In recent months a floodlet of books has been published about President Bush, his administration and the war in Iraq. They range widely in perspective: there are books by reporters, by administration insiders and by counterterrorism and economic experts; books with conservative, liberal and nonpartisan points of view; books that offer a wide-angle window on the administration; and books that zero in on particular aspects of the war in Iraq.
Yet taken together with earlier volumes, these books create a cumulative and, in many respects, surprisingly coherent portrait of the Bush White House and its management style. Authors as disparate as the Reagan administration economist Bruce Bartlett, the New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh, the Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes and the New York Times reporter James Risen point to ways in which this administration has discarded past precedent, and illuminate its penchant for circumventing traditional processes of policy development and policy review.
It's a tropism, an instinctive reflex that informs the Bush White House's decision-making process, as well as its strategic and tactical thinking, a tropism that has played a major role in this increasingly embattled administration's approach to a host of issues from the war in Iraq to Social Security reform to the government's policy on torture. Many books about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq — including "The Assassins' Gate" by the New Yorker writer George Packer; "The Next Attack" by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, former National Security Council staffers under Bill Clinton; and "Squandered Victory" by Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad — also underscore related predispositions on the part of this White House: an appetite for big, visionary ideas, imposed from the top down; an eagerness to centralize decision making in the executive branch; and a tendency to shrug off the advice of experts, be they military experts, intelligence experts or economic experts.
In retrospect, these patterns underlie recent complaints from more than half a dozen retired generals that civilian policymakers at the Pentagon ignored the advice of military officers, and new charges by two C.I.A. veterans that the Bush administration selectively ignored crucial intelligence assessments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The administration's proclivity for broad-stroke, out-of-channels, even improvisatory policymaking is partly a function of the personalities of key administration figures beginning with Mr. Bush, a self-proclaimed gut player who prizes "the vision thing" over detailed analysis and continuing debate. And it's partly a reflection of an ideological outlook: a determination, in the wake of 9/11, to amp up presidential power, which many conservatives believe was diminished after Watergate; and a relativistic view of experts as bean counters beholden to the liberal establishment and status quo, a perspective linked with this White House's inclination to characterize everyone from reporters to members of the uniformed military to global-warming scientists as agenda-driven interest groups.
Inflexibility or Fresh Approach?
While critics of the president see his certainty as a sign of inflexibility, intellectual isolation and a reluctance to make course corrections, Bush boosters — who are fond of describing him as proactive, imaginative and unflinching — see his willingness to defy conventional wisdom as an asset. For them the administration's impatience with traditional policymaking channels means fresh approaches to old problems and a healthy disdain for plodding bureaucracy, and it also synchronizes with the "Persona" of the president, outlined by Karl Rove in a campaign brief: a "Strong Leader" with a penchant for "Bold Action" and "Big Ideas."
In "The Right Man," Mr. Bush's former speechwriter David Frum boasts that the president's post-9/11 decisions "discarded thirty-five years of American policy in the Middle East and repudiated the foreign policies of at least six of the previous seven U.S. presidents." And in "Rebel-in-Chief," his recent paean to the president, Fred Barnes describes Mr. Bush as an innovative leader who "operates in Washington like the head of a small occupying army of insurgents," a visionary who finds it "easy to overturn major policies with scarcely a second thought."
Mr. Barnes (who interviewed Mr. Bush, as well as other principals in the administration for his book) writes that the president was audacious in his decision "to sideline the national security policy of containment" that had been in place since World War II and bold in his willingness "to defy the foreign policy establishment and old allies," even though he acknowledges that Mr. Bush "wasn't well versed" on the subject of the Middle East when he came into office and "had run for president almost solely on domestic issues." On Social Security, Mr. Barnes says, the president ambitiously chose "the extreme option, the most controversial and least likely to pass."
For critics of Mr. Bush, his willingness to toss out precedent and boldly go where few have gone before smacks of arrogance and hubris, and indicates a disregard for both history and long-term consequences. As Francis Fukuyama, the apostate neoconservative, writes in his new book "America at the Crossroads," great leadership may involve "putting aside self-doubt" and "bucking conventional wisdom," but "bad leadership can also flow from these same characteristics: steely determination can become stubbornness; the willingness to flout conventional wisdom can amount to a lack of common sense."
Mr. Barnes may regard the president's aversion to managing "a problem or a dispute or a broken relationship" as an indication that he is firmly focused on the big picture, but the former counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke, writing in "Against All Enemies," argues that Mr. Bush looks for "the simple solution, the bumper sticker description of the problem." Issues like terrorism and Iraq require substantive analysis, Mr. Clarke goes on, but "Bush and his inner circle had no real interest in complicated analyses; on the issues that they cared about, they already knew the answers."
