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Did The White House Play Woodward?

Derek Chollet is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and coauthor of America Between the Wars.

As Bob Woodward's new book The War Within rolls out this week, many Democrats are giddy at the skewering Bush is taking. According to the numerous press accounts of the book and the lengthy excerpts running this week in the Washington Post, Woodward portrays Bush at best as out of touch and at worst as duplicitous about the collapse of his Iraq strategy in 2006. Woodward reveals plenty of insider nuggets and quotes that show a deeply divided and often hapless Administration on the verge of complete defeat in Iraq.

But beneath the surface, the core of Woodward's account actually seems to reinforce the narrative that Bush is trying to spin about Iraq--that against mighty resistance inside and outside the government, a small group made the gutsy decision to double-down with the surge. As with every Woodward book, there's a story within the story. His sources share their tales (or in some cases, secret papers) to settle a score or shape the historical narrative. And here we see National Security Adviser Steve Hadley taking over Iraq decision-making and guiding Bush as he stared down leery Generals and worried political advisers to push the 2007 surge.  

According to the Politico, it was Hadley who helped shepherd Woodward throughout the West Wing and the national security bureaucracy to conduct his research. But wait, one asks, wasn't it Hadley who has also spoken out against the book? Last week, after initial news reports of Woodward's book appeared, the White House released a lengthy statement in Hadley's name rebutting some of Woodward's depictions as "at least incomplete." Such a move heightened the drama and guaranteed further coverage; instead of trying to delegitimize the book completely, the statement is actually an effort to spin it, bolstering the perspective the Bush team wanted Woodward to convey. It still has the Bush-as-hero arc.

Compare this to the White House's reaction to Woodward's last book, State of Denial, where the administration was caught flat-footed by the negative portrayal of Bush and was outraged. For that book, Bush refused to give Woodward an interview; but he didn't make the same mistake again. For this book, Bush sat down with Woodward for two interviews totaling nearly three hours. To hedge their bets that their side of the story would take hold, White House aides (presumably Hadley) gave other reporters the same tale of Bush's bold decision-making--as seen in this New York Times article by Michael Gordon on the surge that appeared over a week ago.

Now, former White House aides and loyal Bush defenders like Peter Wehner are using Woodward as Exhibit A to support their depiction of a heroic President. But perhaps the happiest reader will be John McCain. After all, he has as much at stake as Bush in having this "surge victory" narrative take hold. Woodward's story also enables McCain to have it both ways, distancing himself from the chaos of the Bush Administration's internal battles, while associating with the core message of defying conventional wisdom to support the surge. Woodward's account of McCain is exactly as McCain's campaign wants it to be.

Yet it's a quote from McCain himself that most accurately captures what's going on. In the book Woodward recalls a conversation with McCain from 2001, months before 9/11, when the Arizona Senator summed up his opinions of Bush and his team pungently: "Everything's f*ing spin," he tells Woodward. How true, but then again, that was the old McCain.