Bush's Lonely Decision
Wall Street Journal: September 15, 2008; Page A22
Now that even Barack Obama has acknowledged that President Bush's surge in Iraq has "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," maybe it's time the Democratic nominee gives some thought to how that success actually came about -- not just in Ramadi and Baghdad, but in the bureaucratic Beltway infighting out of which the decision to surge emerged.
That's one reason to welcome "The War Within," the fourth installment in Bob Woodward's account of the Bush Presidency. As is often the case with the Washington Post stalwart, the reporting is better than the analysis, which reflects the Beltway conventional wisdom of a dogmatic and incurious President. But even as a (very) rough draft of history, we read Mr. Woodward's book as an instructive profile in Presidential decision-making.
Consider what confronted Mr. Bush in 2006. Following a February attack on a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, Iraq's sectarian violence began a steep upward spiral. The U.S. helped engineer the ouster of one Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in favor of Nouri al-Maliki, an untested leader about whom the U.S. knew next to nothing. The "Sunni Awakening" of tribal sheiks against al Qaeda was nowhere in sight. An attempt at a minisurge of U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad failed dismally. George Casey, the American commander in Iraq, believed the only way the U.S. could "win" was to "draw down" -- a view shared up the chain of command, including Centcom Commander John Abizaid and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Politically, the war had become deeply unpopular in an election year that would wipe out Republican majorities in Congress. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, run by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, was gearing up to offer the President the option of a politically graceful defeat, dressed up as a regional "diplomatic offensive." Democrats united in their demands for immediate withdrawal, while skittish Republicans who had initially supported the war, including Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon, abandoned the Administration.
From the State Department, Condoleezza Rice opposed the surge, arguing, according to Mr. Woodward, that "the U.S. should minimize its role in punishing sectarian violence." Senior brass at the Pentagon were also against it, on the theory that it was more important to ease the stress on the military and be prepared for any conceivable military contingency than to win the war they were fighting.
Handed this menu of defeat, Mr. Bush played opposite to stereotype by firing Mr. Rumsfeld and seeking advice from a wider cast of advisers, particularly retired Army General Jack Keane and scholar Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. The President also pressed the fundamental question of how the war could actually be won, a consideration that seemed to elude most senior members of his government. "God, what is he talking about?" Mr. Woodward quotes a (typically anonymous) senior aide to Ms. Rice as wondering when Mr. Bush raised the question at one meeting of foreign service officers. "Was the President out of touch?"
No less remarkably, the surge continued to face entrenched Pentagon opposition even after the President had decided on it. Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went out of his way to prevent General Keane from visiting Iraq in order to limit his influence with the White House.
The Pentagon also sought to hamstring General David Petraeus in ways both petty and large, even as it became increasingly apparent that the surge was working. Following the general's first report to Congress last September, Mr. Bush dictated a personal message to assure General Petraeus of his complete support: "I do not want to change the strategy until the strategy has succeeded," Mr. Woodward reports the President as saying. In this respect, Mr. Bush would have been better advised to dictate that message directly to Admiral Mullen.
The success of the surge in pacifying Iraq has been so swift and decisive that it's easy to forget how difficult it was to find the right general, choose the right strategy, and muster the political will to implement it. It is also easy to forget how many obstacles the State and Pentagon bureaucracies threw in Mr. Bush's way, and how much of their bad advice he had to ignore, especially now that their reputations are also benefiting from Iraq's dramatic turn for the better.
Then again, American history offers plenty of examples of wartime Presidents who faced similar challenges: Ulysses Grant became Lincoln's general-in-chief in 1864, barely a year before the surrender at Appomattox. What matters most is that the President had the fortitude to insist on winning. That's a test President Bush passed -- something history, if not Bob Woodward, will recognize.