The media has played a major role in turning around American sentiment and Woodward is playing a major role in that turnaround. Of course, had the media done more, such a regime of denial would not have lasted as long as it did
Speaking to a sold-out crowd of 1,200 at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco, Bob Woodward thrashed George Bush’s war presidency. Woodward rose to fame with his expose of the Watergate wiretapping scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. His book, “All the President’s Men”, became a national bestseller and was followed by nine other best sellers.
His two earlier evaluations of the Bush presidency, “Bush at War” and “Plan of Attack”, were couched in a sympathetic tone with sections bordering on hagiography. His third, “State of Denial”, has a hard edge to it. It draws on interviews with senior members of the Bush administration, including Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, and on a reading of numerous wartime diaries and memos.
Not surprisingly, this book has gotten a cold reception at the White House. Perhaps anticipating its final message, neither the president nor the vice president agreed to be interviewed for it, even though they had agreed to be interviewed for the two prior ones.
The book reveals the picture of a dysfunctional presidency. Woodward has confirmed what many had long suspected, that the Bush administration knowingly went to war on false pretences. It knew that Iraq had no connection with the events of 9/11 and that Saddam did not possess weapons of mass destruction. It knew he posed no threat to his neighbours, let alone to the region and least of all to the United States. They went to war hoping to make Iraq the poster child of democracy in the Middle East.
Today, Woodward argues, senior people in the administration know that the war in Iraq is not going well but they won’t admit it. Their denial is political, not real. He said the administration’s plans for the war were fatally optimistic with Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defence, believing that the war would only last seven days.
Its post-war plans were marked by naiveté. Woodward cites charges levelled by General Jay Garner, the first American proconsul in Iraq, against his successor, Paul Bremer. Garner says that Bremer committed a double blunder by disbanding the Iraqi army and civil service and was sufficiently incensed by these mistakes that he raised them with Rumsfeld. As usual, Rumsfeld was dismissive, saying that the decisions had already been made and could not be reversed. Discouraged by this encounter, Garner did not bother to raise the issue with Bush.
Since “Denial” was published, events in Iraq have deteriorated. Woodward cited numerous emails from American soldiers that convey a tone of despair. In one email, a soldier says that his job is to go out on patrol with his platoon so that he can be blown up.
After his speech, Woodward took questions from the audience. Not a single person argued in favour of the Bush presidency. In fact, some felt that Woodward had not sufficiently critiqued the Bush presidency. One person suggested that oil was a key driver behind the invasion of Iraq. Woodward demurred, saying that oil was certainly a factor but not the major factor. Another person argued that plans for the invasion of Iraq went back to the first Gulf War, as laid out in the charter of the Project for the Next American Century. Woodward demurred once again, arguing that while several members of his administration were signatories, Bush was not. As the hour drew to a close, a person asked if it was not possible that Bush, with his increased presidential powers, would postpone the next presidential election without being questioned by either Congress or the Supreme Court. Saying that “I will let you have the final word of the evening,” Woodward closed the session to thunderous applause.
Many of the points that were brought out by Woodward corroborated points that General Anthony Zinni, former commander of CENTCOM, had made at the same forum several months earlier. The day after Woodward spoke, his points resonated with reports that more than a hundred US servicemen serving in Iraq had written to Congress, calling for a withdrawal of forces. Further amplification came from the president himself.
At a major press conference on the Iraq War, held to improve Republican prospects in the upcoming mid-term elections on November 7, Bush recognised that the public was not satisfied with the war, nor was he. He called for patience and, while dropping his ‘stay the course’ mantra, continued to assert that the war could still be won if the US does not withdraw prematurely.
Nevertheless, after conferring with his senior military commanders, Bush has laid out a 12-18 month timetable during which time the Iraqi government has to stabilise Iraq and take over responsibility for Iraqi security. While this is not the same as setting a timetable for withdrawal of American forces, it is a step in that direction.
American public opinion has turned against the war for many reasons. One is the rising death toll, not just of American lives, but of Iraqi lives. Second, there is widespread recognition among Americans that the quality of life in Iraq today is much worse than it was under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam. Earlier this year, the Senate Foreign Relations committee heard testimony that the performance of basic utility services such as electricity, water, and sewage is much below pre-invasion levels. The economy, including the oil sector, is in a shambles. The law and order situation has deteriorated to the point that the average Iraqi lives in dread of gangs, militias, criminals and fanatics who, collectively, are much more tyrannical than Saddam’s secret police.
Third, there is the economic cost of the war, which has been estimated by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, at $2 trillion. But what drives the point home is that the war has failed to improve American security. The CIA’s own assessment is that Iraq has become a ‘cause celebre’ for terrorists throughout the world. Thus, two-thirds of Americans do not support the war.
The media has played a major role in turning around American sentiment and Woodward is playing a major role in that turnaround. Of course, had the media done more, such a regime of denial would not have lasted as long as it did. Woodward conceded that he needed to do a better job and, to much laughter, he added that his request to be embedded within the National Security Council had been turned down.
Modesty is certainly a welcome attribute in a man who has won nearly every American award in journalism, including two Pulitzer Prizes.
The writer, an economist based in San Francisco, has authored “Rethinking the national security of Pakistan,” Ashgate Publishing, 2003