Friday, October 13, 2006

Book Review: "State of Denial"

Bob Woodward's latest insider account of the Bush Administration at war, State of Denial is by far the most disturbing of the three volumes (the others being Bush at War and Plan of Attack). While some have described this new, extremely critical book as a change of course for Woodward based on public perceptions of the Administration and a judgement of what would sell more books (I have heard him described as a "weathervane"), I think it makes more sense to view State of Denial as a new point on a progressive continuum. As the Bush Administration has proceeded through military operations in Afghanistan and in Iraq, more information about the governing style of the president and his closest advisors has become evident - this book couldn't have been written in 2002 - or in 2004 - but Woodward could not have avoided writing it in 2006.

I worked very hard to avoid all the advance publicity from this book, from the scoops obtained by the New York Times to the excerps in the Washington Post and all the coverage on cable and network news. Of course to have done so completely would have been impossible, and I learned many of Woodward's revelations before I had a chance to read the actual book. Nonetheless, that did nothing to blunt the impact of the narrative, which examines the Administration's decision to go to war in Iraq, the planning for that decision, the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction, and the acute failure to plan for postwar Iraq in a meaningful or effective way.

The president does not emerge well from this book. Neither does Donald Rumsfeld, who is portrayed as a micromanaging pain-in-the-everything; he comes off (even and perhaps particularly in the moments where Woodward interviews with him on the record) as oblivious to what's really going on around him, selectively remembering details of conversations with other members of the Administration (including the president) and running roughshod over the uniformed military officers when their views did not align precisely with his own.

To be fair, Woodward treats just about every major participant harshly, and deservedly so. What struck me most when reading this book was the high number of "right there" moments ... right there, I would think to myself, what if person X had not given in, what if the argument had continued, what if minds had been changed by five more minutes of discussion? Above all, what if the president of the United States had been willing to ask questions instead of accepting a bunch of sycophantic head-bobbing? What if some of the greatest strategic minds in America today had been consulted rather than ignored? Would America, and Iraq, find themselves in the circumstances which exist today?

Like his earlier volumes, this latest product from Woodward is readable and engaging. It's also eminently depressing, but should be read nonetheless.

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