Skip to content

Book Review: Bush at War by Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward set out to write about George W. Bush’s first year as President, covering his tax cuts and domestic agenda, but when September 11th happened it changed the focus of his book.  Instead Woodward covered the Administration after 9/11 occurred and their implementation of the War on Terror, specifically on the Afghanistan front.  The book was published as Bush at War and it gives the reader an inside account into the National Security Council meetings as they planned the response to 9/11.  This began a series of four books that Woodward would write on the Bush II Presidency, all of which will be reviewed by

Bush at War threads a narrative together out a large number of interviews, notes and quotations about the tenuous time after 9/11 and the buildup to the War on Terror.  Woodward does an excellent job at making the reader feel as if he were present in the meetings described; now to what degree these accounts may be distorted is up to the reader to decide for himself.  Woodward also uses a very passive voice to strictly document the accounts but he rarely weighs in with a judgment of his own.  That passive role of the author probably does more to limit the book than give it any objective standard.  Woodward doesn’t need to give us his opinion on technical matters or decisions; however, it would probably benefit the narration if Woodward would stand out on a limb with his observations more.  For example, if Rumsfeld looked peeved explain to us readers why, in your qualified opinion as an observer.  Those opinions are of great value to a reader who cannot deduce what the author may be able to.

Some of the more interesting revelatory points in the book are as follow:

  • The role the CIA played in the Afghanistan War.  While the Defense Department and military were unable to react with any quickness, much to Rumsfeld’s dismay, the CIA was able to get paramilitary teams on the ground.  Those teams were able to use money to support the Northern Alliance force teams and coordinate air strikes.  George Tenet comes off very well in Bush at War, as does the CIA in general.
  • The logistic demands of waging a war in Afghanistan were mind boggling. Not only is the terrain and political situation extremely dangerous, but access to Afghanistan for the U.S. is limited.  Afghanistan is surrounded by states that are not very friendly to the U.S. even after the global outpouring of sympathy for 9/11.  A lot of diplomatic and military wrangling was needed to even gain access to Afghanistan.
  • The beginnings of the Iraq war were evident early as Rumsfeld consistently brought up the idea that the US should strike elsewhere too and not limit themselves to Afghanistan.  Cheney too started the dialogue about states with Weapons of Mass Destruction.
  • The divisions in the cabinet and NSC were evident in this book.  It was apparent that there was a large philosophical divide between Powell and Rumsfeld/Cheney which led to moments of tension.  Woodward doesn’t explain their histories or get too deep in their foreign policy beliefs, yet it was obvious that Powell was in the more militaristic moderate camp.  Rice, though perhaps the closest to Bush, did not seem to push the debate in any direction.
  • The book also details how vulnerable everyone felt to another attack, which cannot be understated.  The fact that it’s now 2010 and no significant terror attack has occurred on American soil since 9/11 makes it hard to remember the fear and uncertainty that was endemic in the months after 9/11, especially with the Anthrax scares.  This concern also played a large role in how the Bush Administration prosecuted the War and the urgency that both Bush and Cheney felt.

Finally, the Epilogue may be the best section of the entire book and may even be substitutable for the reading the book.  In the Epilogue Woodward briefly details the US successes in Afghanistan, the diplomatic efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Powell’s struggle to connect and influence the President, and finally, the buildup to the decision to invade Iraq.  That section of the book reveals more about Bush, his cabinet, and his Presidency than all the previous chapters.  Bush at War definitely gives an insider perspective that few books can rival, yet ultimately it is up to the reader to come to their own conclusion about the decisions, motives and personalities of all involved the account.