The focus here is less on Bush per se than on the activities within the military, diplomatic and white house worlds on how to address the clear failure in Iraq. Bush seems almost a minor figure in the story told here.
It is clear that contrary to the claim that he listens to his commanders, Bush listens when they are saying what he wants to hear, and if they persist in saying things he does not want to hear, or if they fail to produce the results he wants, they are soon removed. Woodward offers a detailed view into the sundry policy reviews that were going on over the covered time period (2006-2008). It was clear that many within the military establishment realized that the Iraq war was a debacle and much effort went into examining not only what had gone wrong, but what was really going on at present and what needed to be done to achieve a successful outcome. A lot of first rate minds focused on these things, but only a small minority of their conclusions were ever presented to the president. Woodward brings us into the meetings, albeit with minimal attribution, offering eye-witness reports from those who were in attendance.
And then there was Bush. Even when offered the benefit of professional analysis, he opted to go with his ill-informed gut, and the bellicose whisperings of Dick Cheney. While there are some items of note here, I cannot say that I learned a lot that was new. We already knew that Bush cared little for thoughtful analysis. We knew that there was dissent within the administration. Maybe we got more detail than we might have had re the politics of military succession and political maneuverings.
Woodward displays some old-fashioned anti-Clinton bias when describing a meeting at which former president Clinton is asked to speak with a military committee. He enthralled the group and remained far longer than he had promised. He was clearly the best mind in the room. The topic is Iraq and Clinton hold forth on related concerns like Afghanistan, and how the current force commitment in Iraq has impaired our ability to address concerns there. Woodward describes him as meandering, when in fact, he is the very one who is keeping a focus on the larger picture, seeing the significance of our Iraq debacle in light of whole-world realities.
One thing I learned from this book was that the gains largely attributed to the surge are in fact the result of a separate program aimed at fusing signals and human intelligence with special forces black ops to eliminate many of the insurgency leaders, (all very hush-hush—don’t say too much or you’ll endanger the program) the emergence of home-grown alliances among various groups for their mutual self-defense, and Moqtada el Sadr’s withdrawal from the field of battle.
Aside from the news (and that it is news is a surprise) that the USA had been bugging Iraqi prime minister Maliki, there is little new drama here. It was cheering that there were some within the DC institutions who tried to oppose the madness and not a huge surprise that the politicals ran end-runs around the military leaders to keep from having to cope with anything like real internal differences. Still The War Within, while interesting and a worthwhile read, is the least of Woodward’s four Bush books.