Woodward's Surprising Portrayal of Bush

With fear and trembling, Republicans had been awaiting the Big Event: Bob Woodward’s version of how the President led us into war with Iraq. Woodward’s appearance on “60 Minutes,” as embellished by Mike Wallace, only confirmed their worst anxieties: Woodward’s book, certain to be a best seller, would make George Bush resemble a reckless cowboy.

But Plan of Attack is almost a pleasant surprise. For, read carefully, it portrays the President as a forceful, intelligent and prudent leader, who took the country to war only after he had exhausted all other options to make Saddam Hussein disarm and comply with the United Nations resolutions he was consistently breaking. Saddam–even the U.N.’s Hans Blix agreed–was refusing meaningful cooperation on a wide range of military issues, not just the WMD controversy, right up until the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

As Woodward depicts Bush, he is clearly his own man, controlled by neither Cheney or Rice or Rumsfeld or Powell or Hughes or the neoconservative hawks who dot the administration. He takes and rejects advice from all, using each of these very smart, very capable men and women with enormous skill.

There were plenty of hardliners pushing for war regardless of what the intelligence showed, Woodward suggests, but Bush did not decide to raise the balloon until he had convincing evidence from the intelligence community that Saddam did, indeed, have plenty of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The man he relied on most of all was the man the American people expected him to rely on, the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet.

It was Tenet’s considered conclusions–not advice from the more hawkish members of the administration–that drove the process. In February 2002, Tenet informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that “Iraq continues to build and expand an infrastructure capable of producing WMD,” that it “maintains an active and capable BW [biological weapons] program” and that Saddam “never abandoned his nuclear weapons program.”

In October, Tenet chaired the board that released the National Intelligence Estimate consensus on Iraq’s WMD programs. The verdict: “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons,” “[a]ll key aspects” of Saddam’s “offensive BW program are active” and Saddam is “likely” to obtain a nuclear weapon before the end of the decade, but “within a year,” as the NIE states (and Woodward oddly omits), if Baghdad obtains “sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad.”

Woodward then sets the scene for the crucial Dec. 21, 2002, WMD presentation by Tenet and John McLaughlin, the DCI deputy, to the President. With a series of flip charts, McLaughlin showed that Saddam–with near certainty–had lethal chemical and biological weapons, mobile biological weapons production facilities and missiles with ranges far in excess of U.N. ceilings. He was, moreover, thought to be aggressively pursuing such WMD programs.

Bush was not overwhelmed. “Nice try,” he said, but it’s not good enough to convince “Joe Public.” Turning to Tenet, Bush posed a critical question: “I’ve been told all this intelligence about having WMD, and this is the best we’ve got?” Tenet then weighed in with perhaps the most momentous pronouncement of his career: “It’s a slam dunk case!” he enthusiastically informed the President. Wary, Bush pressed the DCI again: “George, how confident are you?” Tenet repeated: “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk.”

Tenet had sold the President, but Bush was not entirely happy. He informed Andy Card and Condoleezza Rice, each of whom had attended the briefing, “Needs a lot more work” and he warned Tenet several times: “Make sure no one stretches to make our case.”

All this should be reassuring to conservatives who fear the President may have lightly launched us into conflict. Woodward’s account suggests the opposite, though it is clear that even before 9/11 Bush viewed Saddam as a clear and present danger who sooner or later had to be confronted. But a full-scale invasion might never have been waged if Tenet hadn’t uttered his now famous phrase.

Bush had decided a Tenet-grounded case against Iraq should be made before the United Nations and the President personally requested Secretary of State Colin Powell to take on the burden. Powell would have maximum credibility, since everyone knew he was a reluctant warrior.

In preparing his case, Powell descended upon the CIA in Mclean, Va., spending four difficult days sifting through the intelligence, sometimes with his deputy, Richard Armitage. Powell also worked closely with Tenet. After the final rehearsal in Washington, Tenet, according to Woodward, “announced that he thought their case was ironclad and he believed they had vetted each sentence.” Powell then told Tenet that he had another task to perform: the CIA director would have to sit behind him at the UN, a visible sign that he was backing the secretary of state’s findings.

Thus, contrary to what some have implied, Powell and the President were not relying on inflated neoconservative accusations or Cheney’s more dramatic assumptions about Saddam’s capabilities. To convince “Joe Public,” they were relying solely on the facts as assembled and vetted by the CIA and its director. Powell’s more limited case–not the more potent stuff brandished by aides to Rice and Cheney–proved strong enough.

Powell’s presentation persuaded Americans and much of the world that Saddam had a biological and chemical arsenal, a growing nuclear capability and a safe spot for Al-Qaeda affiliates in Baghdad. Even ultra-liberal Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, succumbed, writing: “I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince.”

The President, as Woodward’s account reveals, acted in good faith, even if the WMD the intelligence community believed Iraq possessed can never be found. Nor was the Bush Administration alone in believing that Saddam either had or was on the verge of possessing a major WMD capability.

Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, appearing on the Sept. 21, 2003, edition of “Meet the Press,” remained certain that Iraq had stockpiled these terrible weapons. “But what worries me most now,” she said, is “where is it [WMD], and could it be in the hands of terrorists?” Regarding those mobile labs, a key part of Powell’s presentation (and now called into question), Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak insisted to Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States: “Our intelligence has confirmed there are mobile labs for biological weapons.”

Kenneth Pollack, who served on President Clinton’s National Security Council, wrote in the Jan-February 2004 Atlantic Monthly: “In the late spring of 2002, I participated in a Washington meeting about Iraqi WMD. Those present included nearly 20 former inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the force established in 1991 to oversee the elimination of WMD in Iraq.

“One of the senior people put a question to the group. Did anyone in the room doubt that Iraq was currently operating a secret centrifuge plant? No one did. Three people added that they believed Iraq was also operating a secret calutron plant (a facility for separating uranium isotopes).

“. . .Israel, Russia, Britain, China and even France held positions similar to that of the United States. France’s President Jacques Chirac told Time magazine last February: ‘There is a problem–the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right. . . in having decided Iraq should be disarmed.'”

And that’s why George Bush led this country to war.