Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bob Woodward speaks . . . so it must be true

For those of you otherwise engaged in our nation's most inexplicable craze since the Pet Rock . . . Sarah Palinpalooza . . . you might have missed the latest multi-part series from Bob Woodward on George Bush's War Presidency, "The War Within," published by The Washington Post, his employer of the last 35 years. Woodward's lastest series, which excepts some of the more, I suppose, telling findings of the former Watergate sleuth's last "investigation.

Here are the dramatic, OMG, can-you-believe-it findings:

President Bush's advisors were afraid to bring him bad news for fear of offending his world view and personal sensibilities.

President Bush ignored the chain of command and opened a channel to David Petreus, who, in 2006, had not yet been given command of the Joint Chiefs, which was still headed by George Casey. Bush moved to Petreaus because he didn't like what he was hearing from Casey.

Key advisors and high-ranking officials in the president's cabinet who argued that candor was necessary to open the president's eyes to the realities in Iraq were shot down or marginalized by those who whose "loyalty" to the president was Priority 1. That meant the president would not get the information he needed.

President Bush eventually succumbed to a "body count" mentality to measure what he argued was "progress" on the war. At one point, he pressed Casey on the question of whether the US was killing "enough" Iraqi soldiers.

President Bush ignored data brought to him that did not conform to his pre-determined view of the Iraq war.

The president also resisted a comprehensive strategy review on the Iraq war, preferring instead to speak in platitudes and have his loyal cabinet members offer misleading and often false statements about US war strategy or what the generals were thinking and doing.

. . . and on and on it goes.

* * * * * * * * * *

Stunning, isn't it? I, for one, had no idea that Iraq was such a mess, or that the civilian hierarchy in the Bush administration had pushed military officers aside who did not conform to their world view, or that the administration had completely botched the war and pretty much everything connected to it. I had no idea that the Bush administration would consider the "surge" a success because it reduced the levels of violence in Iraq back to 2004 levels, which many in the Republican party, including John McCain, considered unacceptable. Coming about two years after Woodward's previous book on the president's Alice-in-Wonderland mentality on the war, "State of Denial," in which Woodward, and only Woodward, blasted through the fog and found that Bush, far from having a realist understanding of and approach to the Iraq war, lived in denial, preferring to believe what he wanted to believe, and insisting that those around him believe what he believed or remain quiet.

Had no idea, did you?

A generation ago -- literally -- Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein performed a priceless public service by pursuing the Watergate story. The disclosures that stemmed primarily from their reporting, which forced Congress to pursue the Nixon administration-directed Watergate break-in and cover-up rather than look the other way, forced an American president to resign from office. Since then, Woodward has remained at the Post and written who knows how many books that all have a common theme: finding disgruntled members of Congress, frustrated presidential aides, Cabinet officers and military officials, Supreme Court justices with an axe to grind -- really, any public appointee or well-connected influential private citizen looking to rehabilitate their image -- and letting them tell their story. The formula has made Bob Woodward a very wealthy man, which doesn't bother me in the least, as millions of other Americans have made their fortunes and accomplished very little while doing it. What does bother me, and I say this as someone who once entertained the thought of pursuing journalism as a career because of Woodward/Bernstein's heroics, is that stories on the Bush administration's incompetence or scandalous behavior brought to light by journalists outside the orbit of the Washington establishment, or even books on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the intelligence community or the institutionalization of torture written by reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post or other some other high-powered mainstream media institution, are treated as little more than waiting-room reading, even though their disclosures are often better investigated and more damning than Woodward's. Indeed, a favorite parlor game of Woodward's admirers is guessing who his sources are behind his books. That's not really much of a challenge. In "The War Within," it's former joint chiefs commander George Casey. In "State of Denial," it was Colin Powell. The "Deep Throat" approach is still Woodward's modus operandi; it's just that now we don't have to wait over thirty years (or until his partner's financial insolvency necessitates it) to discover Woodward's sources.

None of what Bob Woodward has written in his four books on the Bush administration is news, if news is defined, at least here, as learning something that we did not know. By the time Woodward published "Denial," reporting and commentary by dozens, if not hundreds, of other journalists, writers and investigators using the Internet as their communications medium had documented the Bush administration's cluelessness on Iraq (and terrorism and just about everything else involving the "War on Terror"). The same is true of his new book. The lesson of Woodward's books is not that we've learned much we didn't already know (if, like most of the official Washington-people/politicos/wannabes I know, you prefer pushed-up drama and gossip, Woodward delivers). It's that if you want to make a career questioning authority, you can't become part of the establishment you want to hold accountable.

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