WASHINGTON — In a book due out Monday, former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan offers a blistering review of the administration and concludes that his longtime boss misled the nation into an unnecessary 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," McClellan wrote in "What Happened," due out Monday. "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."
"What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary," he wrote in the preface.
The book, which drew a no comment from the White House Tuesday night, comes from an Austinite picked by the president and paid by the people to help sell the war to the world. The volume makes McClellan the first longtime Bush aide to put such harsh criticism between hard covers. It is 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 wrote. "Unfortunately, subsequent events have showed that our willingness to trust the judgment of Bush and his team was misplaced."
McClellan worked for Bush from 1999, when he signed on as a deputy in the governor's press office, until 2006, when he was forced out as White House press secretary.
"President Bush has always been an instinctive leader more than an intellectual leader. 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," McClellan wrote. "Rather, he chooses based on his gut and his most deeply held convictions. Such was the case with Iraq."
In an interview Tuesday, McClellan said he retains great admiration and respect for Bush.
"My job was to advocate and defend his policies and speak on his behalf," he said. "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."
He said the Bush administration fell into the "permanent campaign" mode that can cripple a White House and has tainted much of Washington.
In the book — subtitled "Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception" - McClellan said 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," according to McClellan.
"Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply disregarded," he wrote.
In Iraq, McClellan added, Bush saw "his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness," something McClellan said Bush has said he believes is only available to wartime presidents.
The president's real motivation for the war, he said, 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 Saddam Hussein was needed 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," McClellan wrote.
"Rather than open this Pandora's Box, the administration chose a different path -- not employing out-and-out deception, but shading the truth," he wrote of the effort to convince the world that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, an effort he said used "innuendo and implication" and "intentional ignoring of intelligence to the contrary."
"President Bush managed the crisis in a way that almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option," McClellan concluded, 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 recalled.
"I know the president pretty well. 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," McClellan wrote.
In a summation, McClellan said the decision to invade Iraq "goes to an important question that critics have raised about the president: Is Bush intellectually incurious or, as some assert, actually stupid?"
"Bush is plenty smart enough to be president," he concluded. "But as I've noted his leadership style is based more on instinct than deep intellectual debate."
McClellan also expresses amazement that Bush seemed flummoxed by a query by NBC's Tim Russert in February 2004 as to whether the invasion of Iraq was "a war of choice or a war of necessity."
"It strikes me today as an indication of his lack of inquisitiveness and his detrimental resistance to reflection," McClellan wrote, "something his advisers needed to compensate for better than they did."
McClellan tracks Bush's 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. '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 wrote. "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 wrote. "And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious -- political convenience."
In the years that followed, McClellan "would come to believe that sometimes he convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment." McClellan likened it to a witness who resorts to "I do not recall."
"Bush, similarly, has a way of falling back on the hazy memory to protect himself from potential political embarrassment," McClellan wrote, adding, "In other words, being evasive is not the same as lying in Bush's mind."
And McClellan linked the tactic to the decision to invade Iraq, a decision based on flawed intelligence.
"It would not be the last time Bush mishandled potential controversy," he said of the cocaine rumors. "But the cases to come would involve the public trust, and the failure to deal with them early, directly and head-on would lead to far greater suspicion and far more destructive partisan warfare," he wrote.
(Story can end here; Optional add follows)
The book also recounts Bush's unwillingness or inability to come up with a mistake he had made when asked by a reporter to do so.
"It became symbolic of a leader unable to acknowledge that he got it wrong, and unwilling to grow in office by learning from his mistake -- too stubborn to change and grow," McClellan concluded.
A page later, he recounts what he perceived as a moment of doubt by a president who never expresses any. It occurred in a dimly lit room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a room where an injured Texas veteran was being watched over by his wife and 7-year-old son as Bush arrived.
The vet's head was bandaged and "he was clearly not aware of his surroundings, the brain injury was severe," McClellan recalled. Bush hugged the wife, told the boy his dad was brave and kissed the injured vet's head while whispering 'God bless you' into his ear.
"Then he turned and walked toward the door," McClellan wrote. "Looking straight ahead, he moved his right hand to wipe away a tear. In that moment, I could see the doubt in his eyes and the vivid realization of the irrevocable consequences of his decision."
But, he added, such moments are more than counterbalanced by deceased warriors' families who urge him to make sure the deaths were not in vain.
McClellan's criticism of Rice -- who he pegs as "hard to get to know" -- is blistering.
"I was struck by how deft she is at protecting her reputation," he wrote. "No matter what went wrong, she was somehow able to keep her hands clean, even when the problems related to matters under her direct purview, including the WMD rationale for the war in Iraq, the decision to invade Iraq ././. and post-war planning and implementation of the strategy in Iraq."
McClellan predicts a harsh historical review of Rice.
"But whatever her policy management shortcomings, Rice knew public relations well. She knew how to adapt to potential trouble, dismiss brooding problems and come out looking like a star," he wrote. "Few performed better under the spotlight, glossing over mistakes with her effortless eloquence and understated flair."
McClellan brands Vice President Cheney as "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."
"Cheney always seemed to get his way," McClellan wrote.
The book is so critical that it becomes difficult to imagine a future scene that Bush predicted on the day that McClellan's forced resignation was announced.
"One of these days," Bush, with McClellan at his side, told reporters that day, "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.'"
Reporting by Ken Herman
Cox News Service