Back in the 1970s, Bob Woodward made his name as one of the two reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal that ultimately ended Richard Nixon’s presidency. What was not noticed at the time was that Woodward and his fellow-reporter Carl Bernstein also invented a new genre in literature, mixture of fact and fiction. (Some call it faction.) The genre is simple: you take a set of facts related to actual events and weave a story around them by using the techniques of the novel to portray the people involved, complete with distinct tones for each and detailed dialogues. For the past three decades, Woodward has practised this art with much profit for himself and some amusement for readers. Bernstein, on the other hand, opted for the straight novel and all but faded from markets and memories.
Woodward’s new “faction”, “State of Denial”, is supposed to be about the way the Bush administration has handled the Iraq war after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In a sense, “State of Denial” is the third part of a trilogy that started with Woodward’s “Bush At War” in 2000 followed by “Plan of Attack” in 2003.
Here is how the formula works: you take the war in Iraq and narrate some of its major episodes. Then you identify the individuals who played key roles in the events. Next, you imagine what those individuals might have said to one another with reference to real or imagined issues. Always remember to add some seasoning by quoting real or non-existent secret papers leaked to you by unidentified sources.
Among Woodward’s many talents is an exceptional nose for the mood of the market. This is why “Bush At War” presented George W as a decisive leader surrounded by a team of exceptionally competent advisors and aides. This was at a time that the United Sates had just engineered the fall of the Taliban in a matter of weeks, with minimal losses for itself. The next instalment of the trilogy, “Plan of Attack” also portrayed Bush and his team in glowing terms because the US had managed to overthrow Saddam Hussein in just three weeks.
“State of Denial”, however, comes at a time that a majority of Americans question Bush’s handling of the Iraq in the post-Saddam extra. Therefore, Woodward repositions himself as a critic of the administration, especially of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The same Rumsfeld who had been presented as a military wizard in Woodward’s two previous books is now portrayed as an arrogant, confused and incompetent bureaucrat whose dismissal was desired by those closest to the president, including First Lady Laura Bush.
If Rumsfeld is the arch villain in Woodward’s new “faction”, its undoubted hero is Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s former Ambassador to Washington. According to Woodward, the veteran Saudi diplomat, who had served in Washington for decades and knew anybody who was somebody, was a key player in shaping key aspects of American foreign policy. Bandar persuaded Bush to end five decades of American policy towards Israel by committing the US to the creation of a Palestinian state for the first time. Bandar also helped Bush out of his first foreign policy crisis when China seized a US spy plane and held its crew hostage in 2001, by calling Beijing and asking for a quick end to the drama. According to Woodward, Bandar was also wise enough to warn Bush against invading Iraq. On that occasion, however, Bush did not take Bandar’s advice, and thus landed the US in what Woodward now regards as a disaster in Iraq.
There is no point in examining Woodward’s countless claims one by one. It is obvious that he cannot have been present in the scores of private meetings that he describes in detail as if he had been a fly on the wall. Nor can anyone be fooled by the accounts he gives of private conversations, sometimes resembling the dialogue in a play, between two individuals. In some cases, you have two Americans generals or civilian officials talking to each other alone. However, this does not prevent Woodward from writing their dialogue as if he had tape-recorded it.
Woodward’s book has little or nothing to do about Iraq. He is neither interested in the issue nor informed about. For example, he does not wonder what the United States’ objectives in this war were and whether or not they have been achieved. The US had three key objectives in invading Iraq: to topple Saddam Hussein, to dismantle his machinery of war and repression, and to allow the Iraqis an opportunity to write a constitution of their own and form a government of their choice. All tree objectives have been achieved in an amazingly short time. (For example, after the Second World War, it took the US and its allies 10 years before they allowed the Austrians to form a government of their own.) No, there is no doubt that new Iraq is challenged by a terrorist insurgency while sectarian violence continues in parts of Baghdad. That, however, does not alter the fact that the US has achieved the goals it had set for itself in the spring of 2003. If failure there is, it is that of the Iraqis who are killing one another in the name of their rival sects. Woodward, however, has no time for such analyses. He is only interested in how his potential customers might see the situation in Iraq.
No one knows how the current crisis in Iraq will be resolved. However, once it is resolved, be sure that Woodward will quickly come up with a new book to show how this was done and who the great geniuses who brought it about were.
These interested in more serious journalism, might be angered by Woodward’s ill-informed, pretentious and flippant treatment of a complex issue. Woodward, however, must be regarded as part of the entertainment industry. Re-writing history to reflect the mood of the moment is an entertaining pursuit popular throughout the American media. One sees docudramas retelling the best-known historic events in a “new way” that confirms currents illusions and prejudices, with reference with “secrets and confessions.” One such docudrama, broadcast on the History channel, for example, was based on the claim that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had been organised by President Franklin Roosevelt as a means of persuading the American public to enter the Second World War. Just as many Americans are interested in supposed secrets about the lives of movie stars and other celebrities, millions are keen on the “secret side” of politics. More than a dozen American journalists have made a name and a fortune by constantly producing reports based on supposedly secret documents leaked by un-named officials. Because there are millions of Americans are prepared to think the worst of their leaders, and of themselves, such peddlers of “faction” have secured a lucrative niche that is unlikely to close anytime soon.
Here is a guess: Woodward’s next book will appear after he 2008 presidential election and will reveal the “secrets” of how the winner, whoever he or she is, managed to win thanks to a team of dedicated, knowledgeable and competent aides, and despite dirty tricks played by the loser and his camp. The 2008 book will be followed by another in 2010, revealing the “secrets” of the new president’s failure, brought about by incompetent aides engaged in bitter feuds.