Commentary

Woodward’s Post-Electoral Prophecy

By Leon T. Hadar
This article appeared in the National Interest on October 26, 2006.

When people are gossiping in the real world out there, they usually tend to exchange some juicy buzz about the rich and the famous, like the latest love affair of this Hollywood star or that famous athlete. Mix a little bit of sex with money, drugs and a few revealing pics and the new issue of People magazine is on its way to the newsstand.

But in the capital of the world’s only remaining superpower, tongue wagging can be quite a bit more consequential, and the gossip contained in Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, delivers an implicit prophecy of post-electoral Washington. In the run-up to the elections, there is much speculation about the future power balance on the Hill. Amid this speculation is a clear augury of relative importance, if one interprets the message of Woodward’s sources.

In Washington we get titillated by a different kind of gossip. After all, can you imagine The Globe or Hello! Magazine revealing to their readers that “Rumsfeld and Powell disagreed violently on whether the NIE about the WMD, and in particular the ROCKSTAR intelligence, which included the GPS coordinates of the new air defense sites, provided by the NSA’s tactical SINGNIT packages and SSO communications (and which were authenticated during the CENTCOM briefing) should be discussed in the Principals Meeting at the White House.” But, hey, isn’t that a little bit more exciting than the latest dirt on Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Baby Suri?

Well, not really. But this is the kind of stuff that is regarded as sexy here, where when one refers to a “hunk” he or she is probably talking about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and where our leading “babe” is “Condi” Rice. This explains why the inside-the-beltway’s movers and shapers have been spending their power lunches chitchatting about the latest masterpiece of this city’s most celebrated gossip columnist—Bob Woodward.

Woodward who once upon a Watergate time was part of Bernstein-Woodward Washington Post team that had brought down President Richard Nixon, has given us an opportunity to follow the latest adventures of such local celebrities as Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, or Michael Gerson. No. These guys haven’t been included in People’s list of the Fifty Sexiest Men Alive. But what they and their colleagues had to say—a.k.a. “throwing dirt” about “Dick,” “Rummy” or “Condi,” not to mention the World’s Most Powerful Man—can turn on many Washingtonians. And, indeed, most of Denial reads like something written by a court stenographer who should probably be enrolled in journalism school so he could learn basic grammar, not to mention style, before returning to cover news.

Also, unless you’ve been in a comma in the last three years or have been receiving all of your news on UFOs and such things from The Globe, the basic narrative in Woodward’s new book should be familiar and encapsulated in its title. President Bush and his aides have been operating in a “state of denial” claiming again and again that the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq was a great strategic success despite the fact that it was becoming a huge strategic disaster.

There are a few minor scoops in the Woodward’s book. For example, he provides clear evidence that the Bush Administration has not told the truth regarding the level of violence, especially against U.S. troops, in Iraq. Hence, insurgent attacks against coalition troops occur, on average, every 15 minutes, a shocking fact the administration has kept secret. Woodward also reveals key intelligence that predicts the insurgency will grow worse next year and reports that that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is among those advising Bush to “stay the course” in Iraq. Kissinger has argued that Bush needed to resist the pressure to withdraw American troops from Iraq. To emphasize his point, he gave Gerson a copy of a memo he had written to President Richard M. Nixon, dated Sept. 10, 1969. “Withdrawal of U.S. troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded,” he wrote. (Dr. Kissinger’s Salted-Peanuts Model of Troops Withdrawal?)

But it seems to me that the most significant revelation in “Denial” is the portrayal of Rumsfeld as incompetent, narrow-minded and stubborn figure. Again there is nothing sensational about this depiction of the current Pentagon chief. What is interesting is the fact that according to Woodward, those throwing mud on the defense secretary included top officials in the Bush Administration, some of whom, including the former White House chief of staff, recommended that Bush fire Rumsfeld. Woodward also suggests that First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Rice were also hoping that Bush would retire the defense secretary.

Which bring me to the most important conclusion one should draw after “deconstructing” Woodward’s gossipy Denial—that Rumsfeld will not remain in the Pentagon after the coming November Congressional elections in which the Democrats are expected to regain control over the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate. The leaks against Rumsfeld that top Bush Administration officials provided to Woodward signal that the White House will probably replace Rumsfeld with someone who would be able to create the conditions for developing a more bipartisan approach to dealing with Iraq. More about that in Woodward’s next book.

Leon Hadar, a research fellow in foreign policy studies, is author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).