Bob Woodward and the Warmongers

Who rides tallest in the saddle these days in Washington? Here’s who. It’s the supporters of permanent U.S. global domination, of a new colonialism throughout the Middle East directed by a U.S.-Israeli partnership, and of a corporate dictatorship here at home buttressed by military government, fundamentalist Christians temporarily allied with supporters of a right-wing Israel, and a PR-inflamed consumerism that seeks to replace political democracy. Those who favor these goals, including President Bush himself and the powerful “neo-cons” in Vice President Richard Cheney’s office and Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense, have won every recent battle except, possibly, for the battle over Iraq where their victory is not yet clear. Those of us “disloyal” enough to desire a different future for the world as well as the U.S. should quit the wound-licking and hand-wringing and get on with changing the situation. WE CAN DO IT, BUT WE NEED HELP. (More on what kind of help later.)

Recent developments that have brought the hardliners in Washington to almost complete domination of U.S foreign and military policies include the following:

1. The congressional elections of early November that clearly strengthened the Republican right.

2. The strong resolutions against Iraq approved by both the U.S. Congress and the U.N. Security Council.

3. The increased support in Congress, resulting from the last election, for present U.S. policies toward Israel, even though these policies are among the factors making further terrorism against the United States more likely.

4. The stronger drumbeats of criticism against Saudi Arabia–criticism in part well-deserved, but now pounded out more loudly than ever with the dubious motive of blaming Saudi Arabia as the most important cause of terrorism against the U.S. and its allies; whereas in reality it is only one of multiple causes, while another cause of equal and perhaps greater importance is U.S. support and enablement of Israel’s oppressive policies.

5. The increasingly adamant unwillingness of the U.S. to consider changing many of its other foreign policies as well, even though these policies also intensify hatred abroad and encourage future terrorism.

6. And, most recently, the final establishment of the new Department of Homeland Security with more power over individuals that any single department of any U.S. government should ever have.

These half-dozen points–and others that could doubtless be added–simply exemplify the current weakness of those in the U.S. who oppose preemptive wars and massive military spending, and support common sense and peace. Now another development bids fair to add to their feebleness.


Bush at War
by Bob Woodward.
Simon & Schuster, New York. $28.00.

The latest book by this author famed for chronicling Washington insiders has now hit the streets. It presents the leadership of George W. Bush in a very favorable light, and most U.S. readers will almost certainly conclude that Bush is a strong but cautious president who did a fine job of guiding us through a war in Afghanistan forced on us by evil people. Bob Woodward presumably figured that he had several more books in him before he sputtered into retirement, but that his future access to sources might be endangered unless he took a kid-gloves approach with a president who might very well remain in office another six years. Whatever went through Woodward’s mind, he has produced a best-seller chock full of quotable quotes and tantalizing insights into the disputes and jealousies of Washington’s present batch of mover-shakers, with Bush riding above the fray as a decisive but wise arbitrator. Woodward emphasizes in a “Note to Readers” that whenever he uses quotation marks he is in fact presenting accurate, direct quotations of the president and others. It all makes a reader feel as if he or she is on the inside too, right there with Woodward. The very existence of this book will make it harder than ever to persuade a majority of Americans that Bush is not the best leader we could find for the present dangerous times.

Between the lines, the book actually allows a reader to raise some serious questions about the Bush administration’s response to September 11, but Woodward never raises these questions himself. The most important one arises from the fact that within hours of the terrorist acts against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush decided that “we are at war” and demanded that we start this war of retaliation as quickly as possible. Every one of Bush’s top advisers, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, immediately fell into line; no one challenged the president. No one suggested examining the causes behind the terrorist actions. No one suggested that those actions should be treated as crimes rather than a cause for immediate war. And no one asked any questions that might imply Bush should take more time to think things through before moving toward war.

The text of Woodward’s book is 352 pages long. The first 311 pages cover the two-month period from September 11 to November 12, 2001, the date on which Kabul fell to Northern Alliance forces supported by the CIA, small contingents of U.S. Special Forces, and massive U.S. airpower. In these two months, sizable numbers of innocent Afghans were killed, perhaps a greater number of civilians than died in the U.S. on September 11. (The Defense Department has refused to issue any estimates of civilians killed in Afghanistan.) Throughout these first 311 pages, Bush consistently pushed for quicker and larger overt military actions, as well as covert paramilitary actions, in lengthy and almost daily meetings involving the top dozen or so U.S. military, intelligence, and foreign policy officials. But in this part of the book, there are literally no discussions of ways in which peaceful foreign policy initiatives might have averted or reduced the need for military action or covert operations that inevitably cause casualties among innocent people.

