The Magazine

The Woodward Way of War

It's not who wins, it's how you make the decisions.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By PETER WEHNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Bush was close to alone in his advocacy of the surge, which testifies both to his strategic insight and to his political courage. It's revealing that NBC host Matt Lauer, in interviewing the author, took exception to Woodward's claim that Bush failed to lead. "Some advisers are saying don't go with the surge. Military people are saying two brigades, not five. And [Bush] said, 'No, I'm going to go all in on this. I'm doubling down' .  .  . that is leadership, like it or not, isn't it?"

Woodward responded, "Well, of course, but this is a very complicated process." And then he spent the rest of his answer talking about .  .  . process.

There is no question that changes in our Iraq strategy should have been made much sooner than they were; if anything, the president can be faulted for being too deferential to the top military brass and to his cabinet prior to the surge. That's why some of us are delighted Bush eventually paid such close attention to outside voices like retired General Jack Keane, a strong proponent of the surge.

By late 2006, the president came to embrace a fundamentally different counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. With his popularity low and with only a handful of people standing at his side, he made what was manifestly the right decision. Bush's decision has, by any objective measure, been vindicated. And that, more than anything else, is the significance of the period Woodward covers.

THE MILITARY BRASS: Woodward's book is not quite the "untold" story of the surge its publishers claim. In fact, it has already been told by others, including Michael Gordon at the New York Times, Peter Feaver in Commentary, and Fred Barnes in these pages. Thanks to its much greater length and detail, The War Within is able to drive home with almost jackhammer-like repetition the degree of opposition the president faced from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as from Generals Abizaid and Casey.

"To win, we have to draw down," Casey told the president in June 2006. In a conversation later that year, Abizaid told the president he was against the surge, arguing that U.S. forces needed to get out of Iraq in order to win. According to Woodward, the Joint Chiefs had "all but dismissed the surge option" and in a series of meetings in November 2006, their "frustrations burst into the open." So intense was their opposition that Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recommended that Bush sit down with them, allowing them to hear the pro-surge case in person. In that meeting, held in December, General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told the president, "I don't think that you have the time to surge and generate enough forces for this thing to continue to go." He and others were more concerned about waging a hypothetical future war than about winning the ongoing one in Iraq.

Virtually the entire top Pentagon brass, as well as Bush's key generals, were opposed to the surge. They were wrong on almost every count. Yet Woodward does nothing to highlight this overwhelmingly important fact.

Beyond that, Woodward's book captures the bitterness of the Joint Chiefs at having their advice overridden. General Casey found it "demeaning" to have to answer a series of 50 probing (and necessary) questions posed by Hadley, the national security adviser. When the president reminded Casey and others, via videoconference, that "we're not playing for a tie," we learn that Casey considered it an "affront to his dignity," a statement "just short of an outright provocation."

It got so bad that Admiral Michael Mullen, who also opposed the surge and replaced Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, attempted to keep General Keane from traveling to Iraq, because Keane allowed for a line of communication straight from Bush to General David Petraeus. "You've diminished the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs," Mullen reportedly told Keane. (The White House interceded and saw to it that Keane could travel to Iraq.)

One comes away from Woodward's book with an even greater respect for Petraeus, who, along with General Raymond Odierno, resisted enormous pressure from those higher up in the chain of command and executed the surge with brilliant efficiency.

Woodward's book reports all of these episodes, many vividly. He allows the key actors to have their say. And yet he seems unable to give the president the credit he deserves. (Woodward even asserts that the surge strategy was "crippled" by dissension within the administration, when that is clearly not so.)