The Magazine

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
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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.