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 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).