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White House wars speak volumes in America

Simon Jenkins

NEVER underestimate the power of a book. This week the veteran Watergate reporter, Bob Woodward, electrified the American presidential campaign with Plan of Attack, an intimate account of the run-up to last year’s invasion of Iraq. Within 24 hours of publication on Tuesday, a parade of top administration officials, including Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, rushed out responses. The Democratic challenger John Kerry mentioned the book at least twice in every speech. No chat show was complete without a plug and two current congressional hearings on Iraq are awash with its revelations. The potency of Plan of Attack comes from the fact that Woodward not only interviewed George Bush himself but had him encourage his Cabinet colleagues to talk to him too. When Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld balked, Woodward blithely reminded them that “the President wants this”. Mr Bush’s aides are even promoting the book as good for their boss’s image as a man of “prudence and resolve”. To all of them a book seemed safe, almost discreet. That medieval means of communication, black ink on dead trees, was still history’s most authentic vehicle. Woodward’s thesis is that Mr Bush was always determined to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The only questions were of timing and presentation. Hence the “fevered” antics of the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, playing Rasputin to Mr Bush’s ingenue tsar. Hence the massive distortion and pollution of intelligence in America and Britain. Hence the diversion of $700 million from Afghanistan to Iraq preparations without telling Congress.

Hence the “refrigeration” of Colin Powell, to whom sections of the Pentagon were “the Gestapo”. Hence a deal with the Saudis to keep oil prices high until just before November’s election. Hence the offer to Tony Blair to keep British troops out of Iraq, to shield him from his Labour foes. The story is of one long obsession overwhelming argument and reason in the highest reaches of power.

I find such indiscretion amazing. It is as if the entire US Administration had forgotten their “victory” in toppling Saddam and were seeing nemesis scything towards them. They were desperate to rebut history in advance. They emerge as rivals feuding while their mission lies incomplete and soldiers are dying on the battlefield. Each participant has his script. War must now vindicate history, not history war.

Woodward’s book is not alone. His account can be crosschecked with a groaning cliff of Iraq books at the door of every bookstore. Never can current affairs have claimed such public attention. Richard Clarke’s riveting Against All Enemies tells of Mr Bush’s lack of interest in al-Qaeda before 9/11, and for a year afterwards. Mr Bush’s former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, also describes the Iraq obsession in The Price of Loyalty.

President Nixon’s aide, John Dean, pitches in with a diatribe against the Bush cult of cabalism, Worse than Watergate. The fabrication of Iraqi weapons intelligence is related again and again in Hans Blix’s Disarming Iraq, in John Prados’s Hoodwinked: the Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War and in The Politics of Truth by Joseph Wilson (of Niger uranium fame).

These tales are jolted up a notch by Vanity Fair in what amounts to a 22,000-word “book within a magazine” on the shambolic countdown to war. Mr Blair emerges as a pathetic figure, offering almost sycophantic support to Mr Bush at each turn, only pleading for “the UN route” to appease his party dissenters. His claim, in the autumn of 2002, that there was “nothing decided” on Iraq cannot survive transcripts showing that he knew by July that “it’s a done deal”. His job was to cobble together enough hair-raising intelligence to get the Europeans in line. In this he failed, to Pentagon derision.

The combined blast of these books makes Britain’s Hutton inquiry look like a peashooter. Most illustrate our old friend, “cognitive dissonance”, the disease of leaders craving intelligence that supports their agenda and eventually getting it. CIA agents are ordered to “find” evidence of WMD or “lose your job”. Mobile labs, launcher trucks, aluminium tubes, anthrax phials and unmanned drones soon take on the iconic status of Watergate’s safes, tapes and break-ins. A dud invoice on some Niger yellowcake becomes proof that “he can nuke us in a year”. A smoking gun in one draft is a mushroom cloud in the next.

British Intelligence goes wild. While the Pentagon was passing unassessed raw material to the White House from the dodgy Iraqi National Congress, MI6 was recklessly giving Downing Street raw material from the rival Iraqi National Accord. This was the source of Mr Blair’s much-vaunted “45 minutes” claim, which appalled even the CIA.

Had everything run to plan none of this might matter. By now contented Iraqis were meant to be sitting outside the al-Rashid Hotel, toasting George Bush and Ariel Sharon in mint tea and reading The Wall Street Journal. Mr Bush’s Cabinet colleagues were supposed to be penning victory memoirs, not appearing shaken before congressional committees, let alone plea bargaining with history via the likes of Mr Woodward. We all know victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. But rarely has defeat’s path to the orphanage been plotted before birth.

In the event, it is Clarke’s book that is the most devastating. He is no dove and no liberal but the former White House chief of counter-terrorism. He may have something of a grudge but his message, that something went wrong the moment Mr Bush came to office, seems incontrovertible. What should have been a concerted campaign against known al-Qaeda cells became a fixation with Iraq. Even after 9/11, Mr Rumsfeld wanted to attack Iraq not Afghanistan. Iraq was “an idée fixe, a rigid belief, received wisdom, a decision already made”. When Woodward asked Mr Bush if he had consulted his father, he was told no, the President referred to “a higher father”. Iraq was holy war.

Nor is all this passing without dissent on the Right. Mr Bush is now running the greatest deficit in American history to pay for the war. One day this must be financed and painfully. Some conservatives are noticing. To them Saddam Hussein was an evil, but a budget deficit is an even bigger one. An editorial in the old conservative National Review even takes the Washington neocons to task for naivety in thinking that they could “ implant democracy in alien soil”. There are mutterings in conservative circles of the dangerous “neo-liberalism” of Mr Bush’s gobal ambitions.

Mr Bush has his supporters. In a subtle way they include Woodward himself, whose George Bush is often a sceptic, always careful, by no means one of the ranting Pentagon “Vulcans”. He can refer back to such neocon tracts as An End to Evil by Richard Perle and David Frum, and David Wurmser’s Tyranny’s Ally. But Mr Bush may also find comfort from the “hawk liberalism” of Jimmy Carter’s former policy aide, Zbigniew Brzezinski. His latest book is The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership. This criticises the Iraq adventure for its ineptitude but pleads for America to project its unrivalled power as a force for good. Brzezinski would not quarrel with the neocon demand of war as “a forward strategy for freedom”.

In other words, the wreckage of traditions, alliances, assumptions and conventions that is George Bush’s radical foreign policy is not going undiscussed. The bull may be crashing about the china shop, but Americans are meticulously plotting its path. This is democracy at work. Nothing is left to secrecy. Everyone talks. Public policy is for public debate. And it is debated in that most decorous of mediums, the book.

Back home, Britons characteristically wait in dutiful silence. Lord Butler of Brockwell is considering what they should be told of the war in which their soldiers are dying, when he is ready. I cannot imagine what his lordship will find that is not already stacked sky high in Barnes & Noble, 5th Avenue.