WASHINGTON — Beginning in late December 2001, President Bush met repeatedly with Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks and his war cabinet to plan the U.S. attack on Iraq even as he and administration spokesmen insisted they were pursuing a diplomatic solution, according to a new book on the origins of the war.
The intensive war planning throughout 2002 created its own momentum, according to "Plan of Attack" by Bob Woodward, fueled in part by the CIA's conclusion Saddam Hussein could not be removed from power except through a war and CIA Director George J. Tenet's assurance to the president that it was a "slam dunk" case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
In 3 1/2 hours of interviews with Woodward, an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post, Bush defended the secret planning and said war was his "absolute last option." But "Plan of Attack" describes how the growing commitments required of the military, the CIA and U.S. allies as the planning intensified would have been difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.
Adding to the momentum, Woodward writes, was the pressure from advocates of war inside the administration led by Vice President
Cheney, whom Woodward describes as a "powerful, steamrolling force" who had developed what some of his colleagues felt was a "fever" about removing Saddam by force.
By early January 2003, Bush had made up his mind to take military action against Iraq, according to the book. But Bush was so concerned that the government of his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, might fall because of his support for Bush that he delayed the war's start until March 19 here — March 20 in Iraq — because Blair asked him to seek a second resolution from the United Nations. Bush later gave Blair the option of withholding British troops from combat, which Blair rejected.
Woodward describes a relationship between Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell — never close despite years of working together — that became so strained that Cheney and Powell are barely on speaking terms. Cheney engaged in a bitter and eventually winning struggle over Iraq with Powell, an opponent of war who believed Cheney was obsessed with trying to establish a connection between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorist network and treated ambiguous intelligence as fact.
Powell felt Cheney and his allies — his chief aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith and what Powell called Feith's "Gestapo" office — had established what amounted to a separate government. The vice president, for his part, believed Powell was mainly concerned with his own popularity and told friends at a private dinner he hosted a year ago to celebrate the outcome of the war that Powell was a problem and "always had major reservations about what we were trying to do."
Before the war with Iraq, Powell bluntly told Bush that if he sent U.S. troops there "you're going to be owning this place." Powell and his deputy and closest friend, Richard L. Armitage, used to refer to what they called "the Pottery Barn rule" on Iraq — "you break it, you own it," according to Woodward.
But, when asked personally by the president, Powell agreed to present the U.S. case against Saddam at the United Nations in February 2003 — a presentation described by White House communications director Dan Bartlett as "the Powell buy-in." Bush wanted someone with Powell's credibility to present the evidence that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction — a case the president had initially found less than convincing when presented to him by CIA deputy director John McLaughlin at a White House meeting on Dec. 21, 2002.
McLaughlin's version used communications intercepts, satellite photos, diagrams and other intelligence. "Nice try," Bush said when he was finished, according to the book. "I don't think this is quite — it's not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from."
He then turned to Tenet, McLaughlin's boss, and said, "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD, and this is the best we've got?"
"It's a slam-dunk case," Tenet replied, throwing his arms in the air. Bush pressed him again. "George, how confident are you?"
"Don't worry, it's a slam dunk case," Tenet repeated.
Tenet later told associates he realized he should have said the evidence on weapons was not ironclad, according to Woodward. After the CIA director made a rare public speech in February defending the CIA's handling of intelligence about Iraq, Bush called him to say he had done "a great job."
In his previous book, "Bush at War," Woodward described the administration's response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — its decision to attack the Taliban government in Afghanistan and its increasing focus on Iraq. His new book is a narrative history of how Bush and his administration launched the war on Iraq.
Last week the president had to acknowledge that the violent uprising against U.S. troops in Iraq has resulted in "a tough, tough, series of weeks for the American people." But he insisted that his course of action in Iraq has been the correct one in language that echoed what he told Woodward more than four months ago.