Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan








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Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan tells his story about D.C. life in his new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception. McClellan explains that his was misled by five people when his unknowingly passed along false information to the press about the leaking of information by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby about Valerie Plame. The five were: President Bush, Vice President Cheney, chief of staff Andrew Card, Rove and Libby. Readers looking for a tell-all and finger-pointing won’t find it here. McClellan blames himself for being misled. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 8, “Selling the War,” pp. 144-147:

When Bush was making up his mind to pursue regime change in Iraq, it is clear that his national security team did little to slow him down, to help him fully understand the tinderbox he was opening and the potential risks in do­ing so. I know the president pretty well. I believe that, if he had been given a crystal ball in which he could have foreseen the costs of war—more than 4,000 American troops killed, 30,000 injured, and tens of thousands of inno­cent Iraqi citizens dead—he would have never made the decision to invade, despite what he might say or feel he has to say publicly today.

And though no one has a crystal ball, it's not asking too much that a well-considered understanding of the circumstances and history of Iraq and the Middle East should have been brought into the decision-making process. The responsibility to provide this understanding belonged to the president's advis­ers, and they failed to fulfill it. Secretary of State Colin Powell was apparently the only adviser who even tried to raise doubts about the wisdom of war. The rest of the foreign policy team seemed to be preoccupied with regime change or, in the case of Condi Rice, seemingly more interested in accommodating the president's instincts and ideas than in questioning them or educating him.

An even more fundamental problem was the way his advisers decided to pursue a political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people. It was all part of the way the White House operated and Washington functioned, and no one seemed to see any problem with using such an approach on an issue as grave as war. A pro-war campaign might have been I more acceptable had it been accompanied by a high level of candor and honesty but it was as not. Most of the arguments used—especially those stated in prepared remarks by the president and in forums like Powell's presentation at the UN Security Council in February 2003—were carefully vetted and capable of being substantiated. But as the campaign accelerated, caveats and qualifica­tions were downplayed or dropped altogether. Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply disregarded. Evidence based on high confidence from the intelligence community was lumped together with intelligence of lesser confidence. A nuclear threat was added to the biological and chemical threats to create a greater sense of gravity and urgency. Support for terrorism was given greater weight by playing up a dubious al Qaeda connection to Iraq. When it was all packaged together, the case constituted a "grave and gathering danger" that needed to be dealt with urgently.

Some of Bush's advisers believed that, given Saddam Hussein's history, it was only prudent to suspect the worst. And some, like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, were evidently pursuing their own agendas.

The most significant of these personal agendas was probably Cheney's, given his closeness to the president and his influence over him. It is also the agenda that is most likely to remain unknown, because of Cheney's personality and his penchant for secrecy. He may have been driven by a desire to finish the job he started as defense secretary in 1991, when the United States defeated Saddam Hussein and pushed his troops out of Kuwait but stopped short of ad­vancing to Baghdad to end his rule. Cheney was also heavily involved in eco­nomic and energy policy. He might well have viewed the removal of Saddam Hussein as an opportunity to give America more influence over Iraq's oil re­serves, thereby benefiting our national and economic security.

In any case, it's obviously a problem when forceful personalities like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz pursue their individual interests and push them on the president. As the president's top foreign policy adviser, National Security Adviser Condi Rice should have stood up to those more experienced, strong-viewed advisers rather than deferring to them. However, my later ex­periences with Condi led me to believe she was more interested in figuring out where the president stood and just carrying out his wishes while expending only cursory effort on helping him understand all the considerations and po­tential consequences.

It goes to an important question that critics have raised about the presi­dent. Is Bush intellectually incurious or, as some assert, actually stupid? The latter accusation seems to me a sad reflection on today's political climate, where name-calling and emotional rhetoric get more attention than reasoned and civil discourse. Bush is plenty smart enough to be president. But as I've noted, his leadership style is based more on instinct than deep intellectual de­bate. His intellectual curiosity tends to be centered on knowing what he needs in order to effectively articulate, advocate, and defend his policies. Bush keenly recognizes the role of marketing and selling policy in today's gover­nance, so such an approach is understandable to some degree. But his advisers needed to recognize how potentially harmful his instinctual leadership and limited intellectual curiosity can be when it comes to crucial decisions, and in light of today's situation, it has become reasonable to question his judgment. The fact that he has been portrayed as not bright is unfortunate, but it's a re­sult of his own mistakes—which could have been prevented had his beliefs been properly vetted and challenged by his top advisers. Bush's top advisers, especially those on his national security team, allowed the president to be put in the position he is in today. His credibility has been shattered and his public standing seemingly irreparably damaged.

The permanent campaign mentality bears some of the blame. Through­out the campaign, building public support by making the strongest possible case for war was the top priority, regardless of whether or not it was the most intellectually honest approach to the issue of war and peace. Message disci­pline sometimes meant avoiding forthrightness—for example, evasively dis­missing questions about the risks of war as "speculation;” since the decision to go to war supposedly had not yet been made. In Washington's hyperpartisan atmosphere, candor was viewed as too risky; critics could easily twist and ma­nipulate words to their advantage, undermining the well-planned strategy.

In the end, of course, President Bush bears ultimate responsibility for the invasion of Iraq. He made the decision to invade, and he signed off on a strat­egy for selling the war that was less than candid and honest. An issue as grave as war must be dealt with openly, forthrightly, and honestly. The American people, and especially our troops and their families, deserve nothing less.

The controversy over how Bush took the nation to war was soon to ex­plode. A permanent state of suspicion and partisan warfare would start to take hold. An enormous effort had been put into selling the war and the de­tailed planning for toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. But the same kind of energy and resources were not invested in planning for the postregime oc­cupation period. The insufficient planning and preparation would only be­come visible in the aftermath as an insurgency took hold, terrorists seized the opportunity to inflict terrible harm, American military casualties rose, and the Iraqi people suffered a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

The war would become an increasingly challenging problem for the ad- ministration. Having created an atmosphere of suspicion and partisan war- fare, the White House would be unable to call on bipartisan support when it was needed most—for the sake of the war and our troops who were called to carry it out. Questions of deliberate deception about the case for war would hover over it all. And the truth would be caught in the political crossfire.

But as we entered May 2003, with the initial phase of the war having been conducted successfully and the president standing tall with the American public, from inside the bubble I was unable to foresee the coming political wars. Nor did I realize that I was about to be offered the experience of a life­time that would place me on the front lines of the coming battles.


Many readers will finish reading What Happened and conclude that McClellan was naďve and was easily taken advantage of by people far more cunning than he. Others will take him to task for seeming to say one thing and then it’s opposite. Some will conclude that they don’t learn much more about what happened. What I found interesting was the exploration of the consequences of polarization and the endless campaign and how life in Washington has changed in ways that inhibit getting work done that will benefit Americans.


Steve Hopkins, September 20, 2008



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 in the October 2008 issue of Executive Times


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