Embattled, Bush Held To Plan to Salvage Iraq

Bush and Cheney spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by videoconference Jan. 4, one of many conversations in which Bush appraised the leader.
Bush and Cheney spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by videoconference Jan. 4, one of many conversations in which Bush appraised the leader. (By Eric Draper -- White House Via Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 21, 2007

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had a surprise for President Bush when they sat down with their aides in the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, Jordan. Firing up a PowerPoint presentation, Maliki and his national security adviser proposed that U.S. troops withdraw to the outskirts of Baghdad and let Iraqis take over security in the strife-torn capital. Maliki said he did not want any more U.S. troops at all, just more authority.

The president listened intently to the unexpected proposal at their Nov. 30 meeting, according to accounts from several administration officials. Bush seemed impressed that Maliki had taken the initiative, but it did not take him long to reject the idea.

By the time Bush returned to Washington, the plan had already been picked through by his military commanders. At a meeting in the White House's Roosevelt Room, the president flatly told his advisers that the Maliki plan was not going to work. He had concluded that the Iraqis were not up to the task and that Baghdad would collapse into chaos, making a bad situation worse. And so the Americans would have to help them.

From that early December meeting on, Bush was headed down a path that would result in his defying critics and the seeming message of the November elections by ordering 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq. A reconstruction of the administration's Iraq policy review, based on more than a dozen interviews with senior advisers, Bush associates, lawmakers and national security officials, reveals a president taking the lead in driving the process toward one more effort at victory -- despite doubts along the way from his own military commanders, lawmakers and the public at large.

He never seriously considered beginning to withdraw U.S. forces, as urged by newly elected Democratic congressional leaders and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. And he had grown skeptical of his own military commanders, who were telling him no more troops were needed.

So Bush relied on his own judgment that the best answer was to try once again to snuff out the sectarian violence in Baghdad, even at the risk of putting U.S. soldiers into a crossfire between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. When his generals resisted sending more troops, he seemed irritated. When they finally agreed to go along with the plan, he doubled the number of troops they requested.

It was a signature moment for a president who seems uninfluenced by the electorate on Iraq and headed for a showdown with the new Democratic Congress. Presented with an opportunity to pull back, Bush instead chose to extend and, in some ways, deepen his commitment, gambling that more time and a new plan will finally bring success to the troubled U.S. military mission.

"The guy who is most committed to winning and finding a way to win is the president. He always has been; he's the only reason we are still in this fight," said Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute whose advice to send more troops has been closely monitored by senior administration policymakers.

Yet in hindsight, some Bush advisers believe they misjudged the politics that would greet Bush's Jan. 10 unveiling of the new plan. They understood that many if not most Democrats would not welcome a troop increase but thought at least some would grudgingly go along -- not anticipating what ended up as near-universal opposition by Democrats and visceral anger even among some Republicans.

They had hoped more members of Congress would embrace the advice that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) gave the president during one session in the Cabinet Room. "Mr. President, I have two words for you," Lieberman said, according to officials who were present. " 'Be bold.' "

That advice, at least, Bush would take to heart.

Political Surprises

Bush's new Iraq plan traces its origin to last summer, after the second of two operations designed to quell spiking violence in Baghdad collapsed. For more than three years, Bush and his advisers had been leading the war on the fundamental belief that once they built a representative democratic government, the Sunni insurgency and sectarian violence would ebb.

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