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Book Review: Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward

Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq by Bob Woodward is the second installment of Woodward’s Bush at War series and picks up where Bush at War left off, that is after the initial entry into Afghanistan and prior to the Iraq War. Plan of Attack focuses mainly on the build up to war in Iraq after 9/11 at the Cabinet level of the Bush administration. As in Bush at War, Woodward maintains his role of a chronicler more so than an analyst. Woodward gives a good account of how events unfolded and the interactions between all the main players but never dives seriously into one aspect, such as the issue of the WMD intelligence. He instead provides a insightful but broad look at the period covered. An intrigued reader can no doubt find other sources for in depth analysis of the different issues that arise in Plan of Attack.

The over arching theme that can be gleaned from Woodward’s account is the inevitability of the Iraq War, not the inevitability that it was a must do for Global and American peace but that it was going forward regardless of justification. Plan of Attack begins with Bush asking Rumsfeld about the Defense Department’s Iraq War plans on November 21, 2001, only 72 days after 9/11. It is apparent, with hindsight, that at the time many were deluded into thinking that the choice to invade Iraq was a reaction of WMD intelligence or 9/11 reaction, even perhaps the President himself, when in fact it had been building for a while.

The inevitable march to Iraq began before the President had even taken office through his choice of foreign policy advisors and then cabinet members.  As a President with little to no foreign policy experience or even knowledge, Bush was malleable to the advisors around him such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and their sub-ordinates like Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. To understand and appreciate more on Bush’s cabinet, see our review of Rise of the Vulcans by James Mann. It’s fair to say that the war drums started beating early and Bush eventually bought in fully.

However, more specifically, Woodward illustrates that at a certain point the momentum behind the military planning made the war become inevitable. The striking part of this is that it created a conundrum and deception that Bush and the cabinet had to go forward with, it was impossible to say they were going to war without pursuing diplomacy yet the diplomacy was a charade because they were going to war regardless of what happened in the UN. Also, once the informal decision to go to war or the inevitability of war became a certainty, the intelligence, which always has a level of uncertainty, became certain, or a “slam dunk,” in the eyes of the decision maker(s). It’s obvious that Colin Powell and his staff had come to this realization and Woodward chronicles what is clearly a discomfort by Powell who is pressured to be the good soldier and stay loyal despite his misgivings.

Plan of Attack can at times be somewhat of a dry account as there is much of the Franks/Rumsfeld war planning and the diplomatic maneuvering that is necessary but not always exhilarating.  The second book also spends a good portion rehashing some of what was already addressed in Bush at War. Ultimately, however, Plan of Attack falls into the Woodward formula of presenting current events into  a journalistic-historical account which is a very successful formula. In fact, this type of writing should probably be classified into its own category, Woodwardian.  Woodwardian books succeed at chronicling the recent history from those who are its subjects.  The strength is the access that Woodward is allowed and his ability to report on it. The weakness is that there is little reflection or analysis and the accounts of those closest to the subject may often not be the most honest.  Considering Plan of Attack was published in 2004, it will be interesting to see how the next two books in the series may turn out as the general opinion on the Iraq War quickly soured. Continue to follow the Bush at War series and with our RSS Feed or Facebook Page.