How Bush Decided on the Surge
A year ago, we were losing in Iraq. Then the president made the most momentous decision of his presidency.
Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By FRED BARNES
The date: December 13, 2006. The location: a windowless conference room in the Pentagon known as the Tank. It was an inauspicious place for President Bush to confront the last major obstacle to the most important decision of his second term, perhaps of his entire presidency. And the president chose not to deal with his hosts, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as a commander in chief would address subordinates. He hadn't come to the military brass's turf simply to order the five chiefs and two combatant commanders to begin a "surge" of additional troops in Iraq and to pursue a radical change in strategy. For that, he might have summoned them to the Oval Office or the Situation Room in the basement of the White House. He had come to the Pentagon to persuade and cajole, not command.
The president was in a weak and lonely position. After Republicans lost the Senate and House in the midterm election on November 7, nearly 200 members of Congress had met with him at the White House, mostly to grouse about Iraq. Democrats urged him to begin withdrawing troops, in effect accepting defeat. Many of the Republicans were panicky and blamed Bush and the Iraq war for the Democratic landslide. They feared the 2008 election would bring worse losses. They wanted out of Iraq too.
Inside his own administration, Bush had few allies on a surge in Iraq aside from the vice president and a coterie of National Security Council (NSC) staffers. The Joint Chiefs were disinclined to send more troops to Iraq or adopt a new strategy. So were General George Casey, the American commander in Iraq, and Centcom commander John Abizaid. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice favored a troop pullback. A week earlier, the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, had recommended a graceful exit from Iraq.
The presence of former secretary of state James Baker, a longtime Bush family friend, on the commission was viewed in Washington and around the world as significant. It was assumed, correctly in this instance, that Baker wouldn't have taken the post if the president had objected. (At least one top Bush adviser faulted Rice for not blocking the amendment by Republican representative Frank Wolf of Virginia that created the commission in the first place.) Baker was seen as providing cover for Bush to order a gradual retreat from Iraq.
But retreat was the furthest thing from Bush's mind. "This is very trite," he told me. "Failure was no option . . . I never thought I had to give up the goal of winning." He wanted one more chance to win.
At the Pentagon, Bush listened sympathetically to the complaints and worries of the chiefs. He promised to ease the strain the war had put on the military. Bush knew the idea of deploying more troops and changing the strategy would be a tough sell. It had been hatched outside the Pentagon. Co-opting the chiefs was "tricky business," an aide said. It "would be the most demanding civil-military challenge the president would face."
Some of the president's aides feared the chiefs would raise such strenuous objections to a surge that Bush would back off or, worse, they'd mount a frontal assault to kill the idea. Neither fear was realized. The session in the Tank lasted nearly two hours. When it was over, the chiefs were unenthusiastic. Weeks earlier, when Bush aides had asked them to draft a plan for what a surge would look like militarily, the Pentagon had dawdled. Now, with Bush doing the asking, the chiefs agreed to produce a surge plan. Bush had gotten all he needed from them--acquiescence. The surge was on.
It wouldn't be announced until Bush addressed the nation on January 10, 2007. In the meantime, important details had to be worked out, such as getting assurances from Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki that he wouldn't interfere to protect Shia friends or militias. And when the Pentagon said one or two more Army brigades would suffice, the White House consulted General David Petraeus, whose selection as the new commander in Iraq had yet to be made public. Petraeus said he'd need a minimum of five and that's what he got. "I decided to go robust," Bush said. A senior adviser added: "If you're going to be a bear, be a grizzly."
For an unpopular president facing a Democratic Congress ferociously opposed to the war in Iraq, it was a risky and defiant decision. Now, a year later, it's clear the surge has been a success. Violence is down, Baghdad mostly pacified, many Sunni leaders have abandoned their insurgency, and Al Qaeda in Iraq has been crushed (though not eliminated).
The war is not over, nor have the Iraqi government's steps toward sectarian reconciliation between Shia and Sunnis amounted to much. But should progress continue to the point that American troops begin coming home in large numbers and Iraq emerge as a reasonably secure democracy, a possibility arises: that because of his surge decision, Bush not only won the war in Iraq but saved his presidency.
The summer before Bush's visit to the Tank, success in Iraq had seemed unattainable. As sectarian conflict mushroomed and violence in Baghdad lurched out of control, the president had reluctantly concluded the war in Iraq was being lost. His hopes for a stable Iraq, buoyed by three elections there in 2005 and the installation of a democratic government, had been dashed. "There was just a constant stream of reporting about an impending civil war or innocent people being just run over by lawlessness and armed gangs," he told me when I interviewed him recently. "The cumulative effect of the rise in violence suggested to me we were going to have to do something different."
