By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 9, 2008; 1:01 PM
It's not exactly news that President Bush dismisses the advice of his military commanders when it doesn't suit him -- and did so, most notably, when he ordered a surge in troops to Iraq early last year over the intense objections of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his top commanders in the region.
Bob Woodward's new book calls renewed attention to Bush's problematic decision-making style, but leaves unanswered some key questions. Among them: Were Bush's motivations in pushing through the surge noble or self-serving? And was he, ultimately, right or wrong to do so?
A lot rests on the answer to those questions -- maybe even the November election. And although Woodward doesn't appear to be quite ready to weigh in, he does provide some hints. He accuses Bush of deception and disengagement. He airs top military leaders' well-founded concerns that the surge would do enormous damage to the long-term fighting ability of the armed forces. And he argues that the surge is far from the sole reason for the reduction in violence in Iraq.
He also raises the distinct possibility that domestic political factors were a big factor: He quotes Bush telling soon-to-be-ousted Central Command commander Gen. John P. Abizaid at a National Security Council session in December that the surge would "also help here at home, since for many the measure of success is reduction in violence."
But you could also reasonably read Woodward's book as primarily a complaint that it took Bush so long to act, rather than that he did the wrong thing. Woodward is much more critical of the process than of the decision.
Indeed, conventional wisdom in Washington has coalesced around the notion that surge -- a plan Woodward describes as being masterminded by retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, using his back-channel relationship with Bush and Vice President Cheney -- has been a success.
But the evidence actually suggests that its most dazzling success has been the effect here at home -- precisely the one Bush had in mind.
The surge, among other quite possibly more significant factors, has dramatically reduced violence in Iraq, leading the American public to turn its attention elsewhere, and leaving the issue of withdrawal for the next president to worry about.
But has it led to the sort of Iraqi political reconciliation Bush promised would come as a result? Hardly.
Has it overstrained the army to the breaking point? The stress fractures we see so far, including the incredible burdens on the troops and their families, have yet to fully express themselves.
Has it led to a faster pullout than would have otherwise been possible? Certainly not. Given the political tenor of the country shortly before Bush announced an escalation, a lot of our troops could well have been withdrawn by now had things gone otherwise. Instead, as Bush made clear this morning, there will be more troops in Iraq when he leaves office than there were in January 2007.What Woodward Wrote
I had some initial observations about the book in Friday's column. Since then, The Washington Post, where Woodward is an associate editor, has published three long excerpts, along with a few sidebars.
In Sunday's installment, Woodward writes that in 2006, by which point Iraqis were enduring 1,000 attacks a week, "the administration's efforts to develop a new Iraq strategy were crippled by dissension among the president's advisers, delayed by political calculations and undermined by a widening and sometimes bitter rift in civilian-military relations."
One particularly interesting section suggests that Bush had a consistently naive sense of what victory entailed. Woodward describes how the eventually-ousted U.S. commander in Iraq, George W. Casey Jr., "had concluded that one big problem with the war was the president himself. Since the beginning, Casey felt, the president had viewed the war in conventional terms, repeatedly asking how many of the various enemies had been captured or killed. Casey later confided to a colleague that he had the impression that Bush reflected the 'radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, "Kill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you'll succeed."'
"Casey was troubled by the thought that the president didn't understand the nature of the fight they were in. The large, heavily armed Western force was on borrowed time, he believed. The president often paid lip service to winning over the Iraqi people, but then he would lean in with greater interest and ask about raids and military operations, grilling Casey about killings and captures. . . .
"Asked later about Casey's perceptions, Bush insisted in an interview that he understood the nature of the war, whatever Casey might have thought. 'I mean, of all people to understand that, it's me,' he said."
Let's just pause there, for dramatic purposes, and recall what we know about Bush's idea of sacrifice.
Woodward continues: "But several of his on-the-record comments lend credence to Casey's concern that the president was overly focused on the number of enemy killed."
In a sidebar, Woodward criticizes the conventional wisdom that the surge worked. "[T]he full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge. These factors either have not been reported publicly or have received less attention than the influx of troops.
"Beginning in the late spring of 2007, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies launched a series of top-secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government. . . .
"A second important factor in the lessening of violence was the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and signed up with U.S. forces."
(Woodward neglects to mention the $25 million a month that the U.S. government is paying those Sunni gunmen for their services.)
"A third significant break came Aug. 29, when militant Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his powerful Mahdi Army to suspend operations, including attacks against U.S. troops," Woodward writes.