It is clear that neither Bush, nor Cheney, nor the top officials of the Defense Department wanted to listen to such talk. It is equally clear that neither Colin Powell nor George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, wanted to risk Bush’s ire by raising the subject. Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, is presented in the book as generally seeking to avoid presenting her own views to Bush, while trying to assure that the president accurately received all views when controversy erupted among the others. No significant controversy ever arose, however, in those first two months after September 11.

The rest of Woodward’s text, only 41 pages, consists of one chapter entitled “Epilogue.” This final short section of the book deals with a much longer period–the entire 11 months from the takeover of Kabul until mid-October 2002, when the publisher put the book to bed. For much of this period, Colin Powell continued to avoid confronting the administration’s hard-liners and neo-cons. In the spring of 2002, after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 29 at a Passover seder, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon “launched a small war” (Woodward’s words) into Palestinian-controlled areas. In fact, Israeli forces reoccupied all cities of the West Bank and deliberately destroyed most of the Palestinian civil infrastructure. Bush wanted to send Powell to the area to see if he could calm the situation. Powell was reluctant. He said, according to Woodward, that he didn’t have much to offer, too little leverage with either side. And he said that the U.S. couldn’t be more desirous of peace than the parties themselves, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (This is a blatant dodge: the U.S. could indeed be more desirous of peace than Israel and could, if it chose, exert its leverage to induce Israel to follow.)

Woodward then reports, as a direct quote, that Bush said to Powell, “You’re going to spend some political capital. You have plenty. I need you to do it.” Powell said yes, sir.

After initially announcing, in public, that Israel should withdraw from Palestinian cities without delay, Bush “later backtracked,” according to Woodward. “His heart seemed to be with the Israelis.” (In this instance, at least, Bush’s decisiveness on Afghanistan was not replicated with respect to Israel.) While in the Middle East, Powell was receiving, in Woodward’s words, “rudder orders from the White House–go left, go right, correct your course so many degrees. Cheney and Rumsfeld sent word through Rice that Powell should not meet with Arafat. Powell knew it was ridiculous to try to negotiate without meeting with both parties. But everyone in Washington was worrying about Israel and there was mounting pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to back Sharon. Powell went ahead. The first meeting with Arafat was merely okay, but a second was much worse. After 10 days, having made little progress, Powell was preparing a departure statement that proposed an international conference and security negotiations. Rice called [Richard] Armitage [Powell’s deputy] at the State Department to ask him to tell Powell to scale back his statement. Powell went nuts. No one wanted to step up, face reality! They wanted to be pro-Israel and leave him holding the Palestinian bag by himself.

” ‘I’m holding back the fucking gates here,’ Armitage reported. ‘They’re eating cheese on you’–an old military expression for gnawing on someone and enjoying it. People in the Defense Department and the vice president’s office were trying to do him [Powell] in, Armitage said. Rice reached Powell and said all the others thought it was best he say nothing more, that he say he was going back to Washington to consult with the president. Powell erupted. Was he just supposed to say, thank you very much for your hospitality, good-bye!”

But in the end Powell gave in. He came home after issuing an innocuous statement about still having hope for a negotiated future. Despite his anger, Powell was not willing to confront the president or others in the cabinet on the Israel-Palestine issue.

He was willing a few months later, however, to take a stand opposing a unilateral war against Iraq. And this is the issue–the only issue, perhaps–on which Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neo-cons have not yet won the ball game. On the evening of August 5, 2002, Powell had a long meeting with Bush, who was accompanied only by Condoleezza Rice. But while Powell himself opposed going to war against Iraq under almost any circumstances, according to Woodward, he did not present his case in such terms. Nor did he make an argument against pre-emptive war per se. He made his main argument only against going to war unilaterally. Woodward directly quotes Powell as saying to Bush, “You can still make a pitch for a coalition or U.N. action to do what needs to be done.” Powell allegedly then said (but here Woodward does not put direct quotes around the words): international support had to be garnered; the U.N. was only one way; but some way had to be found to recruit allies. Bush then indicated that he would like to have allies but made no firm commitment to Powell.

