14 October 2006

Woodward's State of Denial

On Thursday I finished reading Bob Woodward's third book in his Bush at War series, State of Denial. It is much less generous towards the Bush Administration than the previous two books, and takes considerable aim at Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the Pentagon during the run-up to the Iraq War and during and after the invasion itself. Along the 500-page journey that begins in 1997 and ends in July 2006, we encounter a series of "moments" and missed opportunities to get Iraq right. Troop levels, what to do with the Iraqi military and police forces after Saddam, countering the insurgency, and many other key discussions take place in this sweeping narrative, often leaving this Bush supporter frustrated and shaking his head.

One discussion that I found particularly insightful was the debate over what to do with the muscle of the former Ba'athist regime. It was proposed that with $200 million, the US could have retained most of the Iraqi forces, from the colonel level down to get rid of the Ba'athists with the most blood on their hands, and thus maintained law and order in the country after Saddam's regime collapsed. Rumsfeld balked at the idea, and instead a couple hundred thousand men were left without a job or a purpose, or money. A lot of them thus turned to the insurgency.

That was a clear moment to put an Iraqi face on the dawn of Iraq's reconstruction, leaving Iraqis in charge of keeping civil society intact in Iraq. But the Pentagon didn't want to do it, and because the Pentagon was given legal authority (via a presidential directive) to run the show, it didn't happen. That was a big missed opportunity. There are a handful of tales very similar to that throughout the course of the book.

I have always enjoyed Woodward's writing, be it a daily in the WaPo or one of his many books. This book is a disappointment, not because of Woodward, but because of his subject. Too often key people in the Administration didn't choose the right strategy, had no strategy, or avoided making a strategy. The amount of trust and confidence I and millions of others placed in the Bush team to get Iraq right has not been returned, causing a lot of people to revoke that trust and call for a reversal of the entire Iraq policy.

I certainly do not go that far. I agree with Henry Kissinger (an important White House visitor in Woodward's narrative), who said that the only meaningful exit strategy is victory. For better or worse, the US has got to stay in Iraq until the mission is truly accomplished. I don't think that "staying the course" is the way to go, since the course thus far has had more setbacks than lasting achievements. The measurable "metrics" do not portray a path of progress. It is to be expected that when rebuilding a state there will be the occasional "two steps forward, one step back" periods. But too many steps backwards leaves you at square one, and frustrates the local and American publics that expected much better.

There is a way forward in Iraq that leads to victory, which I define as leaving behind an Iraq that is a stable democracy that heeds its constitution and the rule of law, according human rights and equal treatment to women and minorities, a neutralized insurgency that is manageable for fully-trained and competent Iraqi police and security forces, with secure borders and free of foreign influences. However, the need to "get it right this time" (something that Cheney said to Rumsfeld when they took office in 2001) cannot be fully realized until the White House and the Pentagon get out of their state of denial and begin charting a course to victory. Woodward's book serves, or should serve, as a wake-up call to policy-makers and those interested in Iraq and America's future. Hopefully that call will be answered.


Also, I'm now reading Ralph Peters' New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy. I've only read the first ten pages so far, but that ten pages provides a "brief tour of the world" that I find myself in hearty agreement. Fantastic stuff.

1 comment:

C. LaRoche said...

I've always found that the best of Woodward's writing isn't his writing per se, but the fact he can get interviews with people you would think would normally stay leagues and leagues away from a journalist... especially one of Woodward's fame. In other words, it's the content that makes Woodward's books, rather than the format or style.

On a side note, have you ever seen the film adaptation of All The President's Men?