Plan of Attack’ paints the president as a decisive and thoughtful leader.

Here’s an interesting question. Why is the White House actively promoting Bob Woodward’s latest book, “Plan of Attack,” offering his behind-the-scenes account of the decision to go to war in Iraq?

On the surface, the book is hardly flattering to President Bush. It makes it clear that planning for war began within weeks of Sept. 11, when the war in Afghanistan had barely begun. It reveals that the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was given access to top-secret war plans and told that the war was a go on Jan. 11, 2003. This was before Secretary of State Colin Powell was told. And it was while the president was still assuring the nation and the world that he hoped diplomacy would work.

What the White House likes – and why Bush in fact collaborated with Woodward – is that the book portrays Bush as the man in charge, as a resolute and decisive leader. It continues the portrait Woodward drew in a previous tome, “Bush at War,” about the response to Sept. 11. In this election year, Woodward’s book, despite some damaging revelations, is almost a campaign biography.

Woodward counters a more damning and widely held image of the Bush administration: that when it comes to foreign policy and national security, Vice President Dick Cheney runs the show.

The book does conclude that Cheney was a driving force for war with Iraq. It details the battle between Cheney, with Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld at his side, and Powell, who warned against war. But Woodward insists that ultimately, the president made the really tough calls.

This is a view shared by Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton national security adviser and co-author of “America Unbound,” an excellent book on Bush’s foreign policy.

“There is only one guy in control here,” he says. Bush “is closely aligned with Cheney but is not captured by him.”

This perception is not shared by many foreign governments, or by some Beltway insiders. One senior administration official voiced the counterview to me this way:

“The real president’s name is Cheney. The vice president’s name is Rumsfeld. Powell goes in and out of issues because he has some prestige to offer. But in the end, he’s a staff loyalist. And (CIA Director George) Tenet is a cheerleader. Fundamentally, the people with the strongest views overwhelm the president.”

What is the truth? I don’t think anyone, other than Bush and Cheney, really knows. But it is clear that Cheney enjoys unprecedented power over foreign policy and national security. He is the first vice president to sit in the National Security Council’s principals meeting, the gathering of the senior officials in charge of those areas. He has built his own staff to parallel that of the NSC.

At every key decision point, Cheney pops up next to Bush. When Bush, for example, had to decide on launching the missile strike that started the war, he kicked everyone out of the room except Cheney. It is strange, but not surprising, that Bush insists on going before the Sept. 11 commission accompanied by Cheney.

“Bush looks to no one else,” says Daalder. “He doesn’t look to (national security adviser Condoleezza) Rice. He doesn’t look to Powell. He doesn’t look to his dad.”

And when he “looks” to Cheney, what does Bush see?

Cheney is an extreme conservative, a realist who believes first and foremost in the exercise of American power to pre-empt potential enemies. He has little use for diplomacy, even less for the complications of alliances. Cheney also has, according to Woodward, an “unhealthy fixation” on the still unproven belief that Iraq was tied to Al-Qaida.

Cheney does not, however, share the neo-conservative vision of democratizing the Middle East that the president so ardently embraced. Former senior defense official Henry Rowen, now a Stanford professor, recounts a conversation with then-Defense Secretary Cheney during the planning for the Persian Gulf War, in 1991. “I said, We could create a democracy in Iraq.’ He said, to my surprise, The Saudis wouldn’t like that.’ I could think of a lot of reasons for not going to Baghdad, but that wasn’t one of them.”

This gulf war is Dick Cheney’s war. The president surely believes in the cause, but I can’t help thinking that without Cheney, this war may not have happened.

Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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