A remarkable look at the Iraq mess

Journalist and author Bob Woodward’s new book "The War Within” provides informative insights concerning the United States military occupation of Iraq, not least because of his remarkable access to very senior officials of the Bush administration. Earlier books include "State of Denial,” "Plan of Attack” and "Bush at War."

His continuing access to top officials is particularly impressive in light of criticism of the administration in regard to Iraq. Despite this, for a time at least one of his books was listed on the White House Web site.

Woodward and fellow journalist Carl Bernstein first gained fame by investigating the Washington burglary which infolded into the Watergate crisis and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, chronicled in their book "All the President’s Men." One Watergate result was inspiration of many young people to become investigative journalists.

Some driven writers anxious to become the next Bernstein or Woodward have put ambition over accuracy, leading to ongoing — essentially healthy — debate about media professional standards.

Woodward so far has had no difficulty getting facts straight. Despite complex and controversial topics, he has yet to be tripped up. This makes his evaluation of Bush foreign policy particularly noteworthy.

A principal conclusion of "The War Within” is that covert operations have been key to improved security in Iraq. The increase in total U.S. troops in the country, the famous surge, has been the center of public attention. Covert operations, secret missions that can include killing targeted individuals, are rarely discussed publicly.

There are very direct parallels with the Vietnam War, where the covert Phoenix program eliminated approximately sixty thousand Viet Cong agents. After that war, Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh, a principal Viet Cong leader, confided to journalist Stanley Karnow that Phoenix was feared far more than conventional attacks by American and South Vietnamese divisions. She was explicit that crucial comrades were eliminated and crucial information compromised as a result of the program. Other reliable sources have provided equally telling confirmation.

The Phoenix program was one part of an eventually effective overall strategy. However, the Tet Offensive early in 1968 destroyed American public support for the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson retired and field commander Gen. William Westmoreland was replaced by the far more insightful Gen. Creighton Abrams. The new administration of President Richard M. Nixon drastically changed Vietnam strategy.

Steady reduction in force levels was begun, and large-scale conventional search and destroy operations were replaced with small unit actions and tactics.

This increased already severe stress on our troops in the field, but in conjunction with Phoenix dramatically improved the overall situation. For example, William Colby of the CIA reported that by the early 1970s he was able to travel safely through large parts of South Vietnam previously controlled by the enemy.

A massive North Vietnamese blitzkrieg in the spring of 1972 was turned back through heavy bombing, use of helicopter gun ships and a relatively effective South Vietnamese Army. By the time Washington and Hanoi signed the Paris peace agreement in early 1973, South Vietnam was relatively secure.

Another enormous North Vietnamese attack in the fall of 1975 overran South Vietnam. The American public by then had turned strongly against the war, reflected in Congressional actions severely restricting the Ford administration.

Today, Iran’s growing influence in Iraq provides a rough parallel with North Vietnam in the earlier conflict.

"The War Within” is a testament to Woodward’s ability to secure inside information and present a very interesting narrative. The book also provides evidence for some diversity of views in an administration often criticized for lockstep uniformity.

As a democratic nation of laws, we very much need serious public discussion of covert action. Such efforts are inherently ambiguous morally, but at times essential.


(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.)