Events of the next few days led Powell to believe that he had won his case and that Bush would ask for a U.N. resolution. But for more than a month, until the president gave his speech to the U.N. on September 12, Cheney and Rumsfeld kept throwing up roadblock after roadblock as Bush’s speech went through 24 drafts. Only when Bush actually gave the speech did Powell finally know for sure that, for that moment at least, he was ahead on points in that particular round. The president had said to the world the one sentence that Powell wanted: “We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions.”

U.N. Resolution 1441, finally passed by the Security Council on November 8, will not prevent a unilateral war against Iraq if Bush decides he wants one. Powell himself was not prepared to advocate a resolution that would have done so. Nor would most members of Congress have favored such a resolution. Furthermore, all the available evidence, including some in Woodward’s book, suggests that the president over the longer run is likely to be more heavily influenced by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld’s number-two, Paul Wolfowitz, and others of similar persuasion than by Colin Powell. The deck is still stacked in favor of war, in spite of Powell’s single, small, and perhaps only temporary, win. Woodward himself writes that when asked about Powell’s contributions, Bush gave a “tepid” response. Bush said, in a direct quote, “Powell is a diplomat. And you’ve got to have a diplomat. I kind of picture myself as a pretty good diplomat, but nobody else does. You know, particularly, I wouldn’t call me a diplomat. But nevertheless, he is a diplomatic person who has got war experience.” Whatever the meaning of Bush’s introspections on his own talents as a diplomat–and his seeming confusion about whether he does or does not regard himself as one–this is far from an enthusiastic endorsement of Powell. The president’s personal relationships with Cheney, Wolfowitz, and others, and with Sharon on the Israeli side, seem to be considerably stronger.

Bush gave Woodward two personal interviews for the book, during both of which Condoleezza Rice was present most of the time. But for part of the last interview, Woodward was alone with Bush during a short walk on the president’s ranch. On this occasion, according to Woodward, “Bush again brought up Iraq. His blueprint or model for decision-making in any war against Iraq, he told me, could be found in the story I was attempting to tell–the first months of the war in Afghanistan and the largely invisible CIA covert war against terrorism worldwide. ‘You have the story,’ he said.”

The obvious “model” that one can derive from the war against Afghanistan contains three main elements: massive covert operations, massive use of U.S. airpower to carry out so-called “precision” bombing, and low U.S. casualties but little real concern for casualties on the other side. Bush’s words reveal no qualms about following the same course in Iraq. As Woodward writes at the end of his book, ” it was not clear what might happen in the end with Iraq, whether Bush was headed for triumph or disaster or something in between. Whatever his course, he will have available a CIA and military that are both more capable and more hungry for action than is generally recognized.”


Given the defeats the peace movement in the U.S. has recently suffered, those of us who believe that war against Iraq would be a disaster for the world as well as for the United States need help. It’s a long shot, certainly, but if we work it right, that help can come from Colin Powell. Here’s the logic behind this thought.

If Bush finally casts his vote in favor of a war, there is probably no acceptable way of preventing it from happening other than getting Colin Powell’s immediate, loud, and public help. The entire inspection issue can only delay a war, not stop it. If Bush joins the neo-cons and Sharon in their desire for a war, he can easily find a pretext to start one. With the degree of control he already has over the media, he could probably achieve and sustain majority public support. Until now, it’s been possible to conceive of only a couple of things that would cause the loss of that support. A major economic downturn with large-scale unemployment and expanding poverty might do it. But that’s unlikely to happen, since the hefty increases in military spending and the expansion of deficit financing that seem almost certain to occur will put off a really serious economic downturn, at least for a considerable time.

The other thing that would do it would be heavy U.S. casualties, either in the Iraq war, in other wars to follow, or from the expanded terrorism consequent to these wars. Sitting around and waiting for heavy casualties to bring a president to his senses, however, should be an unacceptable alternative to anyone who opposes a war. Although many of us since September 11 have been unable to come up with a better alternative, Colin Powell is one person who can, if he is willing or can be forced to do it, provide that better alternative.

