Several times over the years, President Bush has publicly referred to Saddam Hussein's bungled assassination attempt against his father in '93. Do you think that was an important item in his mind?
I don't. Threatened assassinations or threats against the president are commonplace. They do not normally get public. But there are about 200 threats a month against this President Bush that the Secret Service investigates and will take each one seriously. ... So I don't think, in my reporting, that it was something that caused or was a great stimulus. I think it did factor in Bush's determination that Saddam Hussein is evil.
Now, let's really drill down. The 9/11 attacks happened. Almost by the minute, when after that, how soon after that does Iraq start being discussed, and by whom?
That night, Don Rumsfeld says, "This is an opportunity to strike Iraq, perhaps." And [Paul] Wolfowitz, his deputy, is pushing very aggressively and has even proposed a kind of somewhat crazy enclave strategy of just taking the oil fields in southern Iraq and using that as a base for anti-Saddam military actions or commando operations. All of the discussion of Iraq, it's there, it's serious, but the president and Cheney reject it and adopt very clearly an "Afghanistan first" policy. But it's background music.
Why did Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz want to strike Iraq instantly?
Rumsfeld saw it as perhaps an opportunity, and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, to a much larger degree, was very worried that Afghanistan would not be a success. We had no war plan for Afghanistan. Amazingly enough, at 9/11, at the time of the attacks, they said, "What have we got?" Well, it's too far away; it's a small Taliban government. We did not have the plans.
Obviously we had the war plans for Iraq. Wolfowitz felt very, very strongly that we needed to put a success on the board and felt always that Iraq was going to be easy; that it was [a] brittle, oppressive regime that would fall very quickly if invaded.
... Why wasn't [Cheney] for invading Iraq right away?
The very critical Camp David meeting, Sept. 14, 2001, where Bush called everyone together among the principals, and asked, "What are we going do? What should our response be?" This is when Iraq came up.
In the afternoon session, the president very pointedly said, "I'm going to ask Powell and [Chief of Staff] Andy Card and Rumsfeld and Cheney exactly what they think we should do." I believe that the vote was kind of 4-0-1 against attacking Iraq -- no one for it, and Rumsfeld kind of making the case, openly arguing at that point, that we should attack Iraq. Cheney makes a very strong argument for we're going to have to return to Iraq at some point, but not now.
Then why not now?
Why not now is the obvious: It looks like Osama bin Laden did this; his sanctuary's Afghanistan, not Iraq.
I'm going to ask you in a minute to tell the opening story of your book, Plan of Attack, Bush asking for the war plan. But is there anything that we should know between the Sept. 14 meeting and that conversation Bush had?
I think what's important is the bombing and the CIA activity in getting the Northern Alliance to actually launch ground operations in Afghanistan. Within the first six weeks, contrary to what was being written in some of the press, it was not a quagmire. It turned out to be at least a military victory.
So the pre-Thanksgiving 2001 atmosphere in the Bush White House was "Not only have we deprived Osama bin Laden of the sanctuary in Afghanistan, not only have we overthrown the Taliban, but we've stuck it to the press," which was, in some cases, forecasting a long war and a quagmire.
Now [tell me] the story of Bush asking for the war plan for the first time. What was going through his mind, do you think? What did he do?
Right before Thanksgiving, the president, after a routine NSC meeting, took Rumsfeld aside, and they went into a little cubbyhole off the Situation Room. And the president closed the door and asked Rumsfeld: "What war plans do you have for Iraq? Are they up to date?" And then Rumsfeld did a long thing about all the war plans are too complicated and outdated; they had not responded to him in the military sufficiently to make things quicker and easier and use lighter forces. And the president said, well, he wanted to examine those, specifically for Iraq, and that Rumsfeld was not to talk to anyone else, including the CIA director; that Bush would do that.
That starts the movie in terms of serious military planning for Iraq. Up to that point, what was on the shelf in Rumsfeld's view and in Gen. [Tommy] Franks' view was old and stale and not up to date. And it took them really 16 months to change the war plan, and it went through many, many modifications.
We can't read minds, but is Bush thinking at this point, I'm asking for the war plan because I want to go to war, or is he thinking, I just want to have all possible options queued up and ready?
I asked the president about why at this time and why Iraq, and his answer was he needed to be ready. He knew it was a threat. The world had changed after 9/11, and I think he, in the back of his mind, was preparing.
When I asked about "Well, why keep it so secret? Why not even tell the other principals in the National Security Council?" He said he was keenly aware of the angst that would get out into the country and the world if it was known he was looking at secret war plans for Iraq. He knew the controversy that would surround it, so he wanted to keep it secret. And it turns out they were able to keep it secret for months and months.
