There's a simple reason the Washington establishment, Democrats, and the press hate President Bush's new strategy in Iraq: He spurned their advice. He ordered a troop increase, not the first phase of a withdrawal. He didn't echo Democrats like Senator Joe Biden and suggest the war in Iraq is lost. The thrust of his nationally televised speech last week was that we can still win. He mostly rejected the findings of the Iraq Study Group. And he refused--in fact, he's emphatically opposed--to engage Iran and Syria in talks. Nor did he go along with calls to abandon democracy as the fundamental goal of his foreign policy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
This was a major snub by Bush, a big-time thumbing of his nose at his critics and even at some of those who have advised him. It was the contrarian Bush in action again, much as he was in his first term--only he's less popular now. But he's still willing to go it alone as president. Republicans on Capitol Hill, normally his allies, are "nervous," a Bush aide says. "They're skittish," says another aide. Democrats, of course, are opposed to the president's plan with a fury and indignation that comes with knowing that public opinion is running their way on Iraq.
In embracing a new counter insurgency plan in Iraq that calls for an additional 20,000-plus American troops in Baghdad and in Anbar province, Bush took a step he'd hoped to avoid. He publicly disagreed with his generals. The president is especially fond of General George Casey, the commander on the ground in raq. He invited Casey and his family to a meal at the White House last year, partly to size him up by seeing how he interacted with his wife and kids. In September, he told conservative journalists he was totally confident in Casey's advice. "If Casey is wrong, I'm wrong," he said.
Now he's decided Casey and Centcom commander John Abizaid were wrong in their reluctance to deploy more troops and change the military mission in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad. They favored a "small footprint" by American troops whose chief assignment was to train the Iraqi army to take charge. This, in turn, would allow American soldiers to begin coming home. Instead, Bush has changed to a counterinsurgency strategy with American troops more visible, more involved in combat, and assigned, first and foremost, to secure the Iraqi capital.
Historical analogies are inviting here, but the removal of Casey and Abizaid was not quite the same as President Lincoln's firing of General George McClellan in the Civil War. Casey will become Army chief of staff and Abizaid was about to retire anyway. But there is one strong similarity: Casey and Abizaid weren't winning. So Bush has brought in new commanders, notably General David Petraeus, the Army's top counterinsurgency expert. Petraeus's job is to be Bush's Ulysses Grant.
Some Republicans were disappointed in the president's speech. They wanted a rousing address that would electrify the public, spur support for victory in Iraq, and ease the war's political drain on Republicans. But Bush spoke to a camera in the White House library and, as an aide says, he "doesn't deliver good speeches in that forum. . . . There was some deflation with it." Besides, the speech was designed to explain the president's change of plans, not stir passions.
Bush was more outspoken and forceful in private sessions with more than 130 members of Congress in recent weeks and in a briefing for TV anchors on the day of the speech. Many members weren't convinced by Bush, but Mike Pence, a conservative leader among House Republicans, was persuaded to back the Bush plan. "I went in biased against a troop surge," Pence says. "What I heard was that it wasn't simply a troop surge" but also a change in strategy and the rules of engagement.
As he and other House members met with Bush in the Cabinet Room, Pence pointed to a portrait of George Washington on the wall, noting that Washington was chosen by Congress as commander in chief in the Revolutionary War and that military operations were assigned to him alone. Today, Pence said, the Constitution requires that military strategy be left to Bush. Pence quoted Bush as saying, "We don't need a plan to redeploy. . . . I want to redeploy, just not right now. We need to win. . . . I've decided not to fail. We're not going to fail."
Chris Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, needed no persuading. He took umbrage when another Republican recounted for Bush the skepticism of many of his congressional colleagues. "He took it personally," a White House official said. Shays had stuck to his support for the Iraq war during a tough reelection fight (while urging a timetable for withdrawal). "Wait a minute," the other Republican said. "I'm just passing on what I've heard." Shays is advising Republicans to stick with Bush. "We've finally got a policy that has a chance of success."
At the White House, Shays is regarded as one of what a Bush aide calls "the smart ones." These are members of Congress who survived the 2006 election when Iraq was a drag on Republicans. They understand they're free, in effect, to continue supporting the war in Iraq. The White House view is that other Republicans should feel the same.
Bush was especially vigorous in his meeting with television anchors, whom he impressed with his candor and fervor. He denounced the way Iraqis handled the execution of Saddam Hussein. That much of his off-the-record remarks became public. In that and other sessions, Bush made clear that he had told Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki in no uncertain terms that he must keep his promise to deploy the Iraqi army, as never before, against both Sunni insurgents and Shia death squads in Baghdad.
With Bush's decision to intensify the war in Iraq, a striking feature of his presidency emerges once again. He is willing to reject the conventional wisdom and endure sharp attacks for a policy he believes in. His foes regard him as stubborn to a fault and in denial about the poor prospects in Iraq. Something like that was said of Lincoln during the Civil War. Okay, Bush isn't Lincoln. But he is a president with courage and remarkable stamina, a president who, after six years, Washington still doesn't quite get.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.