And there are some other factors Woodward leaves out. Consider, for instance, the possibility that years of ethnic cleansing have left a formerly integrated country fragmented into internally peaceful but heavily armed pieces. And there is growing evidence that all sides are now just patiently waiting until we leave to start fighting again -- this time with plenty of American money and weapons on every side.
In Monday's installment, Woodward describes how the Joint Chiefs of Staff were shunted aside by Bush and Cheney.
He writes, for instance, about Adm. Michael Mullen, then chief of naval operations, warning in a December 2006 meeting with Bush that "the all-volunteer force might break under the strain of extended and repeated deployments. 'I am still searching for the grand strategy here,' Mullen said. 'How does a five-brigade surge over the next few months fit into the larger picture? We have so many other issues and challenges: Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and places we are not even thinking about today.' . . .
"Several of the chiefs noted that the five brigades were effectively the strategic reserve of the U.S. military, the forces on hand in case of flare-ups elsewhere in the world. Surprise was a way of international life, the chiefs were saying. For years, Bush had been making the point that it was a dangerous world. Did he want to leave the United States in the position of not being able to deal with the next manifestation of that danger?
"Bush told the chiefs that they had to win the war at hand. He turned [to Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief]. 'Pete, you don't agree with me, do you?'
"'No,' Schoomaker said. 'I just don't see it. I just don't. But I know right now that it's going to be 15 brigades. And how we're going to get those 15 brigades, I don't know. This is going to require more than we can generate. You're stressing the force, Mr. President, and these kids just see deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan for the indefinite future.'"
Then Woodward describes how Bush in January 2007 "went to Fort Benning, Ga., to address military personnel and their families. His decision had been opposed by Casey and Abizaid, his military commanders in Iraq. [Chairman Peter] Pace and the Joint Chiefs, his top military advisers, had suggested a smaller increase, if any at all. Schoomaker, the Army chief, had made it clear that the five brigades didn't really exist under the Army's current policy of 12-month rotations. But on this morning, the president delivered his own version of history."
Said Bush: "The commanders on the ground in Iraq, people who I listen to -- by the way, that's what you want your commander-in-chief to do. You don't want decisions being made based upon politics or focus groups or political polls. You want your military decisions being made by military experts. They analyzed the plan, and they said to me and to the Iraqi government: 'This won't work unless we help them. There needs to be a bigger presence.' . . .
"And so our commanders looked at the plan and said, 'Mr. President, it's not going to work until -- unless we support -- provide more troops.'"
In today's installment, Woodward writes about the significance of back channels.Woodward and Larry King
Here's the transcript of Woodward's appearance with CNN's Larry King last night.
The big picture, Woodward said, "is that [Bush] never found a way to level with the American people and say, 'Look, I know it's not working. We're going to fix it.' He would go out and say it's tough, but then he would say things like we're absolutely winning, we're winning -- when he knew we were not, when the generals knew we were not."
King: "You assert in your book that: 'The president rarely was the voice of realism on the Iraq War.' The obvious question, then, is why? Was he not well-informed?"
Woodward: "No. He wanted to fix it, but they didn't want to come out and say, hey, look, this is a mess. They said it was difficult. But you compare the public language with the private language and the memos and the discussions and the meetings, and it's -- it couldn't be more different. And, you know, the question of why is, as I say in the book, I think -- I never questioned the president's sincerity here, but there was an avoidance of conflict within the team in the White House and the cabinet.
"He never -- as best I can tell from everyone, including himself. I asked him, I said, 'Did you ever say to General Casey -- did you ever say to Rumsfeld, hey, this isn't working? Hey, Don.' And the president said, 'I don't remember those meetings -- discussions. I don't have any recollection of that.' Well, here is where the rubber meets the road in war. This isn't preparing for war. This isn't the aftermath of a war. . . . This is right in the guts of a war."
In the book, Woodward writes that in one of his two interviews with Bush, he asked about how the White House settled on a troop surge of five brigades after the military leadership in Washington had reluctantly said it could provide two. Bush replied: "Okay, I don't know this. I'm not in these meetings, you'll be happy to hear, because I got other things to do."
Woodward told King: "Now, this is the key pivot point in these decisions -- in this decision on the surge and he's not there and he's telling me I should be happy that he's not there and he's got other things to do."
Woodward: "Now, he does have other things to do, but this is a war -- when the intelligence and everyone is telling him it's failing, it's not working and it's hell."
