I generally avoid national bestselling political books that are just consolidated accounts of the political soap operas that go on in our nation's capital, designed to make more buzz and more money for the journalists or whistle-blowers or former aides that happened to keep really good notes during the experience. But once in a while there are some pretty compelling publications that appear in that genre, and I can't help but dive in. Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack certainly emerges as an example of a page-turner for anyone interested in national politics, the executive branch's decision making process, and especially how the U.S. ended up invading Iraq.
The 443 pages are a fairly quick read that cover the beginnings of George W. Bush's presidency up through the state of affairs as of late 2004 (which, unfortunately, haven't changed much almost a year later). I personally find you can't really talk how we got where we are without looking a little farther back to our history with Saddam Hussein (as Frontline's "The Long Road to War" did excellently), and while Woodward definitely gives some back story on how modern day players have tied in all along (especially Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz), the detailed history is beyond the scope of his narrative.
What he does cover is an astonishing amount of detail from seemingly every major conversation amongst the key players in taking the U.S. to war against Iraq. From President Bush to his top advisors to his cabinet to their subordinates, and from the top levels of the CIA down to the special ops agents working covertly in Iraq well before the war started. Frankly, the book reads like a Tom Clancy novel, and it's sort of simultaneously horrifying and exhilarating that real life has come to imitate that particular genre so closely. The account isn't just about the action and it tends not to glorify war or violence, though it does end up giving a fairly dramatic glimpse into issues of war machinery, troop deployment, military strategy, etc. and does so without pausing too long to reflect on the death that comes with them. But Woodward also lingers significantly on the words that were used by the key players, the thoughts on their minds, the happenings in their lives that affect their decisions. He wants us to be a "fly on the wall" to witness the simple utterances that trigger billions of dollars being spent, hundreds of thousands of lives being affected, and major events that will shape politics and international relations for years to come.
Though I sneered above that many of these kinds of books are just consolidations of newspaper articles, interviews, and personal recollections, this is a case where the consolidation is the heart of the story. To see all of the statements that were made, internally and publicly, about Iraq, Saddam, war, and U.S. and international foreign policy, and to weigh them not only chronologically, but in the context of the impact they had years down the road, is amazing. There were plenty of jaw-dropping moments where I couldn't really believe it was admitted that someone said said what they did, but more interesting (and often disturbing) was the smooth and steady manipulation by these folks of the press, the public, and each other to achieve their agendas. Perhaps it has just become accepted as the norm and I am naive, but I was consistently surprised by the amount of deception by the administration about how early it had been committed to a plan for war in Iraq, despite its public statements about commitment to diplomacy. This is probably one of the most important themes that the book documents: Bush & Co. advertised two possible paths in its interactions with Iraq, but they only ever walked seriously down one of them. And so many could read Woodward's account as a definitive illustration that we went to war for war's sake, a horrifying thought in itself.
I was going to say that I found the book lacked attention to the role that public protest played in the lead up to the war, but then I realized that the book perfectly reflects the impact of the protests on the plans for attack: almost none at all. Despite the massive and unprecedented international mobilization of those who opposed invading Iraq, the heads of state with the decision making power essentially ignored and avoided their pleas. When the protests came to their doorsteps, they gave vague or nonsensical responses, left town, and scheduled summits on remote islands. This point stuck with me throughout: the people making and enforcing the policies of our countries can take us to war without pausing for one moment to consider the opposing viewpoints of some major chunk of the population. Unless someone is "in the room" with the key players advocating those opposing viewpoints, they are essentially background noise. As Woodward recounted Bush saying to Blair, "We lead our publics. We cannot follow our publics" (p. 296).
Ever rising since his Watergate-exposing fame of the Nixon era, Bob Woodward is one of those self-propagating phenomena in a world where the message coming out of DC institutions is controlled so tightly and only a chosen few are trusted to have a few moments alone with the "people who matter." Woodward's popularity has led to credibility, and credibility gets him in the door, and he cashes that back out into more popularity. In this case it got him hours of interviews with President Bush, and the trust of more than 70 sources, some apparently deep in the administration with access to (and a willingness to share details of) very classified information.
One has to wonder what that kind of deep penetration does to any sense of inner turmoil about how he portrays those he writes about. In Plan of Attack, there was certainly little overt favoritism (other than a recurring expansion on Colin Powell's personal struggles in particular) and I credit Woodward for weaving together the thoughts and recollections of so many players into something that wasn't completely lacking a consistent voice. But in finding this balance, he may have glossed over some of the abstract qualities and values of those players that often had as much to do with U.S. military action in Iraq as their words or stated policies. He mostly leaves it up to the reader to decide, which is probably preferable given the contentious nature of the topics he covers.
But if I got to sit down with Woodward himself, I wouldn't be able to resist asking him for his own conclusions: did these people really believe they were doing the right thing for the U.S., Iraq, and the world, or were they blinded by politics, ambition, and bureaucracy, and propelled by a decision-making process that had no room for peaceful resolution? Plan of Attack is a great read, but leaves one shaking ones head at the complexity of our world, the people ostensibly running it, and how we don't find ourselves in even worse shape when the Plans are formulated as they are.