By early November, the president had a pretty good idea what that something should be. On November 5, the Sunday before Election Day, he met with Robert Gates, deputy national security adviser and eventually CIA director in the administration of Bush's father, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Bush was looking for a replacement for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose departure was to be announced the day after the election. Gates, president of Texas A&M University at the time, was his first choice.
Gates "informed me in the course of the conversation that, as a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, he favored a surge of additional troops in Iraq," Bush said. This matched the president's own view. "I was thinking about a different strategy based upon U.S. troops moving in there in some shape or form, ill-defined at this point, but nevertheless helping to provide more security through a more robust counterinsurgency campaign," he said.
The president had been impressed by a plan developed by his NSC aides with advice from a loosely knit group of retired and active duty Army officers and civilian experts. It called for adding troops, protecting Iraqi citizens, securing Baghdad, and eventually pacifying the country. Bush received a daily written report on Iraq, and as conditions worsened in the fall he began to question NSC staffers informally about his options in Iraq. "Not every meeting in the White House is a formal meeting," Bush told me. "A lot of times decisions can be formulated outside the formal process."
The surge decision certainly was. By the time a formal NSC review began in October, followed by an "interagency" task force that met from mid-November to early January, Bush was quietly but solidly pro-surge. Had another credible plan for victory in Iraq come to his attention, Bush might have latched onto it. None did.
National security adviser Steve Hadley knew the president was single-mindedly committed to winning in Iraq. "He knew my anxiety and . . . knew my intensity on the issue," Bush said. "He read me like a book." Though the president hadn't requested it, Hadley's deputy J.D. Crouch assigned NSC aide William Luti, an ex-Navy officer, to prepare a surge blueprint. When Meghan O'Sullivan, the 37-year-old Oxford Ph.D. who ran the NSC's Iraq desk and was an early advocate of a surge, dropped by, Bush casually questioned her about Iraq. He also grilled Hadley, Crouch, and NSC official Peter Feaver about conditions in Iraq. "Any chance I had, when I was alone with them, I would probe, get their sentiments."
He was never alarmed, Bush said, by the opposition to a surge from nearly everyone in the political community, the media, and the foreign policy establishment--everyone, he pointed out, "except for the people inside the White House I trust. We've been in this foxhole now for seven years, and we're battle-tested, hardened veterans of dealing with the elite opinion in Washington, D.C."
Though Bush had all but decided on a surge before the formal "interagency review" began looking at new options on Iraq, the process wasn't a charade. It forced the president to consider alternatives. And it also involved agencies besides the White House--the Defense and State departments, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs. "At a very minimum," the president said, it made them "feel they had a say in the development of a strategy." In this case, a small say.
The military, in Bush's view, has to be treated with special deference and tact. "One of the most important jobs of a commander in chief, and particularly in a time of war, is to be thoughtful and sensitive about the U.S. military," he said. Bush believes in persuading the military to embrace his policies rather than simply imposing them. In fact, a senior Pentagon official said Bush hoped the military would use the interagency review to push for a surge on its own. That didn't happen. The chiefs preferred the status quo, which meant sticking to a strategy of training the Iraqi army and leaving it with the job of defeating the insurgency.
This was the attitude Bush sought to mollify when he went to the Tank, the regular meeting place for the Joint Chiefs. He sat across a table from them: chairman Peter Pace, Army chief Peter Schoomaker, Marine commandant James T. Conway, chief of naval operations Michael Mullen, and Air Force chief T. Michael Moseley. Casey and Abizaid, the combatant commanders, were also present. Two defense secretaries sat, a bit awkwardly, on Bush's side of the table, the outgoing Donald Rumsfeld and his successor, Robert Gates, who was confirmed the following week.
In September, Rumsfeld had rejected the idea of a surge when retired general Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army and a member of the advisory Defense Policy Review Board, met with him and Pace. Keane insisted the "train and leave" strategy, as Bush referred to it, was failing. He proposed a counterinsurgency strategy, the addition of five to eight Army brigades, and a primary focus on taking back Baghdad. Rumsfeld was unconvinced. But now, with Bush favoring a strategy nearly identical to Keane's, he didn't object. "Rumsfeld was never a lose guy," a Bush adviser said. "He always wanted to win."
With Bush's connivance, Cheney asked the chiefs a series of questions designed to ease their qualms about a surge. What would be the consequences of losing in Iraq? Was the Iraqi army capable of quelling the sectarian violence without substantial help from American troops?