Supporters of Mr. Bush regard his go-it-alone management style, like his administration's unilateralism in foreign policy, as a sign of strength. Mr. Bush "has used his presidential speeches to advance policies far beyond where his aides expected him to go," Mr. Barnes writes. "Rather than reflect policy, his speeches dictate policy." Of Mr. Bush's second inaugural address in which he enunciated a goal of ending tyranny around the world, Mr. Barnes says he teased Condoleezza Rice: " 'You're not going to believe what I say,' he told her. 'I hope I get to see it before you give it,' Rice responded. What she and other senior Bush advisers later saw was a near-final draft to which only minor changes could be made. The thrust of the speech — the new direction, the policy declaration — had been set."
Sidestepping Usual Channels
The fallout of the Bush administration's penchant for out-of-channels policymaking would be felt most acutely in the build-up to the war in Iraq. James Risen — the New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize with Eric Lichtblau for exposing the government's secret domestic wiretapping program — observes in his new book "State of War" that "the national security bureaucracy is maddeningly slow," but its checks and balances provide an important "moderating influence." The president and his principals "held almost constant, crisis-atmosphere meetings, making decisions on the fly," after 9/11, Mr. Risen writes. "Instead of proposals gradually rising up through the normal layers of the government, they were introduced and imposed from above. Debate was short-circuited."
The usual channels for intelligence assessment were sidestepped too, contributing to incorrect prewar assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In "Chain of Command," a book based on his groundbreaking New Yorker reporting, Seymour M. Hersh notes that an intelligence operation was set up at the Pentagon as a kind of alternative to the C.I.A. It was created, he writes, to find evidence of what Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and his boss, Donald Rumsfeld already "believed to be true — that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons." Much of what the Pentagon unit reviewed was raw data, unvetted by intelligence professionals; it was cherry-picked for its usefulness in supporting the hawks' idées fixes about Iraq, says Mr. Hersh, and then stovepiped "directly to the Vice President's office, and then on to the President."
Several books on the Iraq war also argue that because of Vice President Dick Cheney's enormous power, because of infighting between the Defense and State Departments, and because of the reluctance of the former national security adviser, Ms. Rice, to knock heads, the role of the National Security Council — which is supposed to advise the president and forge interagency consensus — was diminished in the days before the war.
In "The Next Attack," Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Simon write that essential decision making and planning did not take place in what Larry Wilkerson, then Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, calls "the statutory process of the NSC but in the parallel process run by Cheney," who had assembled his own national security staff of 14 and who maintained direct ties to his old friend Mr. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.
For War, a 'Decision Happened'
According to books published so far, even the ultimate decision to go to war against Iraq — a war that has already resulted in, as of Tuesday, 2,416 (and counting) United States military deaths, and an estimated more than 35,000 Iraqi deaths (according to Iraq Body Count, an independent media-monitoring group) — seems to have been somewhat ad hoc. In "The Assassins' Gate," Mr. Packer quotes Richard Haass, the former director of policy planning in the State Department, saying that a real weighing of pros and cons about the war never took place: "It was an accretion, a tipping point," Mr. Haass says. "A decision was not made — a decision happened, and you can't say when or how."
Bob Woodward writes in "Plan of Attack" that "other than Rice, Bush said he didn't need to ask the principals whether they thought he should go to war": "He knew what Cheney thought, and he decided not to ask Powell or Rumsfeld" because he says he "could tell what they thought." Mr. Woodward, who has a third book on the Bush administration in the works, also suggests that simple momentum — including a build-up of troops in the region — became a factor in the president's decision to go to war.
Preparations for the occupation, by all accounts, were even more disorganized. "Planning efforts were undertaken in several different parts of the bureaucracy with little or no coordination," Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin write in "The Next Attack," adding that many officials were "working 'out of channels,' issuing directives without ever having their plans scrubbed in the kind of tedious, iterative process that the government typically uses to make sure it is ready for any contingency."
To make matters worse, arguments that dissented from the rosy postwar story lines envisioned by administration hard-liners tended to be shrugged off. Francis Fukuyama contends that neoconservative policymakers, who felt they had been looked down upon by the foreign policy establishment for years, were "excessively distrustful of anyone who did not share their views."
"Bureaucratic tribalism exists in all administrations, but it rose to poisonous levels in Bush's first term," Mr. Fukuyama writes. "Team loyalty trumped open-minded discussion, and was directly responsible for the administration's failure to plan adequately for the period after the end of active combat."