Woodward: "I don't understand that disengagement. I've done this for 37 years of reporting. This isn't a source. This isn't somebody thinking that they saw. . . . It's right out of the president's own mouth. . . . "
King: "Why -- you often have been very critical of him in your last book, very critical of him. Why do you think he talks to you?"
Woodward: "I think I presented his side. I have presented what occurred. You know, a number of people have read this and said, well, it -- yes, it was slow. . . . But he made a decision that has led us to a much better condition, and if you are of the Karl Rove view of politics and life in America, which is everything gets measured by outcomes, you could look at this and say it's a positive.
"I thoroughly present the president's views and his words. At the same time, after doing four books . . . my conclusions are tough and it goes to the question of what are your expectations of a president who started a war [and] three and a half years into it, when it's failing, and he says there's no hurry. When he is not at some of the meetings, when he will not get the chief players here all together and knock their heads and say, we have to fix this. . . .
"As you look at this period of the last two years covered in this book, the effort was not enough, given the responsibility that he has as commander in chief. And, yes, efforts were made, things were done. It was brutal. But when you look at it, day by day, sometimes meeting by meeting, and see the disconnection, the dysfunction, the mismanagement, it unfortunately is a very sad story."White House Response
Here's White House press secretary Dana Perino at yesterday's briefing: "I think that the surge is no doubt one of the most important foreign policy and military decisions that have been made in a generation. And it was fundamental to the change that we have seen today in Iraq. We are working now to cement those gains and to be able to continue to watch Iraq evolve into a country that can sustain, govern and defend itself. . . .
"I think that when it comes to this book, I don't necessarily think that the conclusions are supported by a lot of the facts in the book. The surge was not just about sending 30,000 troops; it was a fundamental change in the way that we were working to secure the population, for example. And sometimes in Washington when you can't attack the results of something you attack a process.
"I would submit to you that President Bush initiated and oversaw a very comprehensive, thorough, well-managed process that in some cases and some people might say that it was too slow in its development. But when you are making a decision where you are asking young men and women to put their lives on the line, that it was the right type of assessment. It was sober; it was very clear-eyed; it was brutal in terms of the amount of hours.
"And I also take issue with the notion about a war within. I can't imagine that anybody in Washington would be shocked that if you bring people together to talk about one of the most difficult problems in our time, that they might have a disagreement over what is the best option. And in fact, we should all want that to happen."
Here's Bush talking to Brian Kilmeade of Fox News on Sunday: "Without the surge, those [good] things wouldn't have happened. . . . As a result of the surge, people have more confidence that the United States is going to stand with them, and, when you have more confidence, it enables you to do -- it makes stronger actions, for example, the people showing up in the Sunni land to reject al Qaeda."Bush's Speech
Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush announced Tuesday that he will keep the U.S. force strength in Iraq largely intact until the next president takes over, drawing rebukes from Democrats who want the war ended and a bigger boost of troops in troubled Afghanistan.
"The president said he will pull home about 8,000 combat and support troops by February -- a drawdown not as strong or swift as long anticipated."
Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "At the same time, Bush will preside over further increases in the number of U.S. troops fighting the resurgent Taliban militia in Afghanistan, including a fresh Marine battalion in November and an additional Army brigade in January.
"The new plans are likely to represent Bush's last major decision on the deployment of U.S. troops in the two wars that have come to define his presidency. The plans also mean that either Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will have to cope with decisions on wartime troop levels immediately after taking office Jan. 20."
Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times: "After other support and logistics units are withdrawn under the new orders, the American troop levels in Iraq would drop to about 138,000 by March, still several thousand more than were there in January 2007, when Mr. Bush announced the 'surge' that brought the total over 160,000.Afghanistan Watch
James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Amid rising anger over civilian deaths in Afghanistan, President Bush says he is sending more forces to fight there, but cautions 'there will be times' when U.S. strikes result in the loss of innocent life. . . .
"Tension over civilian casualties in Afghanistan flared after an Aug. 22 U.S. strike in the western province of Herat in which Afghan and United Nations officials said 90 civilians died. U.S. military officials had concluded that 35 militants and up to seven civilians were killed.
"However, the military is sending a senior officer to review new evidence after videos surfaced showing dead children and grieving Afghans. . . .
"Bush is addressing the issue in the face of growing criticism, including from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a close ally.
"'Regrettably, there will be times when our pursuit of the enemy will result in accidental civilian deaths,' Bush says in his prepared speech, without mentioning the Aug. 22 strike. 'This has been the case throughout the history of warfare, yet our nation mourns every innocent life lost.'
