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Book Review: State of Denial by Bob Woodward

State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward is a definitive break from his two previous Bush at War books which we reviewed here and here.  Finally, instead of being a dispassionate chronicler, Woodward takes a critical look at the bungled Iraq War.  Bungled is an understatement as Woodward illustrates gross incompetency, willful shifting of accountability and, as the title states, a denial of the reality of what was occurring in Iraq.  The style remains the same yet the tone has shifted to a building condemnation as Woodward uses his omniscient style to blatantly illustrate the problems among the political players and the military.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is the portrayal of Donald Rumsfeld as a megalomaniac.  The question arises about actually how accurate or overstated this picture is considering that Woodward does not reveal all his sources.  Yet even Rumsfeld’s sit down interviews with Woodward reflect the Secretary of Defense as evasive and non accountable, almost flippant, with regards to the bungled war.  The problem that is never really addressed is: What is Rumsfeld’s motivation to be an obstructionist, power hungry, micro-managing, military despising, prick, as he was portrayed by Woodward?  You never really get a sense of what drives Rumsfeld but it’s very hard to chalk up his poor performance to incompetence.  He takes on an enigmatic persona that never really gets cracked.

The most disturbing aspect of State of Denial is the rampant denial that occurs in Washington, whether a result of suppression or ignorance.  The denial begins at the top with President Bush whose certitude becomes an overwhelming weakness.  Bush becomes more of a cheerleader than a leader, always pushing optimism and taking any criticism or disparaging results as a betrayal of his decisions and policies.  The lack of open debate among the principals of government was appalling and a failure of government.  Furthermore, many of the interviewees of Woodward that provided him with so much critique had an opportunity to address the President with these concerns, and yet failed to do so.  Jay Garner, who was initially put in charge of rebuilding Iraq, saw the impossible task and the multitude of problems that they would face.  He faced the President twice and never expressed his opinions.  The level of deference given to the President and his misguided optimism and policies is shocking.  The President is a governing figure, not a King, and he needs to surround himself with dissenting voices as well.

State of Denial is the third of four Bob Woodward books on the Bush Presidency and of the first three it is the most revealing and the most honest.  I’m sure it will take decades for historians to sort through what really happened and the historical impact of the decisions that were made, however for now Woodward’s State of Denial is a good place to start.  The book provides, at the very least, a broad overview of the problems that the U.S. faced in Iraq and tries to give an inside perspective on how those issues were addressed, or not addressed.  The casual reader would be best off by skipping the first two books, Bush At War and Plan of Attack, and going straight to State of Denial which also provides a brief look back through all of the years of the Bush Presidency.