Plan of Attack

In December 2003, as he was putting finishing touches to this book on the Iraq war, Bob Woodward asked George Bush whether he regretted the decision to invade Iraq. Had Mr Bush really said, referring to the possible cost of this fateful choice, as one of the author’s sources reported: ‘I would like to be a two-term president, but if I am a one-term president, so be it’? President Bush told the reporter, ‘that is my attitude. Absolutely right’.


It’s clear at times that the veteran Washington Post reporter is perplexed by the president’s certainty. Woodward's disquiet shows itself as he exposes the degree to which intelligence briefings about Iraq’s weapons programmes given in

the run up to war have subsequently been

exposed as faulty.


The author reports Colin Powell’s anger that the information he used to brief the Security Council in February 2003 proved so unreliable, and he recounts how perplexed others involved in the process were by it too. But when it comes to the president, there are no such doubts.


Perhaps we should not be too surprised. In another of their interviews, in August 2002, when Mr Woodward was compiling a previous book, President Bush told him that war with Iraq, if it happened, ‘will be for the objective of making the world more peaceful’. Mr Woodward noted, ‘he did not mention weapons of mass destruction or any threat Saddam

posed to the United States’. It would seem that it was always the broad strategy of the ‘forward strategy of democracy’ that drove the president’s thinking on Iraq. It is this kind of intimate access, involving interviews hours long with the president and other key decision makers that defines Bob Woodward’s books. He is excellent on process, having an unrivalled grasp of how the cogs and wheels of the Washington national security machine drive one another.


His prose is interwoven with threads of bureaucratic detail that establish his mastery of the subject and quality of sources: the successive war plans presented to the White House get the special code name Top Secret/ Polo Step; the key Iraqi CIA agent who helps target Saddam as the war begins has the agency tag DB/ROCKSTAR; General Tommy Franks’s fat file of Iraqi targets is called the ‘Big Black Book of Death’ by his staff officers. There’s an element of Mr Woodward showing off here, of course, but I have to admit, having read several of his previous exposes, that I enjoy such

detail enormously.


Some reviewers have argued that Mr Woodward’s instant histories of great crises in American foreign policy tend to flatter those who have spoken to him and pin blame on those who haven’t. Presumably this is why a sitting president gave the author so many hours of his time.


In Plan of Attack, Colin Powell emerges (as he has in other books by this author) as a voice of sanity and moderation. Vice President Dick Cheney is cast in the role of leading warmonger and it seems he did not speak to Mr Woodward, not on the record at least. The President himself is more detached in this version of events, allowing the protagonists to slug it out, before moving, early in January 2003, to the decision to go to war.


Washington insiders clearly regard Mr Woodward’s books as being so important that they were prepared to share with him war planning and other highly secret material that, had it been revealed a month before the war, would have been regarded as the gravest possible breach of security. How long it will take for similar British material to emerge? I would certainly hope to be around to read it, since if I live that long it will mean I’m getting excellent value from the BBC pension plan.


So pleased is the author with his grasp of all the different versions of General Franks’s war plan (five major ‘iterations’ no less) that too much space is devoted to this particular topic, and rather too little to the world outside the Washington bubble. Tony Blair is credited with persuading President Bush to seek what became Resolution 1441 at the Security Council, but the State Department’s largely fruitless campaign to build support in other key countries gets short shrift. There is another, more troubling, aspect to all this. In his preoccupation with the eponymous ‘Plan of Attack’, Mr Woodward falls into the same trap as his protagonists. Secretary of State Powell is recorded as telling the president, prophetically, in August 2002, ‘you will become the government’ of Iraq and its 25 million people, ‘you will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems’. Mr Powell’s warning was quite exceptional: the Washington machine was just not set up to give real attention to the postconflict issues of running Iraq. Mr Woodward fails to focus on that critical issue in exactly the same way that they did.


Mark Urban

Diplomatic Editor, BBC Newsnight

Simon & Schuster 074325547X

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