When do you think Cheney came to the view that war was necessary?
Cheney always thought that Saddam was something they needed to deal with, that it should not be a lingering problem that would go through the entire administration. I think 9/11 focused him on it. Cheney became the kind of self-appointed examiner of worst-case scenarios. Fits his personality.
The president assigned him the task [to] look at what really can go wrong that would be a catastrophe. This is before 9/11. So Cheney's already looking at the intelligence, and all of those reports that come in with, you know, top-secret code words -- "Blue Stripes," "Red Stripes," "Yellow Stripes," "Green Stripes" -- it's all stark. And it's all written in this kind of apocalyptic tone of "We have a communications intercept that so-and-so is talking about using a radiological bomb, or their chemical devices." And this is throughout the world.
So Cheney's immersed here. 9/11 occurs, and Cheney is already kind of at an elevated anxiety level. And he realizes that if the attack was with [a] chemical, biological or nuclear weapon, that 9/11, those conventional attacks, would be a mere footnote in history and that this would be the catastrophe for the country, for President Bush, for the Republican Party. And so he became spring-loaded to stop this.
When do you think his own mind was settled on it, that invasion was really the necessary step?
I think he pretty much tracked the president. I think the president -- and I asked him about this and asked others -- I think it was really a year later, after Christmas, the next year, when they were absolutely settled that war was necessary. There are others who have suggested, well, one of the important parts of this story is where in the narrative you can raise the flag and say momentum is taking over. And it's one of these points where, when you have the sum of all of the meetings and the war-planning sessions and so forth, they are greater than the sum of the parts.
And I was always looking for an off switch, when could the president have said no. And he could have. Cheney would have had a cardiac arrest quite possibly, but he could have said no. But when you feed in all of this planning and the war plan gets better, it looks definitely like Saddam is hiding something; he is a threat, with all the intelligence about alleged weapons of mass destruction. I never found a point where they met and said, "Well, let's really look hard at the downsides of doing this." It was always kind of "How do we make the war plan better? How do we make covert action better? How do we adopt a diplomatic strategy?"
What does that tell us about this president, how his mind works and how he functions as an executive? ...
Bush looks at problems. And he told me, he said: "I'm a gut player. I play by instincts. I don't play by the book." And of course the book is Policy 101 about how you make these kinds of decisions, and all of this [is] coming from the gut.
I think what the first step is -- "Do we have a problem? Saddam's a problem" -- there's this convergence, and fix it. In his mind is: "Fix it. Get it solved." You know, Colin Powell, fix it; Condi, fix it; Rumsfeld, fix it; George Tenet, fix it. And in this case, they had to all come together, and it took a long time. But I think he was pretty much committed. And he said so in that famous U.N. address in September of 2002. His message was: "You, the U.N., either solve the Saddam problem, or we're going to solve it by ourselves."
This leads to a couple of things. I'm curious how much you think it was part of Bush's thinking -- and maybe Cheney and Rumsfeld as well -- this idea of sort of strategically remaking the Middle East, which he's touched on several times, including, most recently, in his acceptance speech [for the Republican presidential nomination]; there's a sort of regional mess that we have to clean up. ... I'm wondering how much you think this element is part of their thinking.
It's a great question. There was no real serious discussion about remaking the Middle East. It was a discussion about and a deep conviction on the president's part about spreading democracy to Iraq specifically. But I think the focus was on Iraq and this idea of kind of remaking the world. My sense is, it is somewhat of a convenient afterthought in terms of the president. Now, I think it was in a part of the mix, and it was not something he rejected, but after you don't find weapons of mass destruction, after you have the continuation of the war, it becomes a much more powerful argument than in March of 2003 before you launch the war.
I'm curious whether you agree with the view that they actually did a terrific job planning the military operation and an unbelievably bad job planning the postwar.
I do basically agree with the view [that] in raw military terms, the plan was pretty good. It was well executed. They achieved the stated objectives that were military objectives, not political objectives. I mean, one of the objectives was to lay the conditions for a democracy, and they haven't done that 18 months later. So that reality has to be faced.
At the same time, when you go through the process I was able to do of interviewing these people, not just after the war, but while they were doing the planning and so forth, there was always that concern that the war would not go well; there could be lots of surprises. They genuinely believed that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and that he would use them. That changes the problem for them.
