A Failure of Leadership

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 5, 2008; 11:35 AM

It's official now: President Bush is the Keystone Kop-in-chief, disinterestedly overseeing a bunch of deputies who keep bumping into each other and falling down on the job.

Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008," hits the shelves on Monday. Starting on Sunday, The Washington Post, where he is assistant managing editor, will run four days of excerpts. And based on the initial coverage -- which started after Fox News obtained an early copy of the book yesterday -- Woodward's ultimate conclusion is that Bush "too often failed to lead."

That's a far cry from what Woodward wrote in his first two Bush books. "Bush at War" and "Plan of Attack" were paens to the president's brilliant leadership. But 2006's " State of Denial" was all about Bush's refusal to see the true consequences of the war he launched in Iraq. And now there's this.

Woodward, for all his ability to get powerful people to talk to him, has recently served less as an investigative reporter and more as a congealer of Washington's conventional wisdom. When Bush was up in Washington, he was up in Woodward's narratives. And now that he's down, he's down.

The Coverage

Steve Luxenberg writes in The Post: "In a critical epilogue assessing the president's performance as commander-in-chief, Woodward concludes that Bush 'rarely was the voice of realism on the Iraq war' and 'too often failed to lead.' . . .

"The book portrays an administration riven by dissension, either unwilling or slow to confront the deterioration of its strategy in Iraq during the summer and early fall of 2006. Publicly, Bush maintained that U.S. forces were 'winning'; privately, he came to believe that the military's long-term strategy of training Iraq security forces and handing over responsibility to the new Iraqi government was failing. Eventually, Woodward writes, the president lost confidence in the two military commanders overseeing the war at the time: Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then commander of coalition forces in Iraq, and Gen. John P. Abizaid, then head of U.S. Central Command.

"In October 2006, the book says, Bush asked Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser, to lead a closely guarded review of the Iraq war. That first assessment did not include military participants and proceeded secretly because of White House fears that news coverage of a review might damage Republican chances in the midterm congressional election. . . .

"According to Woodward, the president maintained an odd detachment from the reviews of war policy during this period, turning much of the process over to Hadley. 'Let's cut to the chase,' Bush told Woodward, 'Hadley drove a lot of this.'

"Nor, Woodward reports, did Bush express much urgency for change during the months when sectarian killings and violent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq began rising, reaching more than 1,400 incidents a week by October 2006 -- an average of more than eight an hour. 'This is nothing that you hurry,' he told Woodward in one of the interviews, when asked if he had given his advisers a firm deadline for recommending a revised war strategy.

"In response to a question about how the White House settled on a troop surge of five brigades after the military leadership in Washington had reluctantly said it could provide two, Bush said: 'Okay, I don't know this. I'm not in these meetings, you'll be happy to hear, because I got other things to do.' . . .

"Meanwhile, Woodward reports that Casey, the president's commanding general in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, came to believe that Bush did not understand the nature of the Iraq war, that the president focused too much on body counts as a measure of progress.

"'Casey had long concluded that one big problem with the war was the president himself,' Woodward writes. 'He later told a colleague in private that he had the impression that Bush reflected the "radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, 'Kill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you'll succeed.' " '

"Asked about his interest in body counts, Bush told Woodward: 'I asked that on occasion to find out whether or not we're fighting back. Because the perception is that our guys are dying and they're not. Because we don't put out numbers. We don't have a tally. On the other hand, if I'm sitting here watching the casualties come in, I'd at least like to know whether or not our soldiers are fighting.'"

Body counts, of course, are a notoriously suspect way of measuring success in an armed conflict -- particularly one where it can be hard to tell enemies from civilians.

As for the surge, Woodward writes that it was only one of several factors that combined to reduce the violence in Iraq. Luxenberg writes that Woodward gives particular credit to unspecified but "groundbreaking" new covert techniques that "enabled U.S. military and intelligence officials to locate, target and kill insurgent leaders and key individuals in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq."

Bill Sammon writes for Fox News that "Woodward's last tome, 'State of Denial,' . . . ended with the line: 'With all Bush's upbeat talk and optimism, he had not told the American public the truth about what Iraq had become.'

"Woodward repeats the line in his new book, adding: 'My reporting for this book showed that to be even more the case than I could have imagined. . . .

"'President Bush has rarely leveled with the public to explain what he was doing and what should be expected,' wrote Woodward, an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, in 'War Within.' 'He did not seek sacrifice from most of the country when he had the chance. He did not even mobilize his own party. Republicans often voiced as much suspicion and distrust as Democrats. The president was rarely the voice of realism on the Iraq war.' . . .

"Woodward also quotes [John] McCain expressing frustration with the Bush White House, clenching his fists in the West Wing and exclaiming to Woodward: 'Everything is f---ing spin.'"

Meanwhile, at the Convention

The Republican presidential nominee last night opened his plodding acceptance speech with a cursory acknowledgement of the Republican incumbent, though not by name: "I'm grateful to the president of the United States for leading us in these dark days following the worst attack in American history," McCain said, "and keeping us safe from another attack that many -- many thought was inevitable."

But in the rest of his speech, McCain tried to distance himself from Bush, in part by presenting himself as a different man -- a tested hero -- and in part with vague criticisms of the status quo and even vaguer promises of change.

"We're going to finally start getting things done for the people who are counting on us," McCain said.

"We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. . . . We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger. . . . We're going to recover the people's trust by standing up again to the values Americans admire. The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics. . . .

"We need to change the way government does almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children."

