Sept. 29, 2006 - There are few journalists in Washington who can throw the White House off its stride: Bob Woodward is one of them. Woodward’s new book, "State of Denial," paints a damning picture of White House policy in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. After The New York Times printed excerpts of the book on Friday, the West Wing immediately went into full damage-control mode, as top aides tried to figure out how to respond. Woodward had delivered copies of the book to the White House on Friday morning—earlier than they expected because of the newspaper leak. The arrival of a Woodward Tome has become a kind of biennial ritual in Washington. The last two, which detailed the Afghan war and the successful early invasion of Iraq, were fairly kind to the president and his staff. But this was a different kind of book, and the administration was already bracing for a rougher ride.
The White House stayed quiet all morning, until the press briefing, which began unusually late. Soon after press secretary Tony Snow stepped up to the podium, it was clear the White House had settled on a time-tested strategy: deny, downplay and sidestep. Snow had a quip at the ready. “The book’s certainly cotton candy—it kind of melts on contact.”
The calculated ho-hum reaction is partly the result of having already responded to several critical books on Iraq in recent months—as well as public discontent with the war. Bush’s aides believe they have already debated extensively the conflicting recommendations about troop levels, and consider that an old—and exhausted—dispute.
White House officials also think they can easily knock down Woodward’s premise that Bush has misled the public about the level of attacks on troops in Iraq. Since late last year, Bush has spoken more openly and directly about the nature of the enemy in Iraq and the scale of the challenge in building a peaceful and democratic nation. Snow himself quoted Bush at length at a press conference in Chicago in July saying, “We’ve lost obviously a lot of lives here in the homeland, and we lost lives overseas.” Snow added that Bush had been telling the American people that “it’s a war that’s going to outlive his presidency.”
The harder material for the White House to dispute concerns Donald Rumsfeld—including harsh assessments of the Defense Secretary from Pentagon brass. According to the book, General Jim Jones, the NATO commander, told his friend Peter Pace, then in line to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to steer clear of the job. "Military advice is being influenced on a political level," he said. The JCS had improperly "surrendered" to Rumsfeld. "You shoul not be the parrot on the secretary's shoulder," Jones said.
Administration officials prefer to either dismiss those stories as “gossip” (as Snow did on Friday) or sidestep them altogether. According to Woodward, former Chief of Staff Andy Card recommended that Rumsfeld should be fired. Instead of disputing that, Snow dodged the question altogether with an admirably confusing non sequiter. "Anybody who knows Andy Card knows that there's not a bitter bone in his body."
Bush’s aides concede that they can't dispute the book's direct quotes from Card about his desire to see Rumsfeld leave. Instead, they focused their denials elsewhere. They rejected outright Woodward's contention that First Lady Laura Bush dislikes Rumsfeld. But the Bush team cannot easily dismiss Woodward's reporting skills outright. In his earlier two books—Bush At War and Plan of Attack—Woodward gained extensive cooperation from the White House, and Bush officials openly praised the quality of his reporting. This time around, neither Bush nor Dick Cheney agreed to be interviewed. That doesn’t mean the White House froze Woodward out, merely that he was kept at the same distance as most journalists in Washington. As the president now knows, Woodward isn't fond of the view from the cheap seats.
Donald Rumsfeld's Continuing Fights
More Questions About
Defense Secretary's Leadership
October 2, 2006; Page A4
WASHINGTON -- For months, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been cast by Democrats and even some Republicans as the face of an unpopular war.
Now a new book, which paints Mr. Rumsfeld as isolated from his Bush administration colleagues and at odds with some of his generals, is providing fodder for more questions about his leadership.
The heightened focus on the defense chief -- sparked in part by publication of "State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III" by Washington Post editor Bob Woodward -- is complicating White House efforts to keep November's midterm elections from becoming a referendum on the war. Just as significantly, Mr. Rumsfeld's apparent increasing political isolation is affecting how he runs the Defense Department and oversees the war.
