By Colin Kahl
As a result of Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within", a narrative is emerging that paints President Bush as a valiant hero who stood up to his Generals and insisted on the surge. In doing so, Bush fans argue, the president's "extraordinary decision" snatched victory from the jaws of ignominious defeat. As my Center for a New American Security colleague Derek Chollet suggests, it is possible that Woodward is simply being spun by the White House.
But even if Woodward's account is right, Bush hardly comes off as a hero.
I have interviewed many of the same people Woodward did (as well as some he did not) for a book I'm writing on the evolution of counterinsurgency in Iraq, and the broad contours of Woodward's account seem correct. Those arguing for the surge inside the National Security Council (individuals like Meghan O'Sullivan, Brett McGurk, Peter Feaver, and Brigadier General Kevin Bergner) and outside the White House (like retired General Jack Keane, General David Petraeus, and Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, who arrived as the Corps commander in Iraq in early December 2006) were in the minority. Against them stood most of the Joint Chiefs, General George Casey (the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq), General John Abizaid (the head of Central Command), and the State Department. Casey in particular comes off poorly for sticking with the plan to "transition" responsibility to the Iraqis while the country was on fire.
But Bush is no hero in this tale either. The real story must take into account the following facts:
- For three-and-a-half years Bush neglected the war, letting Generals Ricardo Sanchez (the first U.S. commander in Iraq) and Casey run the war with little "interference" from the White House, insufficient monitoring to see if they were actually accomplishing their mission, and little accountability. We weren't winning in 2003. The president did nothing. We weren't winning in 2004. The president did nothing. We weren't winning in 2005. The president did nothing. For years, the decider made none of the necessary decisions to stop the war from sliding into failure.
- During the long, deadly summer of 2006, Bush dallied and refused to make a decision or level with the American people that the strategy was failing. For months after the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra plunged Iraq into chaos, Bush kept saying publicly that we were winning. We weren't and he knew it. (I was in Baghdad in July 2006 and it was painfully clear we were losing.) But for Bush to admit that we were losing, publicly, would have been political suicide given the upcoming Congressional elections. So the president stalled. He kept Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in place and didn't change the strategy until January 2007. And the consequences of this presidential delay? Hundreds of dead Americans, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens made homeless. Even if one believes the president made the right decision to order a surge, he didn't issue the order until January 2007, with the first surged troops arriving in February -- almost a full year after the Mosque bombing.
That's the real story, and it's hardly heroic.
And what of the decision itself? In the fall of 2006, reasonable and honorable people--including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group, and many Democrats in Congress--could and did disagree about the desirability of the surge. Most intelligence analysts at the time thought Iraq's civil war was simply too far along to be decisively affected by a mere 20 percent increase in U.S. forces. Moreover, "doubling down" on Iraq through the surge carried huge risks and costs -- in terms of American blood and treasure in Iraq; enormous strains on the already overstretched Army and Marines; stripping our strategic military reserve, leaving us vulnerable if any other major contingency emerged around the globe; and continuing to starve Afghanistan (a war sliding downhill fast) of the troops and resources needed for success there.
Depending on whether recent security gains in Iraq actually translate into lasting political reconciliation and stability, historians may look back and conclude that Bush made the right choice in January 2007. But when they look back at the Iraq war as a whole, and Bush's role in particular, they are not likely to be kind. The surge decision was not cost-free, and it in no way absolves Bush (or other cheerleaders for the war) of the responsibility (and, yes, the blame) for all the mistakes before the choice was made.
At best, if the legacy of the surge is judged a "success," it will simply mean that the change in strategy helped address the self-inflicted wounds to our national interests -- the emergence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, enhanced Iranian influence in Iraq, threats to regional stability, and a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis -- all created by the war itself. On balance, historians are likely to conclude that those who opposed the war to begin with -- and saw that it wouldn't make us safer -- showed the best judgment of all.
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