Politics & Policy

General Issues

There’s a presidential election on, so it must be time for another Bob Woodward book about President Bush at war — the hot war in Iraq and the behind-the-scenes struggle with his own generals at home.

The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008 is the fourth Bush-focused expression of the Woodward formula: a well-researched account in which the author’s just-the-facts-ma’am pose cloaks a very decided point of view; much to be taken on faith, because Woodward eschews citations (the better to shield sources); and a bright line separating the guys in the white hats from the villains — a line that coincidentally distinguishes those who have gone out of their way to cooperate with the author from those who haven’t. Pepper the narrative with a few choice leaked defense secrets and you’ve got an instant bestseller.

The chief value of Woodward’s book is in the way it details the mediocrity, prissiness, and willfulness of top military officials, including Gen. George Casey, who commanded U.S. forces while Iraq sank into chaos. Applying what he considered a lesson from Vietnam about the importance of civilians leaving the management of wars to the generals, Bush deferred excessively to Casey and to Gen. John Abizaid, Casey’s immediate superior at Central Command. As the carnage worsened, the generals doggedly pursued their original strategy of drawing down U.S. forces and hastily transferring control to an unprepared Iraqi army — an approach that satisfied neither the security demands in Iraq nor the commander-in-chief’s desire to win.

When challenged, the generals took umbrage. During one videoconference, Bush was at pains to make himself understood: “George, we’re not playing for a tie. I want to make sure we all understand this, don’t we?” Offended, Casey assured the president he wasn’t looking to fight to a draw – but that’s the best possible outcome his approach could have produced. In another instance, National Security Adviser Steve Hadley asked Casey a series of 50 questions about the strategy — on Casey’s birthday no less. Casey considered it an “affront,” according to Woodward. But if you’re a general losing a war, you shouldn’t expect deference.

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Bush told Woodward, “I waited over three years for a successful strategy.” Three years is a long time for a commander-in-chief to allow his generals to mismanage a war. History will judge Bush’s drift during this period harshly. But eventually he got the strategy right. Working around his generals and leaning on the counsel of outsiders such as retired Gen. Jack Keane, he ordered the surge. Bush demanded victory even when nearly everyone else around him had become allergic to the word and top brass were more concerned about avoiding the strain on the Army and Marine Corps than winning the war. Even when Gen. David Petraeus was on the ground in Iraq implementing the new strategy, the Joint Chiefs — including Casey, who had been kicked upstairs — and CENTCOM, led at the time by Admiral William Fallon, worked to hamper the surge.

#ad#The most sensational aspect of Woodward’s book is the revelation that the United States has been covertly eavesdropping on Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki. “We know everything he says,” an anonymous Woodward source brags. It’s hard to figure who is more disgraceful: the insiders who informed Woodward of what is the most sensitive of national defense information; or Woodward, who pats himself on the back for holding back various details in deference to national security concerns but thoughtlessly blows vital intelligence in order to sell books.

Not surprisingly, Woodward shares the State Department’s anxiety that keeping too close an eye on Maliki undermines the trust that President Bush has worked so hard to build. Maliki, in part because of the president’s persistence, has performed better than it was reasonable to expect lately. But he has a troublesome history of being too cozy with Iran and has done more than we would have liked to draw his country closer to Tehran. Maybe he’s just doing what he needs to do to mollify a threatening neighbor. Maybe it’s more than that. It would be helpful for the United States to be in a position to know, and to do so without having the fact publicly advertised.

Woodward argues that the surge is not the real reason for the defeat of al-Qaeda and the dramatic decline in violence. Rather than the surge, Woodward argues, improved prowess in covert operations has enabled American forces to kill top terror operatives, degrading the capabilities of terrorist groups. Here Woodward obviously has been spun by his sources in the special forces, who are understandably proud of their work.

Much of Woodward’s book dwells on the descent of Iraq into “self-sustaining” violence in 2006. In response, President Bush decided to “double down” (or go “all in” as General Petraeus corrects him in Woodward’s account) by increasing the presence of U.S. forces. The surge coincided with the elimination of sectarian killers of all kinds, the Sunni tribes’ decision to reject al-Qaeda, the uptick in intelligence-gathering on which covert operations critically depend — and, thanks to all this, the radical diminishment of the violence once deemed “self-sustaining.” There can be no doubt that it was the change in strategy that was the decisive factor.

The moral of this story? There’s peril in showing too much deference to generals — or to best-selling authors.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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