Bob Woodward's fourth book about the Bush presidency at war declassifies the secrets of America's political and military involvement in Iraq. Woodward once again pulls back the curtain on Washington to reveal the inner workings of a government at war.
Woodward's portrait is well-balanced and highlights both shortcomings, such as internal debates about Iraq policy (or lack thereof) among his senior aides; to the apparent success of measures like "the surge" and "Anbar Awakening." He then turns to providing some developing impressions about Bush's possible legacy, as well as what the next president (at the time of publication it was down to McCain and Obama), and what he will inherit.
Woodward, who has authored countless acclaimed books on presidential politics, including three previous books in the "Bush at War" series, was granted unprecedented access. He also provides clear, cogent analysis of the key players and factions in Iraq- from the dubious initial role of Chalabi, to the missteps of Bremer's transitional government, to the election of Maliki as the president of Iraq. He also interestingly observes how, among the three main factions in Iraq (Sunni, Shia and Kurds), the Shia, in addition to being the most numerous, also control the lion share of the vast, rich, oil fields of southern Iraq.
Overall an excellent book by an acclaimed, award-winning author and reporter, who as many may remember, broke the Watergate story way back when along with Bernstein.
My one critique of this book is that, while the access and detailed reporting are outstanding, I was hoping for more analysis and narrative commentary from Woodward. Then again- that is not really his "shtick." If you like Woodward's other books and his columns you will love this book, but be mindful that he leaves the reader to connect a lot of the dots and draw their own conclusions from his detailed accounts of this arguably dubious era in presidential history.
As in previous books, Woodward taps into his extensive network of sources and uses his stature to gain interviews with most of the principal characters. He also has access to certain secret documents prepared and used in the administration and military during this time period. Woodward's interviews and research reveals the contentious debates within the administration, particularly between State Department, the national security advisor, and key generals and military leaders. It also reveals that the president ignored the wishes of key advisors to approve the surge.
Woodward's tone in this book oozes with disdain for the administration's approach to the issue, much like the previous volume on the Bush presidency. In particular, he is frustrated by the lack of transparency and honesty he perceives from Bush and other top officials regarding the war in Iraq. Having already attributed this, at least implicitly, to a poor decision-making structure in the administration, Woodward is a skeptical portrayer of these events. (In fairness, the military success of the surge was still very much in doubt when this book went to press.)
Ironically, despite obvious problems in the sharing of information throughout the administration, the depiction of President Bush improves in this volume, though not in Woodward's own eyes. While the president still is less curious and probably less imaginative about the military conflict in Iraq than would be ideal, he proves to be a surprisingly capable leader in this volume. By following the advice of his national security advisor, he pushes for a reevaluation of the strategy in Iraq when it becomes obvious to him that it is not working. Unlike many others who were looking for the least painful solution to leaving Iraq – in some ways mirroring strategic discussions near the end of the Vietnam War – the president believed that the war was still winnable, or at least salvageable, contrary to most people, including many on his own staff. Some might see this as desperate hope, but the ability to execute such a dramatic strategic realignment mid-war should not be underappreciated.
Despite some significant problems, including the unfortunate emotional tone, the book still features an excellent first draft of this key period in the Bush presidency. It is well-written and well researched, and offers some intriguing insights into the personalities of several of the key players, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and several of the key generals.
In The War Within Woodward portrays the Bush administration as a dysfunctional family. Each of his senior advisers is shown to be playing a separate game, the enemy is found in the other branches of government and not on the battlefield of Iraq. There is little mention of Afghanistan at all in the book.
Woodward portrays Bush as a man who is unable to grasp the implications of his own decisions, going with "his gut" and ignoring contradictory facts, having unshakable faith in his generals, until they are replaced, then having unshakable faith in his new generals. Donald Rumsfeld is shown to be so wedded to his small lean military concept that he is unable to concede the value of increasing troop strength in Iraq even as the sectarian violence grows exponentially. Condoleeza Rice is portrayed as being excluded from the decision making process.
How the "surge" came about is the central focus of the book. Woodward shows that this was an amorphous concept, basically just "lets throw a bunch more soldiers and Marines into Iraq and see what happens." It was not until after the "surge" was decided upon, when it was decided that a new commander and a new Secretary of Defense would be needed, or it wouldn't happen, that David Petraeus was chosen to lead in Iraq. Petraeus' tactic of moving US troops, with their Iraqi counterparts, into the neighborhoods of Baghdad and his willingness to accept the assistance of both Sunni and Shia militias into the defense structure were key to the success of the "surge" in reducing the level of violence in Iraq.
One has to wonder how President Obama will fare in Iraq. Can he successfully reduce the numbers of US troops to 35,000 by August 2010? The political situation in Iraq remains unsettled. The Maliki government is laughably weak. There has been no reconciliation between Sunni and Shia factions. The Kurds remain a part but apart. Iran continues to stir up trouble. Will the violence return or will the Iraqi's begin to build a civil coalition to address their own governance?
I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book!
The story of the book is simple. Bush lets generals decide, careful to avoid the bad example of Lyndon B. Johnson’s micromanagement of the Vietnam war. He assures his generals “tell me what you need, and I take care you’ll get it.” But in the end Bush becomes dissatisfied with the progress and slowly tips over to the surge solution. The tale is a horrid one about postponing decisions in a bloody and unjust war due to electoral considerations.
The supposed nefarious role of the VP in the Bush administration is nowhere to be found in this book. Bush seems to be in control with his “gut feeling only” decisions. Careful analysis and subtle operations are nowhere to be seen. Logical - because were such qualities available in the Bush administration the Iraq war never would have taken place. The absence of Cheney might be caused by something else. It’s clear the VP isn’t very elated about telling the outside world what happens in the White House. It’s clear his agenda was not so much starting a war, but securing unlimited presidential powers. His forte was undoing constitutional guards that followed the criminal actions of the Nixon government.
It’s weird however. Living through the Watergate area and collecting about everything I could find about it Nixon remained a tragic figure, mainly struggling with himself. A clever man turning to the Dark Side because of his fears and inferiority complexes, especially regarding the Kennedy’s. But George W. Bush never looks tragic in all his disastrous decisions. After eight years of number 43, it’s clear this man simply is what in the schoolyard we call a bully. And he’s surrounded by his kin as well. Some more subtle, other less. Nixon doubted all of his life. Bush never have seemed to. That might be the problem of this administration: they never doubted. They knew all the answers. But it was all preconceived wisdom. They didn’t care about subtleties, analysis and careful considerations. That’s what makes them all so unsympathetic: basically they all were a bunch of bullying know-it-alls. Woodward’s books might contain some admiration for Dubya, but it doesn’t seem to hide that cold fact.