The criticism continued yesterday. "I don't have confidence in Don Rumsfeld. He's made major mistakes in this war," said Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican facing a tough re-election campaign. Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. DeWine stopped short of calling for Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation, saying that should be President Bush's decision.
Yesterday, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters that he isn't considering resigning and that Mr. Bush telephoned him recently to express his confidence in the defense chief.
Meanwhile, senior White House officials made it clear that Mr. Bush still supported Mr. Rumsfeld. "There are a lot of armchair quarterbacks, but he's the right man," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett on CBS's "Face the Nation."
The controversy over Mr. Rumsfeld's leadership does look to be changing the way he manages the military's massive bureaucracy, forcing him to take a less-direct approach to running the department. An example of this is the Army's recent budget woes. Typically, the Secretary has played a significant role in advocating for major changes to the Pentagon budget. This year, rather than make the case himself for a bigger Army budget, Mr. Rumsfeld left it to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker to make the case on his own and to sell it to Congress and the White House.
Gen. Schoomaker has told lawmakers that the service needed $17 billion in the fiscal year that started yesterday to repair equipment. In briefings on Capitol Hill and the White House, the service has said it needs $137 billion in fiscal 2008, a $24 billion increase over the planned budget for that year.
The shift in approach in many ways amounts to an acknowledgment by Mr. Rumsfeld of his own vulnerabilities. "If Rumsfeld comes in and asks for more money for the Army, it is evidence of bad management," said Daniel Goure, who served on Mr. Rumsfeld's Pentagon transition team in 2001 and now is a vice president at the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Washington. By allowing the Army to make its own case, the defense chief avoided additional criticism by some lawmakers of how he has handled the war. "It shows he understands his weaknesses," Mr. Goure says.
A spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld, Eric Ruff, yesterday disputed the notion that the Secretary has changed his approach, and added that Mr. Rumsfeld has been "heavily engaged" on Capitol Hill over issues regarding the coming budget and has met repeatedly with members of Congress.
Despite his efforts to assume a lower profile, Mr. Rumsfeld still presents a political problem for the administration. Amid concerns that the war could cost Republicans control of at least one chamber of Congress next month, the White House has tried to mix acknowledgments of Iraq's continuing chaos and violence -- and some of the administration's own miscues -- with calls for staying the course there.
It is a difficult message to calibrate, and White House aides say Mr. Rumsfeld, who is arguably the most polarizing figure in the Bush cabinet, has made the task even harder.
Senior White House aides say Mr. Bush, having backed Mr. Rumsfeld for so long, is unlikely to abandon him in the run-up to next month's midterm elections. Moreover, polls suggest that firing the defense chief wouldn't do much good. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, only 44% of respondents said Mr. Rumsfeld should resign and about 68% said his resignation would amount to little more than a symbolic gesture.
The aides say the White House has sought to reduce Mr. Rumsfeld's public role, to keep him from possibly weighing on the administration's poll numbers. That was evident in late July, when the U.S. announced a major shift in military strategy in Iraq that called for deploying thousands of additional American forces to Baghdad in an effort to secure the Iraqi capital. The announcement wasn't made by Mr. Rumsfeld. Instead, Mr. Bush disclosed the plans himself during a joint news conference with visiting Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki.
Mr. Woodward's book, which states that senior White House aides tried twice to persuade Mr. Bush to fire his defense chief, complicates the Bush strategy.
In recent days, some officials in the White House and one prominent military commander have raised questions about Mr. Woodward's account. He says that on multiple occasions Gen. John Abizaid, the top military commander in the Middle East, said Mr. Rumsfeld was an ineffective leader. Gen. Abizaid denied ever making the statements attributed to him. "He has great respect for Mr. Rumsfeld and full confidence in the chain of command," said Col. Jerry Renne, his spokesman.
The book also quotes Gen. James Jones, the head of U.S. European Command, describing Iraq as a "debacle" and saying that "military advice is being influenced on a political level." Gen. Jones declined to comment.