Bob Woodward, the legendary Washington Post reporter who helped to break open the Watergate story decades ago, offers his third (of four) glimpses into the Bush administration in "State of Denial," which focuses on the period between mid-2004 and the end of 2005. Woodward taps into his range of sources throughout Washington, evidently including several high placed Pentagon people, and a number of on-the-record interviews with several of the principle people to construct this look at the Iraq war.As usual, Woodward uncovers the details of many behind the scenes conversations and attitudes. The power struggles between the State Department and the Defense Department, hinted at in other reports and books, take center stage here. Unlike most of Woodward's other books, though, "State of Denial" has a clear villain, long-embattled Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld (whose resignation was accepted in the months after this book was published). Rumsfeld is portrayed as an aging power-seeker who evidently does not play very well with others, but one who cannot seem to accept the responsibility for the authority he seeks (and Woodward believes, he is tacitly granted by the president with regards to Iraq).This is not to suggest that others look particularly good in the book. As might be expected of reporting that chronicles a period in the war in which all the signs pointed towards failure, there's a lot of finger-pointing. The 'state of denial' of the title seems two-fold -- there is the obvious public sugar-coating about how the war in Iraq is going by virtually everyone in power that Woodward finds was prevalent even behind closed doors. But the 'state of denial' also seems to describe the key military and political players' refusal to accept ultimate responsibility for much of what was happening and would happen in Iraq, which led to a giant effort with little accountability for any of those leaders.Without accountability, little forward progress could be made towards improving security or infrastructure in Iraq. For months at a time, including during this period when insurgent attacks were skyrocketing in frequency and potency, there was little change in the American strategic effort. (In hindsight, Woodward is describing a vacuum into which a leader with a solid vision and the means to enact it might be successful, which may be what happened under Gen. David Petreus' leadership and the military surge in Iraq after the period Woodward chronicles in this book.) More than some of his other books, Woodward is an active narrator and interviewer in these pages, asking questions that he believes were not seriously considered by top officials. At times, he apparently believes it was his role as interrogator to push those he was interviewing to see alternative possibilities, rather than simply eliciting their view of events. This self-portrayal seems to be Woodward's guiding assessment of the situation, that the leadership was out of touch with reality, needing to be forcefully guided toward a more accurate view of the war. As such, the book can seem partisan at times, though I don't believe it is meant to be.Opponents of the war will find much that confirms their suspicions. Proponents may be frustrated by the performance of certain key players. Regardless, the book is a must-read first look at the George W. Bush administration's darkest time in Iraq, a fly-on-the-wall account of meetings where decisions seem to be as often avoided as made and of personalities that seem at odds with the necessities of the times.
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