The chiefs had real grievances to air, and they didn't hold back. Schoomaker cited the stress on combat forces from repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. That, Bush told me, was "the main thing I remember from that meeting. That was clearly a factor in some of the people around the table's thinking . . . if you sustain our level, much less increase the level, you could, Mr. President, strain the force, which is an important consideration."
Bush agreed that strain was a problem. Then he delivered a sharp rejoinder, touching on a theme he returned to in nearly every meeting on Iraq. "The biggest strain on the force would be a defeat in Iraq," he said. Winning trumped strain. To alleviate the strain, the president committed to enlarging the Army by two divisions and increasing the size of the Marine Corps. The chiefs had two more complaints. The military, practically alone, was carrying the load in Iraq. Where were the civilians from the State Department and other agencies? Again, Bush agreed with their point. He promised to assign more civilians to Iraq. (The number of provincial reconstruction teams was soon doubled.)
Their final problem was the unreliability of Iraq's Shia government and army. Would Iraqi forces show up and do their part in the surge? And would they act in a non-sectarian manner, treating Sunnis the same as Shia? Bush said he'd get a public commitment on both counts from Maliki before making a final decision on the surge. And he did.
In early 2006, Bush was positive about prospects in Iraq. "First of all, 2005 was a fascinating year," he said. "You know, elections were held, the country looked relatively calm." The president wouldn't have been as hopeful if he'd talked to colonels and majors and captains on the ground in Iraq. As news traveled up the military chain of command in Iraq, then to the White House, it tended to get more optimistic. Bush's confidence about Iraq would soon be shattered.
On February 22, 2006, the golden dome of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shia mosques in Iraq, was bombed. That single act of violence would change everything. For several weeks, Iraqi Shia and their militias didn't react, and Bush and his advisers thought they'd dodged a bullet.
Then in April, violence exploded with a fury unseen in Iraq in the nearly three years since American troops had deposed Saddam Hussein. Shia militias hadn't responded to earlier al Qaeda and Sunni provocations. But now they erupted in a killing spree. Shia death squads slaughtered thousands of Sunnis. Baghdad became a free fire zone. Iraq was on the verge of an all-out civil war.
At the White House, officials began to question the military strategy in Iraq and the assumptions behind it. American forces had been pursuing a "small footprint." Its rationale was that Americans were an occupying force whose presence stoked the Iraqi insurgency. So the strategy was to keep U.S. troops out of Iraqi neighborhoods as much as practicable. They were camped instead in large installations, mostly outside Baghdad, and deployed on missions to destroy al Qaeda terrorists and insurgents.
There was another crucial assumption shared by American military leaders: Iraqis had to step up first. Violence wouldn't subside until the new Iraqi government took tangible steps toward reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia. Reconciliation was a precondition for security. And while the American military could train and equip an Iraqi army, it couldn't win the war. If Bush was skeptical of the small footprint, he never expressed it. He accepted the assurance of his commanders that the strategy was working--until Samarra.
After the bombing, NSC officials were increasingly dubious. They weren't alone. General Keane kept in contact with retired and active Army officers, including Petraeus, who believed the war could be won with more troops and a population protection, or counterinsurgency, strategy--but not with a small footprint. At the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, a former West Point professor (and a current WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor), Frederick Kagan, was putting together a detailed plan to secure Baghdad. But the loudest voice for a change in Iraq was Senator John McCain of Arizona. He and his sidekick, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, traveled repeatedly to Iraq. McCain badgered Bush and Hadley with phone calls urging more troops and a different strategy. Together, McCain, Keane, Petraeus, the network of Army officers, and Kagan provided a supportive backdrop for adopting a new strategy.
White House thinking about Iraq changed quickly, at least at the staff level. The reigning assumptions about the conflict were discarded. American troops weren't seen as targets and catalysts for violence anymore. Iraqis wanted their protection. Nor was the insurgency the biggest threat to stability. Sectarian violence, fueled by Al Qaeda in Iraq, was. To tamp it down, a new strategy was required.
The counterinsurgency option, with its emphasis on protecting people, was soon popular with NSC officials. At O'Sullivan's request, Army general Kevin Bergner was assigned to her staff. He had conducted a small counterinsurgency operation in Mosul in 2005 that succeeded in reducing violence and restoring normal life. Around the same time, Colonel H.R. McMaster had led a successful counterinsurgency effort to secure Tal Afar in northwest Iraq.
To stimulate fresh consideration of Iraq strategy, the NSC staff organized a panel of experts to address the president and his war cabinet at Camp David in mid-June. The two-day meeting at the presidential retreat loomed as a potential turning point in the Bush administration's approach to Iraq.
