By Michael Abramowitz, Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
When President Bush goes before the American people tonight to outline his new strategy for Iraq, he will be doing something he has avoided since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003: ordering his top military brass to take action they initially resisted and advised against.
Bush talks frequently of his disdain for micromanaging the war effort and for second-guessing his commanders. "It's important to trust the judgment of the military when they're making military plans," he told The Washington Post in an interview last month. "I'm a strict adherer to the command structure."
But over the past two months, as the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated and U.S. public support for the war has dropped, Bush has pushed back against his top military advisers and the commanders in Iraq: He has fashioned a plan to add up to 20,000 troops to the 132,000 U.S. service members already on the ground. As Bush plans it, the military will soon be "surging" in Iraq two months after an election that many Democrats interpreted as a mandate to begin withdrawing troops.
Pentagon insiders say members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have long opposed the increase in troops and are only grudgingly going along with the plan because they have been promised that the military escalation will be matched by renewed political and economic efforts in Iraq. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the outgoing head of Central Command, said less than two months ago that adding U.S. troops was not the answer for Iraq.
Bush's decision appears to mark the first major disagreement between the White House and key elements of the Pentagon over the Iraq war since Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, split with the administration in the spring of 2003 over the planned size of the occupation force, which he regarded as too small.
It may also be a sign of increasing assertiveness from a commander in chief described by former aides as relatively passive about questioning the advice of his military advisers. In going for more troops, Bush is picking an option that seems to have little favor beyond the White House and a handful of hawks on Capitol Hill and in think tanks who have been promoting the idea almost since the time of the invasion.
"It seems clear to me that the president has taken more positive control of this strategy," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of those pushing for more troops. "He understands that the safety of the nation and his legacy is all on the line here."
Others familiar with Bush's thinking said he had not been happy with the military's advice. "The president wasn't satisfied with the recommendations he was getting, and he thought we need a strategy that was more purposeful and likely to succeed if the Iraqis could make that possible," said Philip D. Zelikow, who recently stepped down as State Department counselor after being involved with Iraqi policy the past two years.
This impulse may well expose Bush to more criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have sharply condemned him for not listening to Shinseki's counsel in the beginning. "I think a number of our military leaders have pulled their punches, and will continue to pull their punches publicly," Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday.
There is little question that more troops for Iraq seemed far from the conventional wisdom in Washington after the beating Bush and the Republican Party took in the midterm elections Nov. 7. Indeed, when Bush met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 30, Maliki did not ask for more American troops as part of a new Baghdad security plan he presented to Bush, U.S. officials said.
Maliki's idea was to lower the U.S. profile, not raise it. "The message in Amman was that he wanted to take the lead and put an Iraqi face on it. He wanted to control his own forces," said a U.S. official familiar with the visit.
Another problem for the administration was the Iraq Study Group, the prestigious bipartisan panel headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). Soon after Bush returned from Jordan, the group delivered its recommendations, including proposing a high-level dialogue with Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq and setting a goal of early 2008 for the removal of almost all U.S. combat troops.
Although the president was publicly polite, few of the key Baker-Hamilton recommendations appealed to the administration, which intensified its own deliberations over a new "way forward" in Iraq. How to look distinctive from the study group became a recurring theme.
As described by participants in the administration review, some staff members on the National Security Council became enamored of the idea of sending more troops to Iraq in part because it was not a key feature of Baker-Hamilton. One senior administration official disputed that, arguing that staff members were attracted to the "surge" option to address long-standing concern that earlier efforts failed because of insufficient security forces.
A troop increase also dovetailed with ideas being championed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
From only a few months after the start of the war in 2003, McCain has argued that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is too light, and he and a handful of allies sought to use the post-election policy review to press their case. For three years, their entreaties had been blocked by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but after Rumsfeld was ousted by Bush the day after the election, they found their message had a more receptive audience at the White House. "There has always been within the armed forces a group of people that believes we never had the right strategy in Iraq, and they have been suppressed," Graham said.
Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute drafted a plan with retired Army Gen. Jack Keane for sending seven more Army brigades and Marine regiments to Iraq to provide greater security. Keane and several other experts met with Bush on Dec. 11.
But from the beginning, the Joint Chiefs resisted. They had doubts that Maliki would really confront the militias controlled by fellow Shiites, notably Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Sadr held 30 seats in Maliki's parliamentary bloc and five ministries in his cabinet.
The Joint Chiefs were also worried that sending more troops would set up the U.S. military for an even bigger failure -- with no backup options. They were concerned that the Iraqis would not deliver the troops to handle their own security efforts, as had happened in the past. They were particularly alarmed about the prospect of U.S. troops fighting in a political vacuum if the administration did not complement the military plan with political and economic changes, according to people familiar with their views.
Pentagon officials cautioned that a modest troop increase could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops.
Even the announcement of a time frame and mission -- such as for six to eight months to secure volatile Baghdad -- would play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs warned the White House.
Then there was the thorny problem of finding enough troops to deploy. Those who favored a "surge," such as Kagan and McCain, were looking for a sizable force that would turn the tide in Baghdad. But the Joint Chiefs made clear they could muster 20,000 at best -- not for long, and not all at once.
The Joint Chiefs came to accept Bush's wishes, especially after new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Iraq last month with the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Peter Pace, said a U.S. official familiar with the trip. Gates met with Maliki, who laid out more details about the Iraqi plan for Baghdad.
"That gave them enough to define a mission and its objectives," the official said. "They came back satisfied."
In the end, the White House favored the idea of more troops as one visible and dramatic step the administration could take. One senior White House official said this week the president concluded that more troops are not the only ingredient of a successful plan -- but they are a precondition to providing the security the Iraqi government needs for political reconciliation and other reforms.
Tonight, this source said, the president will explain "that we have to go up before we go down."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.