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Who Decides? : THE COMMANDERS, By Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster: $24.95; 398 pp.)

May 12, 1991|Ross Thomas | Thomas's latest novel is "Twilight at Mac's Place" (Mysterious Press)

Strung together, Bush, Baker, Scowcroft, Cheney and Powell sound like some 107-year-old Washington law firm that's the guardian of secrets too awful to reveal for yet another 100 years.

They are, of course, the President and his four demographically correct commanders (three white, one black) who virtually alone decided how to settle the recent unpleasantness with Panama and when to go to war with Iraq. Or so Bob Woodward assures us in his new book, "The Commanders," which contains enough secrets, semisecrets and gossip to have already inspired a spate of "Lordy, Can This Be True?" editorials and syndicated comment.

For nearly 20 years, Woodward's stock-in-trade has been the revelation of some of the country's best-kept and most unsavory secrets. First came the two Watergate books that featured Deep Throat and provided that moving vignette of Richard Nixon imploring Henry Kissinger to kneel with him in prayer.

There were also books on the Supreme Court and on John Belushi's tawdry death. In "Veil," his book about the secret wars of the CIA, Woodward gives a most remarkable account of how he slipped into the Washington hospital room of the dying director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, and coaxed the old spy into confessing that he had known all along about the Iran-Contra scandal.

Woodward writes about the nation's two brief wars with Panama and Iraq in his usual pleasant and largely unadorned style. He also keeps popping in and out of the minds of politicians and generals and foreign emissaries, who, one might think, should have more sense than to grant him entry.

One example of Woodward exercising his mind-reading license finds him inside the head of Gen. Colin Powell. Once there, he reports the private musings of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about what a nice quiet war there's going to be in Iraq: "The public and the world were going to see an incredibly limited and antiseptic version of the war. The media were going to be kept away."

Well, the media were kept away, at least from anything even mildly controversial, and the public was treated to a no-gore war on TV. The media weren't at all pleased by their exclusion--yet their protests seemed strangely muted. But the public didn't at all seem to mind that it saw no bloody stumps, dead bodies or caskets arriving at Dover, Del.

Woodward is convinced that the one thing George Bush was determined to avoid in Iraq was another Vietnam-like quagmire. He notes that even Dick Cheney, the secretary of defense, "had come to realize what impact the Vietnam war had had on Bush. The President had internalized the lessons--send enough force to do the job and don't tie the hands of your commanders."

One of Bush's commanders not all that keen on a shooting war--at least until the war began--was Gen. Powell, who, from the beginning, supported the containment of Iraq, which he eventually called "strangulation" because, Woodward explains, it was a more active word.

While waiting to find out how his argument was faring at the White House, Powell is visited by his predecessor, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., who, Woodward says, had sized up Powell as "someone who had a tendency to read people and then tell them in a very general and circumspect way what he thought they wanted to hear."

Crowe, who also favored containment or strangulation, attempted to stiffen Powell's resolve by telling him, "It takes two things to be a great President and I ought to tell you because you may be President some day." Although Powell quickly denies this pleasant prospect, Crowe presses on:

"First, to be a great President you have to have a war. All great Presidents have had their wars . . . Two, you have to find a war where you are attacked."

Shortly after this sage advice, Powell is summoned to a meeting in the Oval Office with Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and Cheney. Once more back inside Powell's head, Woodward reports: "It was a general problem with these kinds of meetings, Powell felt. Often they had no beginning, middle or end. They would kick the ball around. Feet would be up on the table, cowboy boots gleaming. Powell was given his chance, but he felt his presentation was not going over very well."

Powell argues for strangulation. " 'This is an option that has merit,' he said. 'It may take a year, it may take two years, but it will work some day.' "

After more desultory discussion, Powell asks Bush which way he wants to go.

" 'I don't think there's time for that strategy,' Bush said, referring to containment."

So it seems that George Bush had already decided to go to war in early October of last year. Powell, Woodward says, had a clear conscience because he had presented the military implications of both choices and "There was only so much he could do."

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