American History

Bob Woodward’s “The War Within”

In “The War Within,” journalist and author Bob Woodward looks behind the scenes of the administration of George W. Bush and examines how the members of the administration handled issues related to the Iraq War. From a chronological perspective the book focuses primarily on Bush’s second term; by this time the Iraq War had been underway for several years, and as Bush was running for reelection there was little hope that the war would conclude any time soon. Woodward’s book emphasizes the roles played by those at the top of the administration, noting that the members of the Bush team often disagreed vehemently among themselves about how to manage Iraq. The divisions among the members of the administration were what prompted Woodward’s title “The War Within.” The overarching theme of the book is that the jumbled mess that was the Iraq War in that period was largely a reflection of the jumbled mess within Bush’s administration. Woodward does trace how the Bush team eventually settled on the idea of a “troop surge” as a countermeasure to combat the Iraq insurgency, and agrees to an extent that such am insurgency was useful and by some measures even successful. Despite the relative success of the troop surge, the prevailing message left by “The War Within” is that Iraq began as, and continued to be, a poorly-planned and poorly-managed operation due largely to the disagreements, personality clashes, and unchecked egos of the members of the Bush administration.

One of the most telling moments in the book comes early on, when Woodward describes Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley’s approach to briefing Bush: Hadley “believed his task was to ascertain Bush’s wishes and then bring the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, the chief of Intelligence and others into line” (Woodward, p9, 2008). Hadley’s handling of his position as NSA was completely different than the historical antecedents of those who advised earlier presidents; it had historically been the duty of the NSA to present as clear and broad a picture as possible to the President, while Hadley believed that Bush’s advisors should first reach “consensus” (Woodward, p9) before briefing Bush. As Woodward makes clear throughout the book, this approach was difficult and even dangerous for a number of reasons; for one, reaching consensus was virtually impossible among a group with so many countervailing views; for another, it clearly prioritized assuaging the President’s ego over confronting the full reality of the situation.

At the heart of the problems the Bush administration had in dealing with the Iraq War were the strong, forceful, and often unmanageable personalities of Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Robert Gates, and the often-conflicting views and advice offered by military leaders such as General David Petraeus and General George Casey. As early as 2004 General Casey had been advising Bush that the U.S. military needed to hand control of Iraq security over to the Iraqi military as quickly as possible; this view was largely shared by Bush’s first Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Bush’s first Secretary of State, by contrast, famously believed that by “breaking” Iraq, the U.S. effectively “owned” the troubled nation, and would have to stay for the foreseeable future to secure and stabilize the country and the region (. Condoleeza Rice, who succeeded Powell, was primarily concerned with the political side of things, and was a staunch supporter of establishing a democratic government in Iraq as the only viable path to security there. General Petraeus differed from Gates, believing that a more aggressive military stance would better serve Iraq and the U.S. than would a rapid drawdown.

At the core of the problems associated with Iraq was the lack of agreement and resolution among the military and civilian leadership. When Rice testified before Congress about the Bush administration’s Iraq strategy, which she described as “Clear, Hold, Build,” the military leaders such as General Casey were flabbergasted; they had no idea what this policy was supposed to mean in practical terms and it had no viable connection to the military reality in Iraq. Woodward describes a conversation between Casey and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq wherein both men discuss the fact that they had never heard of such a strategy before Rice’s public statements to Congress (Woodward, p32). Throughout the book Woodward cites numerous examples of similar circumstances, making it clear that communication among members of the administration and Bush’s military advisers was insufficient and ineffective.

Also at odds were the public statements the President was making about the war in the months leading up to the announcement about a “troop surge” and the private reality of what was happening in Iraq. According to Woodward, Bush was well aware that the war was not working, and that the situation in Iraq was growing untenable. The troop surge strategy that was developed to counter the insurgency in Iraq was, like virtually every other decision made by Bush and his administration, a source of controversy and disagreement. Many of the discussion about the surge were made in secret by the administration without the input of the military leaders; as such, it was a decision that was not entirely supported by the military. General Gates “had been largely a bystander in the process” of planning the surge (Woodward, p325), and he, like many other military leaders, believed it was a bad idea. The Bush team would eventually bring in General David Petraeus to lead the troops in Iraq and oversee the insurgency.

Although Woodward concludes that the surge was a qualified success, his book paints a portrait of the Bush administration and its handling of Iraq that is less than complimentary. At the heart of the problems associated with Iraq is President Bush himself; as Woodward describes it, the majority of the decisions made about Iraq were done so at the whims of the President, leaving the military to do its best to shape real strategy and tactics around those whims. Compounding this problem was the disarray and constant disagreement among Bush’s advisors, each of whom had very different views on how to handle Iraq. This combination of factors and circumstances led to a situation where much of what was done in Iraq was poorly planned, or was carried out to repair problems rather than avoid them. The overall theme of Woodward’s book is that the Bush team bungled the Iraq War from the outset, and that even the few-and-far-between military and political successes were, at best, stopgap measures that simply slowed, but did not stop, the bleeding wound caused by the decision to invade the nation in 2003.


Work Cited

Woodward, Bob. The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Print.