While leading the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the summer of 2003, David Kay received a phone call from "Scooter" Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, who wanted a particular place searched: "The vice president wants to know if you've looked at this area. We have indications - and here are the geocoordinates - that something's buried there." Kay and his experts located the area on the map. It was in the middle of Lebanon.
This story from Bob Woodward's "State of Denial" would be hilarious were it not about war. The vignette is dismaying because it seems symptomatic of a blinkering monomania that may have prevented obsessed persons from facing facts.
Some will regard "State of Denial" as Katrina between hard covers, a snapshot of dysfunctional government. But it is largely just a glimpse of government, disheartening as that fact may be to those who regard government as a glistening scalpel for administering social transformation.
Once, when President William Howard Taft was listening to an aide talk about "the machinery of government," Taft murmured, "The young man really thinks it's a machine." Actually, government is people, and not a random slice of the population. Those at government's pinnacle generally are strong-willed, ambitious, competitive, opinionated and have agendas about which they care deeply. That is why they are there.
And why almost any administration, carefully scrutinized, looks much like a teaspoon of pond water viewed under a microscope - a teeming, disorderly maelstrom of sometimes rival life forms. That is especially true of an administration staffed with such canny Washington survivors as Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell. A government of rookies or shrinking violets would be more harmonious. So, how much of a virtue is harmony?
"State of Denial" will take a toll on government collegiality and the candor of its deliberations. It is based on astonishing indiscretions - current and past officials making private memos and conversations public for motives that cannot be pure.
The book is hardly a revelation about supposed hidden chaos in Washington that produced the obvious chaos in Iraq. It does demonstrate that President Bush and others were shockingly slow to recognize Iraq's complexities and downward spiral. But we already knew that.
The book does not demonstrate that the president is in a state of denial. His almost exclusive and increasingly grating reliance on the rhetoric of unwavering resolve may be mistaken. It certainly has undermined his reputation as a realist. But he believes a president must be "the calcium in the backbone" of the nation, so the resolute face that he thinks he must show the nation does not preclude private anguish.
The book's central figure, however, is not Bush, whose lack of inquisitiveness is a defect, but Rumsfeld, whose abrasive inquisitiveness is supposedly a defect. The prologue begins not with Rumsfeld's selection as defense secretary. The 45th and final chapter contains much about Bush, but revolves around an interview with Rumsfeld.
The book actually includes one heartening story that should enhance Rumsfeld's reputation. On Veterans Day 2005, the president traveled to a Pennsylvania Army depot to deliver a speech announcing the new military policy for Iraq, the policy of "clear, hold and build." Woodward says Rumsfeld, having read the speech, called Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, a half-hour before Bush was to deliver it, and said, "Take that out." Card replied that the three words were the centerpiece of the speech, not to mention the war strategy. Rumsfeld replied, "Clear, we're doing. It's up to the Iraqis to hold. And the State Department's got to work with somebody on the build."
At last, a division of labor that uses the U.S. military only for properly military purposes, and assigns responsibilities in a way that will force Iraq's government to grow up. In the name of counterinsurgency, there has been too much of what today's military argot calls "full-spectrum operations" - operations that go beyond killing insurgents to building schools, connecting sewers and other civil projects that keep the training wheels on the Iraqi government's bicycle and keep the United States chasing the chimera of "nation-building."
"Where's the leader?" Bush, according to Woodward, has exclaimed in dismay about the Iraqi government's dithering. "Where's George Washington? Where's Thomas Jefferson? Where's John Adams, for crying out loud?" For a president to ask that question about Iraq, that tribal stew, is enough to cause one to ask it about the United States.