Until the debates over war against Iraq reached the crisis stage around mid-2002, Powell had never carried a difference of opinion with Bush to the point of serious confrontation. The closest he had come was his private anger over Bush’s treatment of him on the Israel-Palestine issue a few months earlier, and on that issue he had backed down. It seemed doubtful that Powell’s own personality and his loyalty to the Bush family would allow him to throw down the gauntlet to the president on any issue. And yet he did so, at least in a limited way, on the narrow subject of opposing a unilateral war against Iraq. It now appears from Woodward’s book that he personally opposed any war against Iraq, but could only bring himself to press Bush hard to avoid a unilateral approach. In any case, this time Bush rather than Powell was the one to back down, if only slightly, and Bush stuck with Powell through a month of counterattacks by Cheney and Rumsfeld. Woodward’s account of all this is the first time this victory by Powell, and the intensity of the battle against him, has come so directly into public view. Powell himself should be encouraged by this, and we in turn should do all we can to encourage him to stand up and fight the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz cabal even more forcefully.

Specifically, we should make all the noise we can to induce Powell to extend his public opposition to the war from the position that “unilateral pre-emptive war against Iraq is bad” to the position that “any pre-emptive war against Iraq is bad.” All of us should be pressing this point. If you can write, then write. If you can speak, speak in your community. If you can only talk to friends and maybe a few enemies, do that. If you can wave signs and participate in other ways in anti-war demonstrations, do that. But–here’s the key point–use Powell’s name all the time. Yell it out that he is the one great hope for peace in this wretched administration. Don’t be afraid to embarrass him, and don’t worry that you might strengthen opposition to him within the administration. One of the best things that could happen is that we make Powell’s position inside the administration untenable. His departure, or forced ouster, might even make him into a vocal leader of opposition to the war. Certainly his silence does neither him nor us any good, and he needs to realize that.

We also should emphasize, both to Powell and all other American audiences, the Israeli government’s strong support for war against Iraq, and the belief of Israel’s leaders that this war will make it less likely that Israel will ever have to give up the West Bank and Gaza. Don’t worry about anti-Semitism. There’s nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing the policies of Israel, just as there’s nothing anti-American about criticizing the policies of the U.S. government. Don’t argue about it. Just criticize Israel’s policies more loudly. Some of the neo-cons in Washington who support war on Iraq most loudly have also over the years been the strongest supporters of Israel’s policies. We have every right to do the opposite, and to do so is not anti-Semitic.

According to a Washington Post article of November 27 by reporter Dana Milbank, a pro-Israel consultative group in Washington has issued a memorandum urging Jews to keep quiet while the Bush administration pursues a possible war with Iraq. The article states that the group’s “main audience was American Jewish leaders, but much of the memo’s language is directed toward Israelis .” The memo also said, “If your goal is regime change, you must be more careful with your language because of the potential backlash. You do not want Americans to believe that the war on Iraq is being waged to protect Israel rather than to protect America.” Since American Jewish leaders and possibly Israeli leaders are receiving such advice, it is all the more important for us to advertise Israel’s true policies on Iraq and the close relationship of those policies to the Israel-Palestine issue.

To sum up, those of us who believe that war against Iraq is wrong have suffered serious setbacks in recent months. New evidence in Woodward’s book–considerably more evidence than appears in this article–shows that Colin Powell agrees that war against Iraq, and not just Bush’s inclination to wage it unilaterally, would be wrong. Every citizen who opposes war in Iraq should make a maximum effort, starting now, to force Powell into the open with his opposition, to publicize every possible aspect of that opposition, and to embarrass Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, the lower-level neo-cons in the administration, and their Israeli allies over the dissension in their midst. We may anger Colin Powell by doing this, or we may get him thrown out of the administration. No matter. The publicity will still be helpful. And if, just perchance, we induce Powell to support us publicly, we will have as an ally a person of greater stature and independent political power in this country than anyone else we could think of.

Bill Christison joined the CIA in 1950, and served on the analysis side of the Agency for 28 years. From the early 1970s he served as National Intelligence Officer (principal adviser to the Director of Central Intelligence on certain areas) for, at various times, Southeast Asia, South Asia and Africa. Before he retired in 1979 he was Director of the CIA’s Office of Regional and Political Analysis, a 250-person unit. His wife Kathy also worked in the CIA, retiring in 1979. Since then she has been mainly preoccupied by the issue of Palestine. They can be reached at:


Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.