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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Bush at War

By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 376 pp, 2002

This is the first Woodward book I've read, not because I have anything against Bob Woodward. This is the first book he's written that's looked interesting, though you can note that I've taken my time reading since it came out last year. And no, I did not buy it - I've said before how I so love the library.

This book is about President Dubya and the first 100 days after September 11, 2001. It chronicles the goings-on of the President and his inner circle of advisers: Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfield, CIA Director Tenet, and National Security Adviser Rice. How did they react to 9-11? What was their advice to the President? Did they all agree with each other? 

Woodward answers those questions and more, and reveals some interesting tidbits. For example, President Clinton never authorized a hit on bin Laden because he believed it violate the legal ban on assassination. I'm not so sure - I thought that applied only to heads of state. But Woodward makes it pretty obvious that Clinton was never very serious about arresting or killing bin Laden.

On the other hand, neither was Dubya until after 9-11. He knew bin Laden and al-Queda were problems, but it took 9-11 to do something about them. "We're at war," Bush told Cheney on 9-11, then said to his staff, "That's what we're paid for, boys. We're going to take care of this. And when we find out who did this, they're not going to like me as president. Somebody is going to pay." You'd think that al-Queda hitting the U.S.S. Cole and bombing our embassies in Africa would have made Clinton realize this, and Dubya before 9-11, but it didn't.

So he and his staff got together and hashed out the war strategy that unfolded in Afghanistan. It was largely Tenet's plan - he and his aides proposed using the Northern Alliance to take out the Taliban while Special Forces directed air attacks and hunted down bin Laden. The CIA had been paying a group of Afghans to track bin Laden's movements, which they were very good at, and even offered at times to take bin Laden out. But Clinton wouldn't authorize it. Thanks a lot, Slick Willie, your legacy lives on.

The book's real value lies in describing the relationships between the advisers. Powell rarely agreed with Rumsfield and Cheney - ever the reluctant warrior, he considered overly aggressive and too dismissive of building a coalition. Rumsfield and Tenet sometime clashed, especially when Rumsfield felt that CIA was directing the entire war. Rice was the referee who kept everyone talking and the president informed on the mood and opinions of the advisers. For example, two weeks into the bombing, many were discouraged by the lack of progress in achieving the objective: destroying al-Queda and taking out the Taliban. Rice sensed this and told Dubya, who the next day rallied his troops by telling them he believed in the plan, it was a good plan, and they should stick with. Powell and Tenet were encouraged, because they knew that Dubya was really conveying his belief in them.

Dubya's thinking and management style are also interesting. He handles his staff well, by letting them all speak their piece and constantly challenging them for new ideas and new solutions. He considers himself almost an instigator, spurring argument and discussion. I think he values Powell because he does often disagree with Rumsfield and Cheney, giving Dubya an important second opinion.

Woodward is very good at keeping his own opinion out of this book. This is straight, no-frills reporting - who said what to who and when. Nowhere do we know what the author thought of anything that was going on. It's one of the strong points of the book.

One last point. This book should dispel the notion that Dubya is a moron or that Cheney is secretly in charge. Dubya is in charge, folks - he makes the decisions, and he doesn't duck or evade the responsibility. Cheney is just another adviser among many. Dubya is also shrewd and clever when dealing with foreign allies. This is not a man to be messed with, and no one should underestimate him.

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