Even though the State Department had led postwar efforts in Afghanistan and the Balkans, the Pentagon was initially given authority for the administration and rebuilding of Iraq. Because of ideological and turf battles, the State Department's Future of Iraq Project — which, Larry Diamond says addressed "key problems that would confront the postwar order in Iraq" — was largely ignored.
Ignoring Expert Advice
Virtually every book about the war in Iraq — whether by a reporter, or a military, intelligence or Coalition Provisional Authority insider — is replete with examples in which expert advice was ignored or rebuffed by the administration. In "The Assassins' Gate," Mr. Packer reminds us that before the invasion, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that postwar Iraq would require "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" and was shot down a few days later by Mr. Wolfowitz, who declared his estimate "wildly off the mark."
Mr. Packer also reports that Gen. Anthony C. Zinni — who as the former commander in chief of United States Central Command had prepared a contingency plan for Iraq should Saddam Hussein ever fall — learned that his plan had been dismissed at the Pentagon as "too negative." And Mr. Bush's economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay, who predicted that the war could cost as much as $200 billion (some current estimates are already running as high as a trillion dollars) was, in Mr. Packer's words, "quickly reprimanded and eventually fired."
The Rand Corporation, the Army War College, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University also produced reports, Mr. Packer notes, that "were striking for their unanimity of opinion": "Security and reconstruction in postwar Iraq would require large numbers of troops for an extended period, and international cooperation would be essential." These troops would be needed to seal the country's borders, secure armament caches, contain local militias and restore a sense of law and order. Last month, Colin Powell gave an interview in which he said that he too had recommended before the war that a higher number of troops be sent to Iraq.
These warnings were not heeded by the administration, writes Mr. Diamond, because those numbers did not fit in with its willfully optimistic assumptions that "American troops would be welcomed as liberators by an Iraqi population joyous at their deliverance from the clutches of Saddam's regime, that resistance would be limited, and that the Iraqi state would remain intact." Nor did they fit in with Mr. Rumsfeld's determination to transform the military and to conduct the war with a lighter, faster force.
Mr. Diamond, a leading American scholar on democracy and democratic movements, went to Baghdad as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority at the behest of Ms. Rice, his old Stanford University colleague. He came away convinced that postwar problems in Iraq — an increasingly virulent insurgency, the creation of a new breeding ground for terrorists, and metastasizing ethnic and religious tensions — were the result of a series of missteps and misjudgments made by the Pentagon and Bush White House.
Upon his return to the United States in 2004, Mr. Diamond says he wrote Ms. Rice a long memo, recommending that America "disavow any long-term military aspiration in Iraq," establish a target date for the withdrawal of our forces, respond to concerns about Iraqi detainees and send "significantly more troops and equipment." He says he never heard back from her.
Bremer and the Administration
L. Paul Bremer III, America's former proconsul in Iraq, was similarly stonewalled by the administration on the question of troop levels. In his recent memoir, "My Year in Iraq" (written with Malcolm McConnell), he says that before leaving for Iraq in May 2003, he sent Mr. Rumsfeld a copy of the Rand report estimating that 500,000 troops would be needed to stabilize postwar Iraq (more than three times the number of troops then deployed); he says he never heard back from the defense secretary.
A year later Mr. Bremer sent Mr. Rumsfeld a message saying that "the deterioration of the security situation since April had made it clear, to me at least, that we were trying to cover too many fronts with too few resources" and recommended that the Pentagon consider the deployment of "one or two additional divisions for up to a year." Once again, he says, he never heard back from the defense secretary.
Mr. Bremer says of his own controversial May 2003 announcement formally dissolving the Iraqi army (a move that critics say has contributed to the security vacuum and put several hundred thousand armed Iraqis on the street with no jobs and no salaries), that the decision was made in consultation with Mr. Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and authorized by Mr. Rumsfeld.
But as the authors of "Cobra II," Gen. Bernard E. Trainor and the New York Times military correspondent Michael R. Gordon, recount, this decision "blindsided" commanders on the ground in Iraq and officials back home in Washington. They write that Lt. Gen. David McKiernan and Lt. Gen. John Abizaid considered "the decision an abrupt and unwelcome departure from their previous planning"; Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "said later that the Joint Chiefs were not consulted about the decision" and Colin Powell "did not know about it in advance."
Questions about the administration's management style and its attitude toward experts have hardly been confined to the subject of Iraq, but have been raised by reporters and former insiders in a wide array of areas. In "Impostor," the conservative economist Bruce Bartlett argues that the failure of the current White House "to chart or articulate a consistent economic policy" stems in large measure from "Bush's disinterest in serious policy analysis" and the marginalization of people with genuine expertise. He writes that former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and his successor John W. Snow were treated as "little more than errand boys," and that the "main job" of R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers "was not to devise economic policies, but only to offer support for those Bush had already decided upon."