The four-man panel wasn't stacked. Kagan spoke in favor of additional troops and outlined his plan for pacifying Baghdad with a "clear, hold, and build" strategy. American soldiers, along with Iraqi troops, would do the holding, living in Baghdad and guarding its citizens, Sunni and Shia alike. Robert Kaplan, the foreign correspondent and military writer now teaching at the Naval Academy, talked about successful counterinsurgency campaigns in the past. (Kaplan's books are among Bush's favorites.) Kaplan neither advocated a troop buildup nor opposed it.
Countering Kagan, Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret and CIA operations officer, explained how Iraq could actually be won with fewer troops, not more. Vickers is now an assistant secretary of defense. The fourth panelist was Eliot Cohen, now a State Department adviser. Bush had read his book on wartime leadership, Supreme Command. Cohen reemphasized its theme: Leaders should hold their generals accountable if a war is being lost or won.
Bush's reaction to the panel offered no hint of his thinking. After the first day's session, he secretly flew to Iraq to attend the inauguration of Maliki's government. Bush's advisers, still at Camp David and expecting to see him in person, were surprised when he spoke to them by teleconference from Baghdad.
Rather than a turning point, the events of June prompted a fleeting moment of optimism. The week before Camp David, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, had been killed. (Cheney has a piece of the house where Zarqawi died on display at his residence.) And not only was Iraq getting a new and presumably more effective government, but American and Iraqi forces were jointly beginning an initiative to curb violence in Baghdad.
Organized by Casey, Operation Together Forward embraced the essence of counterinsurgency--clear, hold, and build--on paper. But in the field, it was counter-insurgency-lite with no additional American troops. Americans and Iraqis were to together drive out al Qaeda and the insurgents and take over Baghdad neighborhoods, with the Iraqis then staying behind to keep them secure. But many Iraqi units failed to show up. Those that did refused to stick around. The operation fizzled, as did a second attempt dubbed Together Forward II.
Bush, not heeding Cohen's advice, didn't blame Casey. The strategy "was unable to work because the clear, build, and hold was not complete," he said. "We would clear, we would somewhat build, but we wouldn't hold. And the sectarian violence that I thought had been avoided right after the Golden Mosque bombing began to spiral and neighborhoods were being cleansed."
The president, normally upbeat, was growing worried. At almost every meeting on Iraq, he emphasized "winning." It was Bush's mantra. But now he was losing the biggest gamble of his presidency. Another recurring theme was the consequences of defeat for America, Iraq, and the Middle East. "I was constantly trying to think about what do we need to do to succeed, what was it that was necessary," he said.
In the NSC's inner circle, Bush's partiality was clear. He liked option two, what later became known as the "surge." He got plenty of reinforcement for that position. Hadley and Crouch traveled to Iraq in late October and early November: Hadley to talk to political leaders, Crouch to spend time with military units. On his return, Hadley sent a memo to Bush and his war cabinet that criticized Maliki, but also pointedly hinted at a surge of additional troops in Iraq. The memo was leaked to the New York Times.
"We might also need to fill the current four-brigade gap in Baghdad with coalition (American) forces if reliable Iraqi forces are not identified," Hadley wrote. And the president should "ask Secretary of Defense and General Casey to make a recommendation about whether more forces are needed in Baghdad."
Crouch visited Anbar and found what O'Sullivan and others had also discovered in Iraq: American soldiers were now welcomed. Anbar, once controlled by Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq, had turned. The Sunnis had revolted against their al Qaeda allies and joined forces with Americans. With more troops, U.S. officers said they could gain control of the entire Anbar region.
On November 30, the day after Hadley's memo became public, Bush met with Maliki in Amman, Jordan. He had "a couple of important factors" to work out before committing to a surge. "One was, would I have a partner to deal with in the prime minister of Iraq," Bush said. "I went out to the region to have a little sit-down with him, to get a sense of his intensity in dealing with killers, whether they be Sunni or Shia. In other words, there had to be Iraqi buy-in to any new strategy in order for it to be effective."
The second issue was whether the Iraqi troops would participate in a surge and perform better than they had in Together Forward I and II. Maliki claimed the Iraqi army could handle the job of securing Baghdad alone. His attitude, the president said, was, "We need you there for a while, we can do this, we'll take care of it." But "after the meeting, General Casey said they can't." Bush believed Casey.
