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Socialism Today 86 - September 2004

Inside view of the march to war

Plan of Attack

By Bob Woodward

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2004, £18-99

Reviewed by

Per Olsson

PLAN OF ATTACK is a well-documented and informative account of the Bush administration’s march to war against Iraq. It is an inside story – like a real West Wing – with Woodward having access to sources and information that other authors and journalists only dream of. Based on interviews with more than 75 key players in Washington DC, including President Bush on record, notes and minutes of meetings, it starts where Woodward’s previous book, Bush at War, ends.

Bush at War told the behind-the-scenes story after the 9/11 terror attacks on the US. Already in Bush at War part of the Bush junta insists that Iraq should be the prime target in the ‘war against terrorism’. In particular the secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, were eager to use September 11 as an excuse for going after Saddam. But the generals and the secretary of state, Colin Powell, were against. They argued that the time was not ripe, either politically or militarily. In late September 2001 Powell, according to Woodward in Bush at War, warned Bush against going to war on Iraq: "Our coalition partners will go away if you hit Iraq... let’s get Afghanistan now. If we do that, we will have increased our ability to go after Iraq – if we can prove Iraq had a role" (p94).

In the final days of the war against Afghanistan, however, Bush asked Rumsfeld for a private meeting, raising the question: "How do you feel about the war plan for Iraq?" The date was 21 November 2001 and this is where Plan of Attack begins. Bush’s question to Rumsfeld was the go ahead. "The processes of war planning", Woodward remarks, "become policy by their own momentum, especially with the intimate involvement of both the secretary of defence and the president" (p3). General Tommy Franks was given the task of drawing up the war plan, which fitted the Bush administration’s military doctrine – a modern blitzkrieg aiming to ‘shock and awe’.

Money is not a problem for the warmongers in Washington, their real problem was how to gain public support in the US and worldwide for war. Still there is nothing to prove that Iraq had a role in September 11. But this did not stop the hawks: "Lack of evidence did not mean something did not exist", as Rumsfeld said.

A majority of the US population thought Iraq was involved in 9/11 and Bush wanted to make sure that this opinion did not change. It was stated as fact that Saddam was sitting on a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and it was only a question of time before he started to use them. Vice-president, Dick Cheney, issued his own National Intelligence Estimate in August 2002 saying "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, our allies and against us" (p164). Cheney and other hawks, including the president, also argued that there was a convergence between terrorism and WMDs. CIA boss, George Tenet, who recently lost his job, reassured Bush twice that the existence of Iraq’s WMDs was a "slam dunk case". That Iraq had WMDs became an official, politically-motivated lie put forward not only by Bush but also, for example, by the British government. The official lie was necessary in order to turn the war against Iraq into the next chapter in the ‘war against terrorism’.

The Democrats had no problems in repeating the lies and spinned intelligence presented by the Bush junta. They were as hawkish as the White House. Senator John F Kerry, now the Democrats’ presidential candidate, told the Senate in October 2002 that he supported Bush’s war resolution because Saddam "has a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands and this is a grave threat to our security" (p203). The Democrats gave Bush a blank cheque.

Bush’s core argument was that the US could not wait "for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud" (p202). The truth, no doubt, was the first victim in the war against Iraq. Woodward’s book makes this clear. Not only the hawks but also those described as doves within the administration – the more cautious and multilateral wing led by Powell and his deputy, Richard L Armitage – never really questioned that Iraq had WMDs. It was Powell, after all, who went to the UN to present the case in public and, according to Woodward, was very flattered to get the job. At the UN on 5 February 2003, Powell said and did exactly the same as the others by converting lies, rumours and uncertainty into fact. He stated: "Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq together with al Qaeda", and "We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction" (p311).

Woodward is with Powell and Armitage, so much that his book could easily have been subtitled, In Defence of the State Department. The secretary of state, writes Woodward, warned Bush on several occasion that the war and occupation could go deadly wrong. The occupation of Iraq would "suck the oxygen of everything" by destabilising the Middle East, dramatically affecting the supply and price of oil, and would divert attention from everything else, including the war on terrorism. Powell is said to have asked himself: "What of an image of an American general running an Arab country, a General MacArthur in Baghdad?" (p150).

Woodward describes Powell, as "the reluctant warrior" who was urging for restraint, but never says, ‘Don’t do it’. Powell was not prepared to resign, despite all his doubts, and his feeling that he was "being frozen out by the White House" (p79). But why not? Woodward gives the predictable, not very convincing, answer that Powell was a loyal soldier: "He had to play to the boss" (p151).

Powell was less hawkish and seemed to be more aware of the political risks involved, but even his wing of the ruling strata backed the baseline policy of pursuing regime change in Iraq, even if that meant a full-scale war. "I’m with you, Mr President", was Powell’s comment when Bush informed him about his decision to go to war against Iraq (p271). What Powell then says in private and afterwards is of less importance.

In August-September 2002, however, the State Department convinced Bush to explore the diplomatic road and go to the UN. Woodward claims that Powell was hoping that the "internationalisation of the problem" could open up a road to regime change in Iraq without a war. Or that it could, at least, provide an "international cover" (Powell’s term) for war. The hawks and neo-conservatives simply regarded the diplomatic road as a waste of time, which could only give Saddam a chance to manoeuvre.

As time went on, the neo-conservatives and Pentagon officials became increasingly angry with the UN weapons inspectors who had not found any WMDs. The Bush junta spied on the inspectors. Their leader, Hans Blix, was accused of being a liar.

