Plan of Attack, by Bob Woodward

A war that sucked the oxygen out of everything
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The Independent Culture

Bob Woodward is the undisputed king of access journalism and his book promises to provide answers to two important, related questions: Why did George W Bush go to war in Iraq? And why did Tony Blair go to war with him?

Bob Woodward is the undisputed king of access journalism and his book promises to provide answers to two important, related questions: Why did George W Bush go to war in Iraq? And why did Tony Blair go to war with him?

Inevitably, it is more impressive in supplying part-answers to the first question than the second. Woodward has many strengths, but an understanding of British politics is not one of them. At one point he describes the Labour Party as "a pacifist party at heart, opposed to war in principle".

The book is a remarkable early record of how the leading figures in the Bush administration moved towards the pre-emptive invasion of a country that turned out to be barely a threat to anyone.

Of course, there are caveats in the way source-driven instant history works. In his previous book, Bush At War, which reported the President's reaction to 11 September and his conduct of the Afghanistan campaign, Woodward presented the world according to Colin Powell, because the more hawkish members of the administration - apart from Bush himself - did not talk to him. This time, Bush made Cheney and Rumsfeld co-operate, because he feared that his Secretary of State would beat him to the "first draft of history".

Even so, Powell emerges with credit, simply because he was right. He warned Bush that he would become "the proud owner of 25m people", that a war would "suck the oxygen out of everything", that it "will become the first term".

Yet Bush pressed on. It is a gripping tale, not least because we all know how wrong it went. Even though the story is not really about him, Blair plays a surprisingly big role. Some of this is cliché-ridden caricature, as when Bush offers Blair an opt-out rather than have his government fall. "I appreciate that. It's good of you to say that," Blair repeated, "in his very British way". But Blair did help persuade Bush to go to the United Nations in September 2002. It was only because Blair asked him that Bush agreed to try for the famous second resolution in March 2003. And the pre-war launch of the "road map" to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement was "another concession to Blair". Those instances vindicate Blair's claim of influence over the world's superpower, but in the end he achieved nothing by them.

The one shocking revelation is of the fragility of the mood in Downing Street. Discussing where the eve-of-war mini-summit between Bush, Blair and José Maria Aznar of Spain should be held, "Blair's people were concerned about the Prime Minister leaving the country for even eight hours because of the Maggie Thatcher precedent, when in 1990 she had gone abroad to a conference and returned only to be ousted as party leader." Other "revelations" in the book are less surprising. The main one that has caught the attention of the media is that Bush started planning the Iraq war during the Afghanistan operation, although it was well known at the time that Iraq was a possible next target.

The question is: Why? And Woodward offers a rich and suggestive picture of the personalities involved. Saddam Hussein seems to have worried Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney more than he should have done because they were frustrated at America's inability to deal with him ever since the Gulf War. George W became incoherent when Woodward asked if he had sought his father's advice. "I'm not trying to be evasive. I don't remember. I could ask him and see if he remembers something... You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."

Woodward's book may not advance our understanding of why Blair made the choice he did, but it certainly tells us a lot about the man on whom he chose to gamble his political future.

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