While Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack confirms earlier books by former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and former White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke, it is more effective because it is more even-handed and permits the various actors in the drama to speak for themselves.
Some conclusions I draw from the book:
*Once President Bush was elected and put together his team, a war with Iraq was locked in. Men like Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had made up their minds that invasion was essential. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had written the plan for invasion in 1996. The only countervailing force was Secretary of State Colin Powell. He was frozen out, however, by the others, in part because the president felt intimidated by him.
*CIA Director George Tenet provided ''evidence'' about weapons of mass destruction to support the war, which he described to the president as slam-dunk proof but which was in fact very weak. Woodward himself says that a story he co-authored about dissent within the American intelligence agencies should have appeared on Page 1 of the Washington Post instead of Page 17. Apparently, Bush and Cheney still believe that weapons will be found, and so will the link to al-Qaida. They are, I think, the only ones who believe in either global folk tale.
*The administration sold the public -- and perhaps the president sold himself -- on the Iraq invasion as part of the ''war on terrorism.'' That was a rationalization for the war perhaps, but it was never the real reason. It was a deception, perhaps even a lie, from beginning to end. The real reason is that ''all the president's men'' wanted the war.
*The slogan ''war on terrorism'' (or ''war on terror'') was false from the very beginning. Yet it has been a powerful political mantra for the administration to win support for almost anything it has wanted to do. The struggle against terrorists is not a war in any sense that the word has normally meant. It has the same value as, for example, the ''war on drugs.''
*The president's personality and religious faith -- in combination -- make it impossible for him to have serious second thoughts or even to admit any ambiguity. If a decision is ''right,'' then it is right no matter what. Many Americans, perhaps a slight majority, think this is ''strong'' leadership. My feeling is that it edges toward religious fanaticism and is not altogether different from the ''rightness'' of Osama bin Laden's faith. If there is a mistake, it is not the president's mistake. It's God's mistake because God told him he had made the right decision.
*A president serves the nation better if he admits at least to himself how problematic all political decisions are. President John F. Kennedy, for example took full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, even though he inherited the project from his predecessor. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy's stubborn resistance to those who wanted war prevented a nuclear holocaust. A president who has no self-doubt, no ability to question his own mistakes, is a very dangerous man.
Finally, besides some outlines of responsibilities, there was very little in the plan of attack that took seriously the problems of postwar Iraq -- problems that last week caused Rumsfeld at least to admit some uncertainty. There is not the slightest indication that anyone knew about or considered seriously the difficulties Britain encountered in Mesopotamia (as it was then called) in the early 1920s -- or the cruelty necessary for Britain's victory.
The war is a stupid, unjust and criminal war. It is a quagmire from which no immediate escape seems possible. Many more Americans are going to die so that American ''democracy and freedom'' can be imposed on the Iraqis -- whether they want them or not. Many more Iraqis will die, too. Americans who support the war share in its criminality.