The growing opposition against the war has opened up historic divisions within the administration, the Republican Party and the US ruling class. Less than one year after 9/11, US imperialism was confronted with the first symptoms of a crisis. August 2002 was "a miserable month", according to Bush. The government’s unilateral approach was criticised in public by the Republican old guard and the anti-war movement started to become a factor. Particularly the criticism made by Brent Scowcroft, Bush Snr’s national security advisor, seemed to hit the Oval office. Scowcroft argued that an attack on Iraq could turn the Middle East into a "cauldron and thus destroy the war on terrorism" (p149), his views widely regarded as representing those of the older Bush. Scowcroft also recommended that Bush should try to get the UN weapons inspectors back.

The so-called diplomatic road was seen as a way to defuse the situation, but the basic line remained – war is inevitable. This unilateral approach and the arrogance of the Bush junta caused the most serious rift within the imperialist camp in the post-Stalinist era.

The march to war was ridden by crises and sometimes even panic. The generals insisted that the war had to start before March, partly due to weather conditions. There was a general feeling within the Bush administration that time was not on their side. The countdown to war had already been slowed down because of the difficulties of winning international support. Woodward writes that 15 February had been set as a potential start for the war, "if the inspections had gone according to the plan and exposed Saddam" (p319). But things had not gone "according to the plan".

In reality, 15 February 2003 was indeed a historic day. Thirty million people took to the streets globally to protest against the war. The anti-war mood was a factor in forcing governments to take a stand against the US’s unilateralism and to oppose its war. Woodward, however, only mentions the anti-war movement in passing. He writes that, after 15 February, "Bush’s chief allies were getting serious heat at home". He does not explain why. Woodward hardly looks beyond Washington DC, and sometimes the broader picture goes missing. Conflicts and splits at the top never occur in a vacuum. After 15 February, Bush ordered Rumsfeld and the military to "slow down your troop movements... we’re accelerating too fast relative to where we need to be because of the diplomatic side" (p 319).

The main reason behind this step was the crisis facing New Labour and Blair. Bush desperately needed Britain in his war coalition. In order to win the vote for war in the British parliament, Bush agreed to look for a new UN resolution and to present a ‘road map’ for peace in the Middle East. "Bush had never paid such attention to a debate or vote in a foreign legislature as the one going on that day [18 March] in the British parliament" (p375).

Blair, however, managed to win the vote, thanks to the full support of the Tories and two-thirds of New Labour MPs, and the day after there was a jubilant mood in Washington. US special operation forces entered Iraq. The next day was the first full day of the war.

That the war started on 20 March was partly because the US war coalition got information as to where Saddam and his sons were supposed to be staying. Missiles and bombs hit the Dora Farm complex outside Baghdad killing, not Saddam and his sons however, but the US informer.

Woodward devotes a big part of his book to the CIA’s covert operations in Iraq before the war. It was not like in Afghanistan where the CIA bought the warlords and re-armed them. Iraq was different. Only the Kurdish warlords in the north – areas effectively autonomous from the regime in Baghdad – could provide any kind of forces on the ground. In the rest of the country, the CIA had to find informers, or ‘rock-stars’ as they were to be called!

The lack of ‘boots on the ground’ meant that the CIA and the Bush administration promoted and worked closely with Iraqi exiles, who represented no one apart from themselves, but who sung to Washington’s tune. In Iraq the CIA chose to operate mainly in areas controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani. "The other Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), controlled the flow of trucks from Saddam’s Iraq into Turkey and was making a lot of money. The KDP was not altogether eager for regime change", writes Woodward (p141).

Tens of millions of dollars in $100 bills were paid out to anyone prepared to become an informer. At one stage, $35 million in cash was smuggled into Iraq, nearly one ton of $100 bills. It went so far that Talabani even complained to a CIA official (‘Tim’) that "everything in Sulaymaniyah costs $100. The $100 bills have caused extreme inflation. It seemed even a cup of coffee was going for $100 because no one could make small change" (p303). The informers did not just get rich, they were also offered "a seat at the table when the new, post-Saddam government is formed" (p 212).

Also, the so-called Iraqi opposition in exile was given millions of dollars and promised a seat at the table. In return, Ahmed Chalabi and Co, assured Bush that his troops would be greeted as liberators, which partly explains why the administration’s "assumption was that Iraqis would join in if it looked like the US was coming" (p81). This was just wishful thinking. But the fact that the war was fought on false political assumptions and lies rapidly turned the overwhelming military victory into a Pyrrhic victory.

The book’s epilogue was written after the war. Bush, Powell, Rumsfeld and the others interviewed are on the defensive, writes Woodward: "The failure to find WMDs and the continuing violence and instability inside Iraq – the fact that the war was not really over – has given a pause even to true believers". And after the battles of al-Falluja, the armed resistance by Shia Muslims and the prison scandals in Abu Ghraib, the situation has gone from bad to worse.

On 19 March 2003, Bush said to Blair that "opinion has changed". Yes, it has, but not exactly in the way Bush meant. The latest Pew report on global attitudes, A Year After Iraq War, shows that huge majorities – 80% in Germany alone – see the US as "less trustworthy" after Iraq. The report concludes: "A year after the war in Iraq, discontent with America and its policies has intensified rather than diminished... the war in Iraq has undermined America’s credibility abroad" (Pew Research Center, 16 March 2004,

In setting the Plan of Attack in motion US imperialism has become overstretched and is heading for a crisis, which in one way or another will almost certainly be featured in Woodward’s next book.


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