This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Woodward says Bush insists he has no doubts about going to war

Published: December 2, 2004

Reporter Contributor

While researching his latest book, "Plan of Attack," acclaimed political journalist Bob Woodward interviewed countless members of the Bush Administration—including the president himself—to determine how and why the U.S. went to war in Iraq.


Investigative reporter Bob Woodward answers a question from WBFO News Director Mark Scott (foreground) at a press conference before his lecture at UB on Nov. 17.

Woodward told a UB audience recently that he had observed serious doubts about the war from within the administration. Yet, he found President Bush had no doubts whatsoever.

Woodward, a managing editor at The Washington Post responsible for special investigative projects, spoke about his book, calling it "a devastating critique of how and why we went to war," to a packed Alumni Arena on Nov. 17 as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series.

Woodward's delicate, yet pointed charisma seemed to warm and ease the minds of both liberals and conservatives in the audience, while pointing out what he said were alarming shortcomings of the White House.

Woodward began his speech by polling audience members to determine which candidate they had voted for in the recent presidential election. He then asked for another show of hands on whether the Bush tax cuts were bad and whether the war in Iraq was unnecessary. Acknowledging that UB was located in a "blue state," he noted that he had just asked three trick questions.

"I just wanted to see who the rich, war-mongering Republicans were in here," he joked.

Woodward provided some humor, but also addressed the serious concerns raised in "Plan of Attack." He said he wrote the book to find out why the president had decided to go to war and who George W. Bush really was. Woodward said he was granted the most interview time ever with a president—almost four hours—and asked Bush more than 500 questions.

He said that Bush definitely felt it was his duty to provide freedom to others around the world. Woodward said he found these feelings to be "dangerously paternalistic."

He said he was fascinated with the fact that Bush never took anyone else's opinions into consideration when making the decision to go to war—not even those of his father, who also had waged war against Saddam Hussein, nor Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had fought in combat.

Woodward said he stressed this point to Bush, who replied that "in terms of strength, I appeal to a higher father." Woodward said he found Bush to be very comfortable talking about religion and prayer.

Woodward said he tried to find at least one instance of doubt within the president before Bush made his decision to go to war. He said he found doubt among others, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who expressed concern after receiving hate mail from family members who had lost their sons.

He also found doubt expressed by Powell during a private dinner with the president in August 2002, during which Woodward said Powell gave Bush a laundry list of reasons why the U.S. first should approach the United Nations to try more diplomatic tactics before going to war. It was during this meeting, Woodward said, that he picked up Powell's now infamous "Pottery Barn" rule: "If you break it (meaning Iraq), you own it."

Woodward noted that at this time, Bush could have stopped and taken a deeper look at the consequences of going to war.

He also found possibility for doubt during an intelligence briefing on Iraq given by CIA Director George Tenet. During that meeting, Woodward said, Bush noted that the "public wouldn't buy it" (the rationale for going to war) and asked where the good intelligence was. Although Tenet told Bush not to worry, "it's a slam dunk case," the president knew the intelligence was not convincing or right, Woodward said. Yet, he said, Bush insisted that he never had any doubt.

Woodward said he asked Bush how he kept from "doing stupid things," to which Bush provided a curious answer: He worked out a consensus from his staff.

Woodward said that answer shocked him because he had never seen evidence of that regarding the war with Iraq.

"There was never a collective meeting about Iraq to discuss alternatives or to re-evaluate the situation," Woodward said. "There was a momentum, with no 'off switch.' The troop movements, covert action, the creation of momentum—there was no way possible we could've stopped this war."

But even though all this, Woodward said he found Bush to be a focused president, a courageous president.

"I said (in the book) that Iraq is a mess, and it's not clear how we'll fix it," Woodward said. "But at the same time, I try to pull back the camera, look at history and ask myself, 'what is the most important trait for a president?' Courage. And sometimes, courage means walking the road alone. It's possible in five, 10, 15 years we'll look at an Iraq with democracy and less terrorism."

Woodward said he doesn't want to politicize journalism, but simply provides the facts and takes the time to "find the root causes and explanations" of events and cases. He believes people should look at the facts and come up with their own meaning of the news.

Woodward concluded his lecture by comparing the 2004 election to the events of the Nixon Administration and how that provided a context for this past election.

Woodward and fellow journalist Carl Bernstein covered the Watergate break in for the Post, and that coverage, as well as the resulting book, "All the President's Men," contributed to Nixon's resignation.

"So many said the context (of the 2004 election) was so bitter, negative for the campaigns," Woodward said. "But people forgot what Nixon was like. Nixon used his power for crimes."

Woodward thought the Watergate tapes were so shocking that it should be a requirement of citizenship to listen to them. He found them to be "chilling" and "so small."

Woodward said citizens believe the presidency should be used for the good of the people, not for personal revenge. He said Nixon's presidency was "all about him" and that Nixon didn't think about what would be good or right for the American people.

Yet, Nixon was very smart, Woodward said, and that was clear on the day that he resigned the presidency. Woodward said Nixon used his televised farewell speech as a therapy session. He recounted Nixon's words: "Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, then you destroy yourself."

"What drove the Nixon presidency was hate," Woodward added, calling Nixon's hate and anger a "poison" that led to his demise.

Woodward noted that, in a sense, presidential politics have come a long way since the Nixon days because he doesn't consider Bush or Sen. John Kerry, Bush's opponent in the 2004 election, to be "haters."

After traveling around the country following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and listening to the family members of those killed in the attacks, as well as talking to other American, Woodward maintains that "we are not a nation of haters."

And yet, the Iraq war and "war on terror" defines us as a war-monger nation, he noted.

"We have not yet absorbed the full implications of the shock of going to a war that did not exist," he said, referring to the future consequences, both at home and in diplomacy abroad.