It was weeks before Bush got satisfaction from Maliki on the two points, weeks that included numerous phone conversations and talks by teleconference. Finally, in a speech four days before Bush announced the surge, Maliki gave public assurances that Iraqi troops would be fully engaged in pacifying Baghdad and would act in a nonsectarian manner.
In Washington, the president got little satisfaction from the interagency review of Iraq policy. Instead of a surge, the State Department favored a strategy of pulling troops out of Baghdad and allowing the Sunnis and Shia to finish their bloody struggle. When Bush heard about this idea, he rejected it out of hand. "I don't believe you can have political reconciliation if your capital city is burning," he said.
The Pentagon was on Bush's side, arguing that American troops shouldn't be ordered to stand by while people were being massacred. But, as Bush was to hear firsthand during his visit to the Tank, the military wasn't favorably disposed to a surge either. During the review, Joint Chiefs of Staff representatives stuck to the line that political reconciliation, not a troop buildup, was the key to reducing violence in Iraq. They also said a greater civilian effort was needed in Iraq. As for the U.S. military, the status quo in Iraq was fine.
Bush wasn't buying that. On December 11, Bush had five military experts to the Oval Office to talk about the Iraq war. Keane, a friend of Cheney but almost unknown to Bush, made the strongest impression, arguing that "train and leave" wasn't a strategy for winning. He laid out a case for the surge, reinforcing Bush's strong inclination. Retired generals Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey opposed the surge. (McCaffrey later changed his mind.) Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Democrat, criticized the gradual retreat urged by the Baker-Hamilton Commission. And Eliot Cohen talked about civil-military aspects of the Iraq war and said Bush should talk to younger officers, not just the generals.
That afternoon, Keane and Frederick Kagan gave Cheney a full briefing, including a slide show, on their surge plan. It had been developed at AEI with help from Keane's network of officers. Cheney didn't need much encouraging. Bush told Cheney biographer (and WEEKLY STANDARD senior writer) Stephen F. Hayes last year that the vice president had always been a "more troops guy." The surge neatly fit Cheney's specifications. Keane and Kagan became a sought-after pair in Washington, a gravelly voiced general and a young professor with a plan to win in Iraq. They gave briefings to Hadley and Pentagon officials, among others.
Bush was originally scheduled to deliver a nationally televised speech on Iraq the second week in December, a day or so after the Tank session. But the president wasn't ready. He wanted to give Gates time to visit Iraq. And a key decision--about sending troops to Anbar, home of the Sunni Awakening--was still to be made. The speech was put off until after New Year's.
When Gates returned from Iraq just before Christmas, he brought Casey's recommendation for a surge of one or two brigades--a mini-surge. Bush felt that wouldn't work. He had agreed with Hadley and Crouch that Anbar was an opportunity worth seizing. He didn't want to "piecemeal the operation" by tackling the province later. Once he'd "made the decision to cleanse Anbar and settle down Baghdad at the same time," Bush said, it had to be five brigades.
By this time, Petraeus was a factor in the decision-making. Both Gates and Rumsfeld had recommended him. He was already a favorite of Cheney, who'd spent a day at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with Petraeus while the general was writing the new Army counterinsurgency manual. Petraeus gave a pre-publication copy of the manual to Cheney.
Though he was replacing Casey and jettisoning his strategy, the president didn't want to embarrass him. Bush admires Casey and rejects the Lincoln analogy: that like President Lincoln he fired generals until he found one who would win the war. When I raised the analogy, Bush interrupted. "McClellan and Casey," he said. "That's not accurate." Lincoln fired General George McClellan and ultimately made Ulysses Grant his top commander. According to the analogy, Petraeus is Bush's Grant. "I wouldn't go there," Bush told me. He promoted Casey to Army chief of staff.
The Petraeus factor strengthened Hadley's hand in working on Bush's speech. Words matter in presidential addresses, even a single word. The Pentagon wanted Bush to announce a surge of "up to" five brigades. Hadley urged the president to be more specific and forceful. Bush agreed and said he was "committed" to sending five brigades.
And if a question lingered about his intentions on Anbar, Bush answered it in his speech. "I have given orders to increase American forces in Anbar Province by 4,000 troops," he declared.
The 20-minute speech on January 10, 2007, was not Bush's most eloquent. And it wasn't greeted with applause. Democrats condemned the surge and Republicans were mostly silent. Polls showing strong public opposition to the war in Iraq were unaffected.
But the president, as best I could tell, wasn't looking for affirmation. He was focused solely on victory in Iraq. The surge may achieve that. And if it does, Bush's decision to spurn public opinion and the pressure of politics and intensify the war in Iraq will surely be regarded as the greatest of his presidency.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.