Financial Times

Portrait of a President Bent on Conflict

Review of Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack.

With a keen sense of timing, Bob Woodward's revealing new book about how George W. Bush marched off to war arrives just as the deteriorating situation inside Iraq raises ever more serious questions about the wisdom of the president's original decision. In Plan of Attack, Mr Woodward provides plenty of answers. Above all, Washington's most prodigious and prolific journalist-author paints a picture of a president and his administration that is both stunning and familiar.

The broad outlines of why and how Mr Bush went to war in Iraq are familiar. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the immediate focus was on Afghanistan. But as soon as victory was in sight, Mr Woodward tells us, Mr Bush ordered Donald Rumsfeld, his defence secretary, to draw up plans for a war against Iraq. By late 2001, the president had made up his mind: Saddam Hussein's removal was necessary to defeat the Iraqi threat to US security. Though he was willing to enlist the UN, Mr Bush never wavered in his determination to oust Mr Hussein. Within weeks of weapons inspectors returning to Iraq, he had had enough. "Time is not on our side," Mr Bush told Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, in early January 2003. "Probably going to have to, we're going to have to go to war."

All this is quite familiar. What is stunning is the detail in Mr Woodward's 443-page account—which adds up to a powerful yet deeply disturbing indictment of the president and his policy. For all the talk of force being a last resort, it is clear that Mr Bush decided soon after September 11 that Iraq required a military solution. There was the order to Mr Rumsfeld to begin serious planning and the monthly briefings with General Tommy Franks as planning progressed. There was the February 2002 order to the CIA to spend $200m on supporting the military to get rid of Mr Hussein. There is the president's own conviction—his self-described "zeal"—of the need to free Iraq. "I believe we have a duty to free people," Mr Bush told the author.

More amazing are the deceptions the president and his team engaged in to get their way. In summer 2002, Mr Bush approved the diversion of $700m from supplemental funds appropriated for Afghanistan to begin preparing for Iraq. But no one told Congress, as the law required. In December 2002, Mr Bush reacted with scepticism to a Central Intelligence Agency briefing on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Yet he never shared any of these doubts with the public - perhaps because his own CIA director twice insisted that the agency's case was a "slam dunk". Even though Mr Bush told aides in January that he had decided war was now inevitable, he told the American people on March 6 2003: "I have not made up our mind about military action."

Perhaps most revealing is Mr Woodward's penetrating account of the way Mr Bush operates his presidency. In deciding to go to war, the president sought the counsel not of Dick Cheney, Mr Rumsfeld or Colin Powell, but of Ms Rice (who among his top advisers was surely the least experienced on such matters) and, amazingly, of Karen Hughes, his former close aide and communications director, who by then was a consultant to the Republican National Committee.

Of Mr Powell, his secretary of state, Mr Bush stated emphatically: "I didn't need his permission." But surely he could have used his advice. Mr Powell, after all, was the only one of his advisers to have served in uniform, and he had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the previous war against Iraq. But Mr Bush informed the former general of his decision on Iraq only after he had told Ms Rice, Mr Cheney, Mr Rumsfeld, Karl Rove—his senior political adviser—and even Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador.

Such behaviour was not unusual. Mr Bush also kept Ms Rice and Mr Powell out of the loop after he ordered Mr Rumsfeld to begin military planning for Iraq. Only Mr Cheney, in Mr Woodward's account, appears to have had some sway with the president—but that was uni-directional, a "powerful, steamrolling force" towards war.

This is Mr Woodward's second book about Mr Bush's post-September 11 presidency and is even better than the first, Bush at War, about the administration's decision to invade Afghanistan. It makes clear that Mr Bush is very much master of his own administration, swayed not by a neo-conservative conspiracy but by determination to do what he knows is right.

Mr Woodward has written the first definitive drafts of this presidency's history. They are likely to stand until such time, many years from now, when all the documents will be available to fill in the remaining blanks.