The White House and the Military

By Atkeson, Edward B. | Army, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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The White House and the Military

Atkeson, Edward B., Army

Analyses of the Mind-Set of National Leaders at a Critical Juncture

Bush at War. Bob Woodward. Simon and Schuster. 378 pages; photographs; index; $28. The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military. Dana Priest. W.W. Norton & Co.; 429 pages; photographs; notes; index; $26.95.

Woodward and Priest are reporters for The Washington Post, and appear to have cooperated to some extent in the production of these books. Their foci, however, are quite different: Woodward looks at Washington and the White House, while Priest aims more definitively at military commanders and forces in the field. Moreover, the authors' methods were apparently quite different. A good bit of Bush at War has the aura of yesterday's newspapers, while Mission seems to have required greater on-the-spot pursuit of the story.

That is not to say that Woodward fails to grasp the off-the-record opinions of his sources. He interviewed more than 100 people, most of whom he captured "on background," meaning he reports their opinions without identifying them.

The President, of course, was a special case. Woodward had two sessions with him lasting a total of almost four hours. George W. Bush comes through as a man with a clear self-image as the premier leader of his time. Woodward quotes him on the day of the 9/11 attacks saying, "The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today." Further, he cites the President saying, "This will be a monumental struggle between good and evil. But good will prevail." Clearly, Bush aimed to be a wartime president of stature, perhaps in the Roosevelt tradition, dealing with a broad divide between good and evil. The President talked about "evil" and "evil-doers" seven times in one interview.

Of an early meeting of the National Security Council, Woodward writes that the President stamped Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al Qaeda, as the first targets for reprisal. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld demurred, worrying that that might not provide a large enough canvas to grab the interest of an international coalition. "How about Iraq?" he asked, picking up on an argument most closely identified with his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz. The upper echelons of the Pentagon had been studying Saddam Hussein for some time, and looking for an excuse to go after him. Here was an opportunity.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell backed up the President, pointing out that it would be much easier to rally the world against a narrower target more closely connected with the crime. Besides, he said, the American people would have less trouble grasping the legitimacy of a counterattack with a specific and relevant goal. Vice President Dick Cheney agreed, and Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, risked little by backing Powell. He was due to retire in two weeks anyway. Bush postponed the issue, insisting only that a plan for inflicting real pain and destruction on the terrorists be quickly assembled.

According to Woodward, it was the CIA director, George J. Tenet, who put his finger on Afghanistan and came up with the scheme for funding the Afghan Northern Alliance and for inserting highly skilled CIA and Special Forces operatives to link U.S. air and missile striking power with indigenous ground operations. Tenet also sought a presidential okay for rapidly expanding intelligence liaison programs, well lathered with big bucks, with Arab security services, to include "rogue states" like Libya and Syria. He won the brass ring that day, apparently over the objections of Secretary Rumsfeld.

The Iraq issue, however, was not to be put off for long. Wolfowitz admitted that there was but a 10-50 percent chance that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attack, but he painted a picture of U.S. troops getting bogged down in Afghanistan. Baghdad, he argued, was the way to go. Powell countered that the Arabs were with them regarding Afghanistan, but might bail out if the focus turned on Iraq.

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