And so all the attention [is] let's win the war, and then we'll worry about the aftermath. And the mistake they made is, they did not get some high-powered person in the NSC -- maybe it could have been Colin Powell -- and said: "Powell, you're in charge of the aftermath. All of the resources, all of the analysis, all of the preparation -- that's going to be your job."
Now, it naturally fell to the military. Powell actually agreed that it appropriately would go to the military, because they would have the troops there. And so in a way it's understandable, and in a way -- at least the political opposition would argue -- it's unforgivable to not take this vital part of the aftermath and assign responsibility to somebody.
The president often asks at meetings: "Well, who's going to do this? Who's in charge?" They had somebody. They had [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith in the Pentagon who really was in charge, and then [retired Gen.] Jay Garner. But it wasn't given to a principal, and that person was not told: "This is your job. Do this right."
Why did they pick Feith?
They picked Feith because he asked. He actually came to Steve Hadley, who's the deputy national security adviser, and Feith said: "Look, we're naturally positioned to do this. This has been something that's not been done well. We are capable of planning the aftermath and executing the policy, and we will merge the two."
It seemed very appealing. It seemed like an advance on previous occupations. And the presidential authority was signed, I think, Jan. 20, 2003, so two months before the war started. I recount in my book lots of meetings where the president is briefed about how they're going to handle the currency, how they're going to handle oil, how they're going to handle the intelligence service, how they're going to deal with the military, and so forth. And so in a paper sense, it looks like they're doing a good job. No one was in charge, and no one was really looking at the truly dark side of what they could unleash.
You've covered a lot of administrations. How would you rate the level of discord on the Bush foreign policy team against past administrations? And if, as most people think, it's higher, why is it higher? Is that something about them, or is it something about Bush? Does Bush like it, as some people say? Explain.
I think the discord within the foreign policy inner circle around Bush is very, very high, and it has to do with Colin Powell, who doesn't fit. Not only is he the chief diplomat, but he is the reluctant warrior. He's the one who knew that going to war could have consequences which they really had not examined.
It became personal between Powell and Cheney such that they really couldn't talk about their differences, and it's two different worldviews. Cheney's is: Go in; use the military; don't be reluctant; you have to be tough. Powell's view is: Let's run the diplomatic trail as long as we can.
It also became personal between Powell and Rumsfeld. And so you have this collision of worldviews; you have personal animosity; and you have Powell, who is this respected retired general, not somebody who can just be thrown out the door by Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld.
And Powell played an inside game, not an outside game, in the sense of [on] the inside he argued very hard that they needed to examine the consequence of war. There is a now-celebrated dinner he had with Bush in August of 2002 [during] which he went through a list of things, and his essential argument got down to what he called the Pottery Barn rule: You invade; you own Iraq. You break it; you own it. You have taken down a government that's been there for a long time, and you're going to have to do a lot.
And it was a warning to the president [after] which I think you can argue the president should have said: "Time out. Stop the music. Here we have Colin Powell, 35 years in the military, secretary of state, has just issued a dire warning. Let's re-examine. Are we thinking about these things? How do we meet Powell's arguments?," and so forth. And essentially, what Powell was saying [was] play the diplomatic card, which Bush did, and he went to the U.N.
So why didn't Bush say, "Whoa, I'm going to really think twice about this"?
Well, if you want to know who George Bush is, look at the Iraq war. It's his war. It was his decision. He went through a very long process, considered lots of things -- maybe not all of the things that he should have considered.
But you ask anyone who's close to him -- in his Cabinet, in the White House, a friend -- and they just jump and say, "This is a George Bush decision."
So just follow into that. What does this decision tell you about him? Who is he? How does his mind work?
The first thing is that he is determined to solve problems. ... Once he is convinced something is a problem, if he has the power to solve it, he will try to solve it. And we know in my business, journalism, that you live in a world of doubt.
He has no doubt. I asked him; I said, "Do you have any doubt?" And I asked it in the starkest terms, because Tony Blair had said when he gets hate mail saying "My son died in your war, and I hate you," Blair said publicly you can't get letters like that and not have doubt.
I read that to President Bush in the Oval Office, thinking he might even say, "Well, you know, Blair's got a point." He just ignited and just said: "No doubt. I have no doubt." And I, as a reporter, spent a lot of time looking for doubt, looking for that moment when he kneeled on the floor, to see if it existed, and asked for guidance or forgiveness or something, and I found no such moment.
Do you know anybody else who's that sure of himself?
I really don't. And Bush's argument is, it was a considered decision; it was necessary. That's his job. Only he had all the information and arguments. And in the end, when you ask him, as I did, how's history going to judge this, he kind of shrugs: "History, we won't know. We'll all be dead."
