He drops no Watergate-size bombshells, but once again Bob Woodward has surfaced with a behind-the-scenes look into Washington, B.C.—this time the inner workings of the Pentagon—with his new book, The Commanders. A 20-year veteran of the Washington Post, Woodward, 48—who with fellow investigative reporter Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal in 1972 before going on to write about the Supreme Court, the CIA and John Belushi—has detailed in narrative fashion the tug-of-war decision-making that brought America to war in the Persian Gulf Over a 27-month period—while continuing as an editor at the Post—he spoke with more than 400 people, including an unnamed “Deep Throat”—type source whom he interviewed 40 times. Still, he told correspondent Marilyn Balamaci at his home in Georgetown, “it would be madness for me to suggest I understand it all.”
WHAT WAS THE MOST REVEALING FACT YOU LEARNED DOING THE BOOK?
Overall, how smart the new military is; the officers and enlisted people at all levels are better educated, more analytical, capable, sophisticated. I don’t think we have better weapons and communications. What makes the real difference are the people.
WHAT MAKES THEM DIFFERENT?
They want to make sure things are done right and carefully. There’s a scene in the book where White House Chief of Staff John Sununu put out the information that we were initially going to send 50,000 soldiers to the gulf. But Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl Vuono was worried, because he knew it was five times that. An aide of his leaked the correct number to the press, under the theory that [putting out incorrect information] is how we went down the road to Vietnam—that the civilian and military leadership weren’t straight with the public.
And when Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney tried to convince Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd to let us deploy troops, the Saudi Ambassador suggested, “Let’s keep it a secret. Play like a dead animal in the desert.” Cheney said, “No. We’ve got to level with the public.” I served in the military and have a lot of respect for it, but the military failed in Vietnam. We’ve got a new and better system.
HOW DID YOU WIN ACCESS TO KEY SOURCES?
I started researching in 1988, and by 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, there was a sense the U.S. military was shrinking and irrelevant, so I had the field to myself. I traveled with a lot of senior military people, crawled in the California desert during training, went through the Strategic Air Command, went out on a nuclear submarine. By immersing myself in their business when it wasn’t interesting, I was able to talk to people and see it all unfold. I made it clear I wasn’t going to write about military operations until they were over. I was not writing about things that really were secret or would get people killed.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST AROUT THE WAR?
That Iraq invaded Kuwait and we really weren’t ready. President Bush was unclear initially about whether to simply defend Saudi Arabia or liberate Kuwait. They [the administration] were caught with their trousers around their ankles. But they recovered.
WHO IS TO BLAME FOR THE ADMINISTRATION’S INITIAL MISCALCULATIONS?
That’s hard to say. The leaders of countries like Iraq, and even the international situation itself, are unpredictable. Pat Lang, a defense intelligence officer, said Saddam wasn’t bluffing just two days before the invasion. But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was saying don’t worry. So there was contradictory information.
WHAT ABOUT COLIN POWELL, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF, AND HIS INITIAL HESITANCY AROUT GOING TO WAR?
Even though he argued in October that containment and economic strangulation would eventually succeed in ousting Saddam, I wouldn’t characterize Powell as a reluctant warrior. The book shows he carefully weighed the alternative to war and, like any sensible human being, preferred getting Saddam to leave Kuwait without shedding blood. The President chose the military option, and Powell was the foremost advocate of making sure there was enough force to guarantee success.
WHAT WERE GEN. NORMAN SCHWARZKOPF’S TENSEST DAYS?
In October, when the White House wanted Schwarzkopf to outline an offensive war plan for ejecting Saddam from Kuwait, he was only halfway through completing his defensive mission. He was furious and worried that Washington was going to order him to go to war before he was ready. He made that known to Powell and Vuono. In fact, Vuono felt his four hours with Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia on Columbus Day weekend was like a psychotherapy session; he had to calm the general and promise that he and Powell would not let the White House order something stupid and premature.
AFTER IRAQ, DO YOL VIEW FUTURE WARS WITH CONFIDENCE OR CONCERN?
In terms of people and our ability to fight, I’m very positive. The Noriegas and Saddams of the world have to beware. On the downside, the readiness to use arms again is significantly increased now. So we define our presence in the world by our military power.