Candace Rondeaux and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "The U.S. decision to again probe the Aug. 21 attack in Azizabad, near the western city of Herat, came at the urging of Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. McKiernan said he was prompted by 'emerging evidence' that threw into question the finding of a U.S. investigation that five to seven civilians died. McKiernan had earlier said he concurred with that finding....
"Military officials said the new evidence included a cellphone video showing dozens of civilian bodies, including those of numerous children, prepared for burial in Azizabad after the attack. McKiernan was shown the video Friday by Kai Eide, the chief U.N. representative in Afghanistan."
Tom Coghlan writes in the Times of London: "The Pentagon's original investigation concluded last week that US forces used close air support after coming under heavy fire during a mission to seize a Taleban commander named Mullah Sadiq. They allege that he died in the operation.
"The US military said that its findings were corroborated by an independent journalist embedded with the US force. He was named as the Fox News correspondent Oliver North, who came to prominence in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair, when he was an army colonel."Bush and Cheney on Palin
Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and Vice President Cheney praised Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in separate interviews. . . .
"'I find her to be a very dynamic, capable, smart woman who, you know, it really says that John McCain made an inspired pick, to me,' Bush said in an interview to be aired Tuesday morning on 'Fox and Friends.'
"'She's had executive experience, and that's what it takes to be a capable person here in Washington, D.C., in the executive branch,' Bush said in excerpts released by Fox."
And here's what Cheney told pool reporters in Rome, according to Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times: "We've had all kinds of vice presidents over the years. Everybody brings a different set of experiences to the office and also a different kind of understanding with whoever the president is. . . .
"Each administration is different. And there's no reason why Sarah Palin can't be a successful vice president in a McCain administration. It won't look exactly like the Bush administration or the first Bush administration, the Ford administration. It'll be relatively unique to this president and this time that they're in office.
"I thought her appearance at the convention was superb. Watched that with great interest. I loved some of her lines. What was the difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull? It's lipstick," he said, laughing. "I think she's a good candidate and I don't see any reason why she can't be an effective vice president."Public Records Watch
Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "Months before the Bush administration ends, historians and open-government advocates are concerned that Vice President Cheney, who has long bristled at requirements to disclose his records, will destroy or withhold key documents that illustrate his role in forming U.S. policy for the past 7 1/2 years.
"In a preemptive move, several of them have agreed to join the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in asking a federal judge to declare that Cheney's records are covered by the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and cannot be destroyed, taken or withheld without proper review. . . .
"The goal, proponents say, is to protect a treasure trove of information about national security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, domestic wiretapping, energy policy, and other major issues that could be hidden from the public if Cheney adheres to his view that he is not part of the executive branch. Extending the argument, scholars say, Cheney could assert that he is not required to make his papers public after leaving office. Access to the documents is crucial because he is widely considered to be the most influential vice president in U.S. history, they note."
Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "A spokesman for Cheney, Jamie Hennigan, said the office of the vice president follows the Presidential Records Act and will continue to follow the requirements of the law. He said that includes turning over vice presidential records to the National Archives at the end of the term. . . .
"Separately, 32 historians wrote congressional leaders saying that the Presidential Records Act should be strengthened to include some kind of enforcement mechanism for violations. The historians cited the White House e-mail controversy involving millions of apparently missing emails."Karl Rove Watch
Jackie Kucinich and Bob Cusack write in The Hill: "Eight years after helping George Bush defeat John McCain in a bitter primary, Karl Rove appears to be playing a significant role in helping the Arizona Republican win the presidency. . . .
"A GOP operative said Rove has had a consistent, 'medium'-sized role with the McCain campaign."Campaign Watch
Satyam Khanna reports for Thinkprogress.org: "Interviewed by Bloomberg's Al Hunt this weekend, Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) campaign manager Rick Davis said McCain would no longer campaign with President Bush."
Hunt: "Do you expect to campaign with President Bush this fall?"
Davis: "No. Again. We've turned that page. I mean, that page is gone."Live Online
I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation!Cartoon Watch
Jeff Danziger on the Bush-McCain hypnotism, Mike Luckovich on a strange definition of change, Stuart Carlson on McCain's opponent, Dwane Powell on McCain's best friend, David Horsey on Bush's Mini-Me, Bob Englehart on blaming the media, Nate Beeler on the sound of the economy, and Tom Toles on Cheney's lair