by Mark Silva
Scott McClellan, one of the Texans who came to Washington with President George W. Bush, spent a long time defending the administration but now has concluded this his longtime employer misled the nation into an unneeded war in Iraq.
"History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided -- that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder," Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, writes in his book, What Happened, which will be released on Monday. Subtitle: Washington's Culture of Deception.
"No one, including me, can know with absolute certainty how the war will be viewed decades from now when we can more fully understand its impact,'' he writes in the preface of the book. "What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary.''
This from a son of Austin who served Bush as governor of Texas, campaigned with him through two elections and served as press secretary into the second term.
Ken Herman, another Texan who came to Washington with this crew as a correspondent for the Austin newspaper, notes that McClellan becomes "the first longtime Bush aide to put such harsh criticism between hard covers,'' with Herman calling the tome " an extraordinarily critical book that questions Bush's intellectual curiosity, his candor in leading the nation to war, his pattern of self-deception and the quality of his advisers.
"As a Texas loyalist who followed Bush to Washington with great hope and personal affection and as a proud member of his administration, I was all too ready to give him and his highly experienced foreign policy advisers the benefit of the doubt on Iraq," McClellan writes. "Unfortunately, subsequent events have showed that our willingness to trust the judgment of Bush and his team was misplaced."
McClellan had started as a deputy in the governor's press office in 1999, and served Bush until 2006, when he was forced out as White House press secretary during a second-term purge that ultimately ushered out all of the president's Texan hands - including ex-White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, chief political adviser Karl Rove and presidential counselor Dan Bartlett. Communications chief Karen Hughes already had left.
The "Culture of Deception'' subtitle could not be more ironic for an author who once stood, day after day, at the podium of the press briefing room in the West Wing defending the administration's every move. But it was the president himself, McClellan writes in this revealing book, who had a penchant for self-deception.
For all the White House protests of critics who complain that Bush does not seek widespread counsel and critique in his decision-making, this former White House hand says that's precisely the problem.
"President Bush has always been an instinctive leader more than an intellectual leader,'' McClellan writes. "He is not one to delve into all the possible policy options -- including sitting around engaging in extended debate about them -- before making a choice. Rather, he chooses based on his gut and his most deeply held convictions. Such was the case with Iraq."
"Bush is plenty smart enough to be president," he concludes. "But as I've noted his leadership style is based more on instinct than deep intellectual debate."
In an interview with Herman, now White House correspondent for Cox News, McClellan maintained that he still holds great admiration and respect for Bush.
"My job was to advocate and defend his policies and speak on his behalf," he said in the interview reported by Cox. "This is an opportunity for me now to share my own views and perspective on things. There were things we did right and things we did wrong. Unfortunately, much of what went wrong overshadowed the good things we did."
The Bush administration fell into the "permanent campaign" mode that can cripple a White House and has tainted much of Washington, McClellan maintains.
McClellan traces Bush's own penchant for self-deception back to an overheard incident on the campaign trail in 1999 when the then-governor was dogged by reports of possible cocaine use in his younger days. The book recounts an evening in a hotel suite "somewhere in the Midwest." Bush was on the phone with a supporter and motioned for McClellan to have a seat.
"'The media won't let go of these ridiculous cocaine rumors,' I heard Bush say,'' McClellan writes, recounting these words: 'You know, the truth is I honestly don't remember whether I tried it or not. We had some pretty wild parties back in the day, and I just don't remember.'"
"I remember thinking to myself, How can that be?" McClellan writes. "How can someone simply not remember whether or not they used an illegal substance like cocaine? It didn't make a lot of sense."
Bush, according to McClellan, "isn't the kind of person to flat-out lie."
"So I think he meant what he said in that conversation about cocaine. It's the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true, and that, deep down, he knew was not true," McClellan writes. "And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious -- political convenience."
In the book - subtitled Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception - McClellan writes that Bush's top advisers, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "played right into his thinking, doing little to question it or cause him to pause long enough to fully consider the consequences before moving forward.
"Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply disregarded," he writes.
McClellan calls Vice President Dick Cheney "the magic man" mysteriously directing outcomes in "every policy area he cared about, from the invasion of Iraq to expansion of presidential power to the treatment of detainees and the use of surveillance against terror suspects." McClellan adds: "Cheney always seemed to get his way.''
In Iraq, McClellan adds that Bush saw "his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness'' -- something which Bush views as only obtainable by wartime presidents.
The president's real motivation for the war, he says, was to transform the Middle East to ensure an enduring peace in the region. But the White House effort to sell the war as necessary due to the stated threat posed by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was necessary because "Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitions purpose of transforming the Middle East.
"Rather than open this Pandora's Box, the administration chose a different path -- not employing out-and-out deception, but shading the truth," he writes of the effort to convince the world that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
"President Bush managed the crisis in a way that almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option," McClellan concludes, noting, "The lack of candor underlying the campaign for war would severely undermine the president's entire second term in office."
Bush's national security advisers failed to "help him fully understand the tinderbox he was opening," McClellan recalls.
"I know the president pretty well,'' McClellan writes in a personal note. "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 Iraqis dead -- he would never have made the decision to invade, despite what he might say or feel he has to say publicly today.''
Which raises an obvious question about the scenario that Bush fondly predicted when he bade farewell to his press secretary two years ago at the podium of the press briefing room:
"One of these days," Bush told reporters, with McClellan at his side, "he and I are going to be rocking on chairs in Texas, talking about the good old days and his time as the press secretary. And I can assure you, I will feel the same way then that I feel now, that I can say to Scott, 'Job well done.'"
Cox Newspapers' Ken Herman provided the basis of this report.