State of Denial

March 1, 2007

Washington - They almost wouldn't let him leave.

Washington - They almost wouldn't let him leave.

Dermatologists bombarded Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author of State of Denial, with questions about the U.S. war in Iraq at the 65th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology, here.

Mr. Woodward, assistant managing editor of The Washington Post and the author of 12 best-selling books that scrutinize the workings of national government, gave his sometimes blunt assessment of why the United States went to war and why it remains at war in the Middle East today.

And Woodward offered his view on how the conflict may end: A partitioning of Iraq along ethnic lines "may be how all of this turns out."

Woodward's address to a plenary session lengthened to a full hour as he took questions from doctors who lined up at microphones in the Washington Convention Center ballroom. Doctors trailed him to the door as he left, firing still more questions at the veteran journalist who has written three books chronicling the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

A question that "still pulses throughout the debate" and remains "highly relevant" in 2007, Woodward says, is "Why did we go to war?"

The first reason, obviously, is 9/11, an event "cataclysmic" for Bush. The second is the president's deeply rooted ideological bent.

"There's a lot of idealism," Woodward says. "Bush truly wants to end tyranny."

Though Bush declined to be interviewed for State of Denial, the third volume of Woodward's Bush at War trilogy, Woodward had earlier interviewed the president for 3½ hours on the decision to invade Iraq.

It was "the longest interview a sitting president has ever given," Woodward says.

He asked and received answers to - astonishingly - some 500 questions.

Bush "gives very short, direct answers," Woodward says.

When asked about his decision to go to war, Bush responded, "'I believe we had a duty to free people, to liberate people,'" Woodward recalls.

When Woodward suggested, "Isn't that dangerously paternalistic?" Bush suggested that Woodward was "an elitist," he recalls.

State of denial?

The reasons for going to war explain "some of the behavior now" - and shed light on some of the administration's decisions.

"I had a horrifying story of repeated denial and a total unwillingness to face the reality of what was going on," Woodward says.

Early on, Bush was advised that the United States couldn't stabilize Iraq, couldn't deal with the political and rebuilding issues, and wasn't finding weapons of mass destruction.

"It just went into the air," Woodward says.

More recently, he says, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was told two years ago that Iraq was "a failed state," with a significant chance of catastrophic failure. Despite such assessments, the administration continued its public stance of unswerving optimism.

Woodward also offered his insights into the news media and its responsibilities in a free society.

"The thing that will really do us in is secret government," he says. "It is true that democracies die in darkness. They do."