They are observations echoed by Mr. O'Neill and John DiIulio, the former head of Bush's faith-based initiative, who are quoted at length in Ron Suskind's book "The Price of Loyalty" and who both complain about the lack of a policy apparatus in the Bush administration and the subordination of policy to political considerations.
During eight months at the White House, Mr. DiIulio says he heard "not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions," and he marveled at the "lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more" on the part of the West Wing staff.
Mr. O'Neill, who fought a losing battle against more tax cuts before he was forced out as treasury secretary, describes to Mr. Suskind a profoundly dysfunctional White House, in which meetings often felt scripted around pre-determined outcomes, personal fealty to the president trumped the spirit of honest inquiry and cabinet secretaries were frequently overruled or not consulted about important decisions on their turf. Mr. O'Neill suggests that politics, rather than sound policy judgments were at work in the president's decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and his flip-flops on the environment. And like Richard A. Clarke, he says Iraq was on the administration's agenda long before 9/11.
Bill Minutaglio's book on Attorney General (and former White House counsel) Alberto R. Gonzales, due out this summer, also cites a number of potentially momentous cases in which the administration appears to have made end runs around traditional policy channels. In galleys to "The President's Counselor," Mr. Minutaglio reports that on the explosive subject of how to prosecute captured terrorists, a task force of lawyers and criminal prosecutors from the Justice Department, the State Department, the Office of Legal Counsel and the military was put together after 9/11, but was soon disbanded, as Mr. Gonzales and his legal team grew impatient with Department of Justice talk about criminal trials.
The White House counsel's office "with the help of hardliners from the Office of Legal Counsel," Mr. Minutaglio writes, took "charge of any planning for the prosecution of foreign prisoners captured during the new war on terror" and by November "had formulated a proposal that would pave the way for the most aggressive military tribunals since World War II — ones that would suspend the kinds of rights normally afforded Americans in the U.S. judicial system."
These formulations, Mr. Minutaglio goes on, "were crafted and designed in remarkable isolation — in secret and divorced from Condoleezza Rice and influential members of the State Department."
Power and the Executive Branch
Other maneuvers by the White House in the legal arena have provoked controversy as well. In December, New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that after 9/11, Mr. Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans in search of evidence of terrorist activity, without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying. And last month The Boston Globe reported that Mr. Bush has issued more than 750 "presidential signing statements" since taking office, asserting that he has the right to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.
Such moves by the Bush White House underscore the point made by many books about this administration's proclivity for remaking (some would say, subverting) Washington's traditional policymaking machinery, a tendency indicative, say some critics, of its alarming efforts to widely expand the power of the executive branch. Although Bush believers like Fred Barnes and the former press secretary Ari Fleischer ("Taking Heat") often depict those critics as members of a vast left-wing conspiracy, readers of the many books about the Bush White House will notice that an author's view of the administration's out-of-channels policymaking is not necessarily determined by right/left, red-state/blue-state sympathies; nor is it determined by whether an author supported the original decision to go to war against Iraq.
Bruce Bartlett, the author of "Impostor," a scorching deconstruction of the Bush administration's economic policies, writes as an ardent Reaganite; and George Packer, the author of one of the most devastating accounts of Mr. Bush's prosecution of the war in Iraq, writes as an "ambivalently prowar liberal" who had wanted to see Saddam Hussein, "a homicidal dictator removed from power before he committed mass murder again."
In some corners there has also been a growing emphasis not on the Bush administration's ideology, but on its practical ability to govern effectively. The historian Douglas Brinkley, writing about Hurricane Katrina in his new book, "The Great Deluge," repeatedly uses the word "incompetence" to describe the response of President Bush and his administration to the disaster on the Gulf Coast, the same term used by conservatives like Max Boot and William Kristol to describe the administration's handling of Iraq and other issues, and by retired General Zinni and retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton to describe Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's direction of the war.
With a growing chorus of such criticisms, combined with plummeting poll numbers, the White House may be forced to rethink the efficacy, if not the philosophical implications, of its modus operandi. The administration's growing problems suggest that Mr. Bush might have done well to put aside his yearning, as Fred Barnes notes, to be an "event-making leader" who "by himself, changes the course of history" and focused instead on a task Mr. Barnes says is not even on the president's radar: "being an 'eventful leader' who merely handles the tribulations of his era skillfully."