Magazine

The Woodward Way of War

It's not who wins, it's how you make the decisions.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By PETER WEHNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Bob Woodward has written his fourth book in six years on the Bush presidency. They have ranged from fairly glowing (Bush at War) to excoriating (State of Denial). The latest, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, while less harsh on Bush than State of Denial, is still plenty critical.

Based on interviews with more than 150 people, including nearly three hours of interviews with the president himself, the book features details from key meetings and secret memoranda, the sometimes candid and often self-flattering thoughts of many of the key actors in the Iraq war, and describes the heated debates and dissents within the administration during the period when President Bush embraced a new strategy in Iraq, "the surge."

The picture Woodward paints isn't pretty, and his judgment is harsh. In his epilogue, for example, Woodward writes that too often Bush "failed to lead" and states, "The president rarely was the voice of realism on the Iraq War." In his promotional interviews, Woodward is at least as critical of Bush as he is in his book, portraying him as detached and out of touch, his administration as dysfunctional, and his presidency as essentially a failure.

Students of the Iraq war will find this book well worth reading, but for reasons Woodward probably didn't intend. The War Within reveals something important about key figures in the Washington drama of the past two years.

BOB WOODWARD: In making his judgment about the president during this period, Woodward has focused almost exclusively on the process rather than the outcome of Bush's decision. The author himself admits that the book is "really about a second front in Washington, where the military, the State Department, intelligence people and the White House could not reach agreement."

In an hour-long interview with Larry King, Woodward uttered only a single (and somewhat peculiar) sentence on the subject of the surge and its success:

[Bush] made a decision that has led us to a much better condition, and if you are of the Karl Rove view of politics and life in America, which is everything gets measured by outcomes, you could look at this and say it's a positive.

I'm not sure what the Karl Rove reference means. I think it would strike millions of Americans, including those who disagree with Rove politically, as right and appropriate to measure decisions by their outcome. We do that when it comes to judging presidents, generals, doctors, coaches, and almost everyone else in life. It is, for most of us, the acid test of a leader.

That appears not to be the case for Woodward. He is overwhelmingly, almost obsessively, concerned about process. Who was driving it (Bush or his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley)? Which meetings did or did not the president attend? Did the "right" amount of communication take place between the civilian leadership and the military?

Process matters and it can influence outcomes, but results matter much more. One cannot help feeling that Woodward would have been more favorably disposed toward the president if a tidy, consensus-driven, bipartisan process had led to a bad outcome (hasty withdrawal from Iraq) rather than a messy process and an unpopular decision leading to a good outcome (the quelling of violence in Iraq).

On the matter of the surge, Woodward downplays its importance. He argues that the enormous drop in violence in Iraq is owed mainly to other factors (the Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda in Iraq and the ceasefire with Moktada al-Sadr), and even to luck (a top-secret operation targeting terrorist leaders came online, he claims, at the same time the surge was being executed).

What Woodward misses, I think, is that the surge reinforced every good thing that has happened in Iraq. All the other actors-the Sunnis in Anbar, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Sadr and his minions, the government in Baghdad, Iraq's neighbors-had to factor the staying power and reinforcment of the U.S.-led coalition into their calculations. It enabled everything else to take place. Yet you would never figure that out reading The War Within.

PRESIDENT BUSH: One comes away from Woodward's account reminded of the phalanx of opposition the president faced in pushing for the surge- from his secretaries of defense and state, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq (General George W. Casey Jr.), the commander of U.S. Central Command (John P. Abizaid), the Iraq Study Group, and almost the entire political and foreign policy establishment.