A White House inner circle the size of a hula hoop


THE COMMANDERS. By Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster. 398 pages. $24.95.

IF YOU believe Bob Woodward, the Bush administration wenwar with Iraq on the wings of President Bush's emotions rather than on the basis of well-defined national purpose.

The decision-making that led to war was as fuzzy as a new tennis ball. Even Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, a key participant in the preparations, couldn't put his finger on the moment of decision.

"Cheney didn't think the decision to go to war had occurred in a definite moment or sequence of moments," Woodward relates in a telling passage of his book on the people and planning involved in preparing the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the war against Iraq.

"There was no single discussion or meeting where it had been made. As best as he could piece it together, however, by Christmas Eve it was close; by Dec. 29 . . . it was solidified; and at this New Year's Day meeting it was finally ratified."

At the meeting on Jan. 1, President Bush directed his staff to draft a formal order laying out the policy reasoning for going to war. At that point, according to the book, Bush had decided to go to war if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by the deadline of Jan. 15 set by the United Nations.

How Bush reached that point is disturbing. Bush and his advisers didn't hold meetings where they hashed out Kuwait's value to the U.S. and the pros and cons of peaceful containment of Iraq, which was the alternative to war ultimately disdained by the president. The book makes no mention of systematic analysis being done, e.g., a study of the value of Kuwaiti oil and the impact of Iraq controlling it.

The book makes clearer what news media accounts already have indicated -- that Bush himself was the administration's chief hawk. He simply decided early on that the Iraqi aggression could not be allowed to stand, and from that gut feeling flowed subsequent administration decisions to build forces in Saudi Arabia and ultimately attack. While it's hard to argue with the military victory over Iraq, why did Bush choose war when he did?

Was it oil? Bush has never said so. Was it to protect Israel from a future Iraqi attack that could force the U.S. to get involved in Israel's defense? He's never mentioned Israel.

Was it out of the principle that aggression should not be left unaddressed? He has said as much, but he hasn't explained why the U.S. has not countered aggression elsewhere. Was it to protect Saudi Arabia? The U.S. could have defended Saudi Arabia without going to war.

Most Americans might be content that Bush made the right decision even if he didn't go about it in an analytical way. But the kind of informal, seat-of-the-pants decision-making that preceded the war may not work well in other situations. One can understand how Bush could impulsively pick Dan Quayle to be his running mate without talking it over first with his advisers.

Quayle, by the way, is the missing character in the book. He' not one of the commanders -- Bush, Dick Cheney, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, White House chief of staff John Sununu and others -- identified by Woodward as central to the war planning. No matter what Bush says publicly about having confidence in his golfing vice president, he hasn't made Quayle a part of his inner circle.

Indeed, Woodward shows us that the inner circle is about the size of hula hoop, a coterie of longtime Bush pals like Secretary of State James A. Baker 3rd and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. Powell, despite his position as chief of the military services, found himself left out at times in the pre-war discussions. He chafed at the absence of formal decision-making.

Powell really is the chief character of the book. He clearly gave lot of time to Woodward, and it's through Powell's eyes that the reader views many events. Though Powell has been faulted by some critics for having favored containment, he comes across as thoughtful and extremely intelligent. Those who'd like to see him vice president will find support in "The Commanders."

The book's importance rests in its depictions of the Bush administration's top decision-makers and the steps leading to the invasion of Panama and war with Iraq. No one else has reported so much. The flaw, a grave one, is that Woodward tells us nothing of most of those he interviewed or the circumstances of the interviews. ("Veil," Woodward's book on William Casey and the CIA, was similarly flawed.) He is the omniscient narrator; we must take him on faith or not at all.

This highly readable book might eventually be discredited by future accounts. But one thing is sure: Historians -- and administration officials who go on to write accounts of the war with Iraq -- will find it necessary to read this book before writing their own.

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