Above all,” Bob Woodward, the Washington Post‘s whiz-bang reporter-editor, tells us right off, The Commanders is ”about how the United States decides to fight its wars before shots are fired…the military decision-making process, both inside and outside the Pentagon.”

Ah, that probably has you imagining a scene in which the principal actors of this drama — President Bush, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Secretary of State James Baker, and a host of intelligence experts — sit around a table in the National Security Council chamber, debating the pros and cons of various military possibilities in an orderly fashion.

Forget it. Decision making, as Woodward describes it, is chaotic. What’s more, the evidence here suggests that ”military” decision making is to a great extent political (shaped by public relations, poll watching, image polishing); is so disorganized that it can hardly be called ”process”; and involves as much emotion and second-guessing as it does solid reasoning.

Woodward draws his material from the decisions to invade Panama and to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

The Panama caper was easy. After all, nine months into his term, there was still ”the question of presidential image — lingering doubts about Bush as wimp.” So when Noriega’s cops began acting like Los Angeles cops, wasn’t that a good enough excuse to invade the place, kill a lot of people (still no accurate count), leave thousands homeless, and gut Panama’s economy?

Woodward’s account of how we got into the Persian Gulf war is scarier. It’s hard to believe how unprepared these so-called ”commanders” were. Among other things, they refused to believe warnings from their own spy agencies that the Iraqi troops lined up along Kuwait’s border weren’t bluffing. After the invasion began, and Bush began screaming for somebody to do something, Cheney discovered that despite the billions of dollars spent on Pentagon planning, he didn’t have a single, up-to-date contingency plan for meeting a crisis in that part of the world.

Never mind. The U.S. planners would wing it — if they could manage to figure out what Bush wanted to achieve. But it would be many days before Powell or Cheney got even a wobbly line on Bush’s thinking. We are introduced to a President who is secretive even with his closest advisers and dangerously impulsive: He fires the Air Force’s top general for political reasons, without forewarning the Pentagon, and, at press conferences, blurts out new policy positions that his military advisers have never heard before.

As Woodward describes it, with a hyperthyroid, bellicose President plunging ahead, sometimes ”betraying the traits of a cornered man,” and nobody in his circle strongly urging restraint (not even Powell, a closet peacenik), sanctions never had a chance. But the real surprise of The Commanders is the author’s discovery that the actual decision to go to war was never made. It was simply just drifted into. It just happened. So much for the decision-making process.

Woodward has made it possible for America to eavesdrop on Washington’s ruling class so often, sometimes we take it for granted. But here he has gone farther and achieved something special: letting us see military leaders, the men in uniform who play supporting roles in this drama, as much less bloodthirsty and carelessly aggressive than their civilian masters. B+

The Commanders
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