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Secret Reports Dispute White House Optimism

The policy of "Vietnamization," turning the fight over to the South Vietnamese military, Kissinger wrote, might increase pressure to end the war because the American public wanted a quick resolution. Troop withdrawals would only encourage the enemy. "It will become harder and harder to maintain the morale of those who remain, not to speak of their mothers."

Two months after Gerson's meeting, the administration issued a 35-page "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." It was right out of the Kissinger playbook. The only meaningful exit strategy would be victory.

Echoes of Vietnam

Vietnam was also on the minds of some old Army buddies of Gen. Abizaid, the Centcom commander. They were worried that Iraq was slowly turning into Vietnam -- either it would wind down prematurely or become a war that was not winnable.

Some of them, including retired Gen. Wayne A. Downing and James V. Kimsey, a founder of America Online, visited Abizaid in 2005 at his headquarters in Doha, Qatar, and then in Iraq.

Abizaid held to the position that the war was now about the Iraqis. They had to win it now. The U.S. military had done all it could. It was critical, he argued, that they lower the American troop presence. It was still the face of an occupation, with American forces patrolling, kicking down doors and looking at the Iraqi women, which infuriated the Iraqi men.

"We've got to get the [expletive] out," he said.

Abizaid's old friends were worried sick that another Vietnam or anything that looked like Vietnam would be the end of the volunteer army. What's the strategy for winning? they pressed him.

"That's not my job," Abizaid said.

No, it is part of your job, they insisted.

No, Abizaid said. Articulating strategy belonged to others.

Who?

"The president and Condi Rice, because Rumsfeld doesn't have any credibility anymore," he said.

This March, Abizaid was in Washington to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He painted a careful but upbeat picture of the situation in Iraq.

Afterward, he went over to see Rep. John P. Murtha in the Rayburn House Office Building. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, had introduced a resolution in Congress calling for American troops in Iraq to be "redeployed" -- the military term for returning troops overseas to their home bases -- "at the earliest practicable date."

"The war in Iraq is not going as advertised," Murtha had said. "It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion."

Now, sitting at the round dark-wood table in the congressman's office, Abizaid, the one uniformed military commander who had been intimately involved in Iraq from the beginning and who was still at it, indicated he wanted to speak frankly. According to Murtha, Abizaid raised his hand for emphasis, held his thumb and forefinger a quarter of an inch from each other and said, "We're that far apart."

Frustration and a Resignation

That same month, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. prepared to leave the administration after submitting his resignation to Bush. He felt a sense of relief mixed with the knowledge that he was leaving unfinished business.

"It's Iraq, Iraq, Iraq," Card had told his replacement, Joshua B. Bolten. "Then comes the economy."

One of Card's great worries was that Iraq would be compared to Vietnam. In March, there were 58,249 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. One of Kissinger's private criticisms of Bush was that he had no mechanism in place, or even an inclination, to consider the downsides of impending decisions. Alternative courses of action were rarely considered.

As best as Card could remember, there had been some informal, blue-sky discussions at times along the lines of "What could we do differently?" But there had been no formal sessions to consider alternatives to staying in Iraq. To his knowledge there were no anguished memos bearing the names of Cheney, Rice, Hadley, Rumsfeld, the CIA, Card himself or anyone else saying "Let's examine alternatives," as had surfaced after the Vietnam era.

Card put it on the generals in the Pentagon and Iraq. If they had come forward and said to the president, "It's not worth it," or, "The mission can't be accomplished," Card was certain, the president would have said "I'm not going to ask another kid to sacrifice for it."

Card was enough of a realist to see that there were two negative aspects to Bush's public persona that had come to define his presidency: incompetence and arrogance. Card did not believe that Bush was incompetent, and so he had to face the possibility that, as Bush's chief of staff, he might have been the incompetent one. In addition, he did not think the president was arrogant.

But the marketing of Bush had come across as arrogant. Maybe it was unfair in Card's opinion, but there it was.

He was leaving. And the man he considered most responsible for the postwar troubles, the one who should have gone, Rumsfeld, was staying.

Bill Murphy Jr. and Christine Parthemore contributed to this report.


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