But McCain once again failed to explain how his first term would be substantively different from Bush's last two. Pretty much every one of promises sounded like ones Bush has made himself -- including the promise to be a uniter, not a divider.

And as I've been writing in the last couple days, the entire convention seemed happier trying to pretend Bush didn't even exist.

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times that "delegates on Thursday were shown a video about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that included a picture of Rudolph W. Giuliani and Donald H. Rumsfeld but none of Mr. Bush, whose presidency was singularly shaped by that day. . . .

"In his acceptance speech shortly afterward, Mr. McCain thanked 'the president,' without naming him, for leading the country 'in those dark days'. . . . But he made no further reference to Mr. Bush, and when it came to the improved security in Iraq over the last year, he credited 'the leadership of a brilliant general, David Petraeus.'"

But as Adam Nagourney and Michael Cooper write in the New York Times, McCain "is aligned with Mr. Bush on two of the biggest issues facing the country: the Iraq war and the economy."

David Gergen said on CNN: "I did not think that the substantive part of the speech worked very well, it was mostly a re-run, a retread of a lot of old Republican ideas that have brought us to where we are now. I think the country is looking for fresh answers. It's hard to separate yourself out from President Bush when you essentially have the same economic policies as President Bush."

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "He used the word 'change' at least 10 times in his bombastic speech -- the convention's emotional climax -- but since the Republicans have controlled the White House for the past eight years, what does McCain want to change from? And to? It really is an audacious ploy, to tell people that the country's got to correct the mistakes made by a political party when that's the very party you represent.

"It's like staging a revolution against yourself -- saying that the Republicans have got to go so the Republicans can move in and clean up the mess."

And the New York Times editorial board argues: "Rather than remaking George W. Bush's Republican Party in his own image, Mr. McCain allowed the practitioners of the politics of fear and division to run the show."

Peter Wallsten and Doyle McManus write in the Los Angeles Times: "Cultural affinities, which President Bush played on heavily to paint 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry as elite and out of touch, are now central to the campaign strategy of GOP presidential nominee John McCain. . . .

"The strategy worked for Bush four years ago. Yet its effectiveness this year is uncertain. Democratic voter registration has surged in several battleground states, and voters worried about the economy say they generally favor Democrats over Republicans. The economy, rather than any cultural issues, consistently ranks highest among voter concerns. But GOP strategists believe that despite those disadvantages, the public remains culturally conservative."


Mark Silva, blogging for the Chicago Tribune, reminds us: "Eight years ago, at the Republican Party's convention in Philadelphia, McCain was playing a completely different role: Conceding his party's presidential nomination to George W. Bush. McCain addressed that convention with these words:

"I say to all Americans, Republican, Democrat or Independent, if you believe America deserves leaders with a purpose more ennobling than expediency and opportunism, then vote for Governor Bush. If you believe patriotism is more than a soundbite and public service should be more than a photo-op then vote for Governor Bush.

"My friend, Governor Bush, believes in an America that is so much more than the sum of its divided parts. He wants to give you back a government that serves all the people no matter the circumstances of their birth. And he wants to lead a Republican Party that is as big as the country we serve."

Iraq Watch

Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post: "Pentagon leaders have recommended to President Bush that the United States make no further troop reductions in Iraq this year, administration officials said yesterday.

"The plan, delivered this week, calls for delaying additional drawdowns until late January or early February -- after the Bush administration has left office. At that point, up to 7,500 of the approximately 146,000 troops in Iraq could be withdrawn, depending on conditions on the ground there. The reduction would coincide with new deployments to Afghanistan, officials said. . . .

"Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq,. . . . cited several areas of ongoing concern, including the postponement of provincial elections initially scheduled for this month, the disputed status of the northern city of Kirkuk, lingering ethno-sectarian conflicts, and questions surrounding the future of a local security force known as the Sons of Iraq."

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Under the recommendation, the current level of about 140,000 troops would remain in Iraq through the end of Bush's presidency in January. . . .

"The recommendation contrasts with Petraeus' statements before Congress in May, when he predicted an autumn troop reduction, even if a small one."

Among other things, the decision represents the abject failure of Bush's much-ballyhooed principle of " return on success" -- at least during his presidency. Apparently even in Petraeus's estimation, the "success" in Iraq has not been sufficient to return the number of troops in Iraq to the pre-surge level of 130,000 -- not to mention start a serious drawdown.

Biden Backpedals

I wrote in yesterday's column about Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden's vow on Tuesday that criminal acts by the Bush administration would not go unpunished. "If there has been a basis upon which you could pursue someone for a criminal violation, they will be pursued -- not out of vengeance, not out of retribution; out of the need to preserve the notion that no one -- no one -- no attorney general, no president, no one is above the law," he said.

But Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "Asked about the comment [Thursday] morning on Fox News, Biden said it is Congress -- not a potential Obama administration -- that is investigating the White House.

"And he denied today that an Obama administration would launch criminal investigations against the 43rd president of the United States.

"'The Obama-Biden administration is not going to start off saying, "God, let's go take a lot at what [happened]." The American people want to know what we're going to do, not what happened.'"

CQ Politics has the transcript.

Froomkin Watch

Dan Froomkin will be away Monday. "White House Briefing" will return on Tuesday, September 9th.

Cartoon Watch

Steve Sack on the elephant under the rug, Tom Toles on McCain's warning, Mike Luckovich on Bush's lockout, Dwane Powell on the new sheriff, Bruce Plante on McCain's shadow, and Tony Auth Republican schizophrenia.

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