Another Bush interview moment from your book, Bush at War: You asked him whether he thought of calling Brent Scowcroft after Scowcroft's op-ed piece questioning the war came out.
Now, it was not specifically that. I asked President Bush about his contact -- this was early on -- with outside foreign policy advisers, most notably Brent Scowcroft, who had been his father's national security adviser, somebody who later came out warning against an Iraq war. And Bush [said] again: "I have no outside advisers. I don't talk to these people. I've not talked to Scowcroft." And he said maybe some of those views get funneled through other members of the National Security Council.
But it's almost as if President Bush wants to wall himself off from that. He maintains he doesn't read the op-ed page; he doesn't read the editorial page; that he wants the information and the advice to come through channels.
Back to Powell in August of '02. So they have dinner, right?
Right. It was at the White House just before the president went for his long August vacation in 2002. So this is almost a year after 9/11. And Powell has been attending all these top-secret -- code word: "Polo Step" -- meetings about military planning. There's no diplomatic strategy. And he asked for a private meeting with the president in the White House. And the president brings Condi Rice, national security adviser. And Powell has notes.
His argument -- it's a very subtle argument, and this is why I say he's playing an inside game. It's not an argument against going to war as some have misportrayed it. It is an argument that [says] going to war will have all kinds of consequences. In the Middle East, [it] will have an impact on the supply of oil, will have an impact with our allies, will have consequences in our relations with Israel, and so forth.
And then he says: "Look, if you're going to go to war, it will be not only easier but necessary to have coalition partners. You need to get others in on this war, and the way to do that is to build that coalition or go to the U.N. and ask people to participate." So in a way, it's a strong argument against going to war.
But it's Powell saying: "Look, you have options here, and one of them is the diplomatic option. Maybe it will work. Maybe you'll solve this with diplomacy," though he was not arguing that forcefully. He was saying: "Go to the U.N. Saddam's unpopular in the U.N. There have been all these resolutions against him. Let's get a new weapons inspection resolution, and you will get the world behind you."
Why didn't Bush listen to this and say to himself, "Gee, maybe I'm not spending enough time thinking about what might go wrong"?
Because Powell -- again, it's only on restudying it that I understand this subtlety -- Powell really is not saying don't do it; he's saying: "Here is the way to do it if you're going to do it. And then if you solve it diplomatically, that will give you an off-ramp." ...
He was saying, "A president gets to make the decisions; I'm trying to give you the options." Somebody else sitting in the Oval Office as president well could have heard that argument and said: "Wait a minute. Stop everything. There are lots of downsides here. There are immense consequences. There are unknowns and unknowables. And let's really study this and make sure we're on the right track here."
But what Powell was doing was saying, "Well, let's just get others to join this on this track, and perhaps it will work diplomatically." But he was not making that forceful an argument, because in the Bush-Cheney world, the idea that the U.N. would solve something that was serious and solve it without a war, and solve it just with diplomacy, was almost preposterous.
I'm sure Bush doesn't ever think, I made a mistake in going in and invading Iraq. But he might think -- and we're maybe speculating -- he might think, gee, knowing what I know now, there's a few things I would have done differently; or, there's a few people who screwed up; or, [there are] some ways I screwed up. Do you think there's any of that in his mind; that the decision was right, but there were aspects of the way it was done that could have been improved?
You know, war is hard. It always is hard. And if you look at some of the worst-case scenarios, they did consider Saddam using the weapons of mass destruction he allegedly had. Instead of having 1,000 American servicemen and -women killed, it could be 10,000 or 20,000. There could have been a humanitarian refugee crisis. There could have been all kinds of crises that did not occur.
And as best I understand it, in Bush's mind, there are complications and miscalculations, but so many of the big things went right, and it was so important to solve this problem that he's willing to pay the price. ...
Do you think it crossed Bush's mind in October of '02 when the resolution went to Congress that he was going to be performing a neat little piece of political jujitsu on his potential opponents in '04?
No. ... There is a moment when Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, calls the senior White House people together and says, "The president is going to seek a resolution of support from Congress." And Card says, "The president wants the moral force behind him.
There's important history here. When his father was on the verge of launching the Gulf War, the question was whether to go to the Congress and seek a resolution. It was Dick Cheney, who was secretary of defense, who argued against it, said: "Congress will screw it up. You don't need it legally." And it was the first President Bush who said, "No, I need that."
And I think the son learned that lesson. And I think it was not designed to entrap people who might be his political opponents. I think it was designed to get as much support as possible. And he did. ...