Bob Woodward writes insider accounts of wars and the policymakers who wage them. He does so by talking to the most senior Bush administration insiders, who -- obviously -- tell him what they wish to tell him. No doubt, Woodward does capture some (maybe even most) of what occurred. But what happens when the insiders try to spin Woodward or share with him a rather selective rendition of an important event? Does he buy it and sell it (literally) to the rest of us? The leak of a British memo recounting a January 31, 2003 conversation in the White House between George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair affords Woodward's readers a rare opportunity to factcheck the fellow who imbues his behind-the-scenes storytelling with an omniscient tone.
The Bush-Blair meeting came as Bush was moving closer to launching the invasion of Iraq. UN weapons inspectors were back in Iraq -- thanks to a resolution passed by the UN Security Council the previous November -- but the hawks of the Bush administration, including Bush himself, were by this point eager to declare the inspections a failure and to get on with the show. At issue was whether the Bush administration needed a second resolution from the UN that would authorize military action against Iraq. Blair wanted one. The prospect of war was unpopular in England; he needed the cover of a second resolution. Bush and his senior officials were not enthusiastic about going back to the UN once more. Bush had just delivered a State of the Union address that lay out the WMD case for war, and Colin Powell was about to make a more detailed presentation at the United Nations on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and purported ties to al Qaeda. With the war preparations picking up speed, Bush and Blair met at the White House.
Now let's turn to Woodward. This is how he described the conversation between Bush and Blair in his book Plan of Attack:
Blair told Bush that he needed to get a second UN resolution. He had promised that to his political party at home, and he was confident that together he and Bush could rally the UN and the international community.
Bush was set against a second resolution. This was a rare case in which Cheney and Powell agreed. Both were opposed. The first resolution had taken several weeks, and this one would be much harder. Powell didn't think it was necessary....
But Blair had the winning argument. It was necessary for him politically. It was no more complicated than that, an absolute political necessity. Blair said he needed the favor. Please.
That was the language Bush understood. "If that's what you need, we will go flat out to try and help you get it," he told Blair. He also didn't want to go alone, and without Britain, he would be close to going alone. The president and the administration were worried about what Steve Hadley termed the "the imperial option."
So they were back in the briar patch as far as Cheney was concerned.
That's a rather straightforward description of a significant meeting. Earlier this week, New York Times correspondent Don van Natta Jr. published a front-page piece disclosing portions of a classified British memo that summarized this particular discussion. The memo was written by David Manning, Blair's chief foreign policy adviser at the time and one of two Blair aides who were in the meeting. According to this document -- which was stamped "extremely sensitive" -- a different sort of conversation had occurred. Here are some of the key points in the memo:
* Manning wrote, "The start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March. This was when the bombing would begin."
* Both acknowledged that no WMDs had been found in Iraq. Bush raised the possibility of provoking a confrontation with Saddam Hussein. One idea he proposed was placing UN colors on an American U-2 spy plane that would fly over Iraq and draw fire from Iraqi forces. Bush also discussed the possibility of assassinating Saddam Hussein.
* Bush did say that he would help Blair win a second UN resolution -- and "would twist arms and even threaten," as the memo put it -- but that if that effort failed he would still invade Iraq.
* There was tension between Bush and Blair over what might be a legitimate legal argument for going to war and what would be accepted by other nations.
* The two leaders talked about post-invasion Iraq, and Bush said that it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups." Blair agreed.
* Blair asked Bush about planning for the postwar period. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who was in the meeting, assured Blair that much work had been done on this. Bush, the memo noted, "said that a great deal of detailed planning had been done on supplying the Iraqi people with food and medicine."
Read Woodward's account and you get the impression that Bush was doing all he could to help a buddy and that Bush was willing (more so than Cheney or Powell) to stick with the United Nations a little longer. Read the Times' account of the memo and you see that Bush had already set a date for war -- despite saying in public that he hoped to avoid war -- and that he had raised the prospect of staging an event to make it easier to sell the war. (Does a fellow looking to avoid a war talk about what could be done to provoke a war?) The memo also indicates that Bush and his aides were not fully prepared for the postwar challenges and that Bush and Blair had misjudged the sectarian divides within the Iraqi population.
Woodward likes to say that his best-selling books -- which are good reads -- are the first drafts of history. That's true. But they can also be tilted drafts -- especially when his high-level confidential sources have an interest in tilting the facts. Whoever gave him the details of this Bush-Blair session -- Rice, perhaps? -- left out the best and most important stuff. The net result was a less-than-full but Bush-positive account of the event. This goes to show that Woodward is only as good as his sources and that those insiders are not always so good when it comes to disclosing the real story.
Cross-posted at thenation.com.