Embattled, Bush Held To Plan to Salvage Iraq
In Face of Advice, He Pushed Buildup

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.

By early fall, even as Bush was on the campaign trail accusing Democrats of defeatism, he and his senior advisers were coming to the conclusion that his core assumptions were wrong. The political process would not lead to security in Iraq. In fact, it would have to be the other way around. And they started to doubt the advice from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and senior commanders in Baghdad that troop levels were adequate to contain the violence.

"It was pretty clear when you started to look at our assumptions, many of them just weren't right," said a senior administration official, who like others discussed internal deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

Bush concluded by the run-up to the Nov. 7 congressional elections that to change course he would have to get rid of Rumsfeld, the senior figure in his administration most resistant to rethinking the Iraq strategy. At the same time, several agency reviews of Iraq policy were launched. But both decisions were kept secret until after the balloting.

In the meantime, Bush dispatched national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley to Iraq to bring back what White House officials called "ground truth." Hadley returned from his Oct. 29 to Nov. 5 trip profoundly disturbed by the Maliki government, uncertain whether the prime minister was capable of doing what was necessary to rein in Shiite militias.

The day after the election, Bush announced that he was removing Rumsfeld and replacing him with former CIA director Robert M. Gates. That same day, Hadley sent a five-page classified memo to the president that proposed bolstering Maliki's political and security capacities and raised the prospect of more U.S. troops.

On Nov. 14, Bush ordered that the various agency reviews be combined into a single process and declared that he would lead it himself. A group led by deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch II began a series of grueling seven- and eight-hour-a-day meetings.

Closeted in a conference room named for World War II-era secretary of state Cordell Hull, the Iraq team debated papers presented by senior officials throughout the government. State Department officials urged a more energetic outreach to Iraqis beyond Baghdad's Green Zone, to hedge against failure by the Maliki government. Other officials, including those in the office of Vice President Cheney, voiced concern that U.S. steps to reach out to disaffected Sunni Iraqis had not brought about a corresponding decrease in violence.

The president also heard from outside experts. In an early December Oval Office meeting, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane presented his own plan for an increase of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to restore security in Baghdad. Another retired Army general, Barry R. McCaffrey, said he told Bush that the idea was a "fool's errand" and argued that putting more troops on the ground would not change the underlying dynamic. Still, the administration was interested enough in a buildup that Keane had follow-up sessions with Cheney and Hadley.

At the same time, White House officials called in scores of lawmakers to discuss Iraq with the president in the weeks leading up to Bush's Jan. 10 speech. While many Democrats dismissed such talks as a facade of consultation over a decision long since made, Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said when he told Hadley at a private meeting that the president needed to make clear that the U.S. commitment was not "open-ended," Hadley picked up the telephone and called an aide to make sure the speech included such language.

White House aides also debated how to respond to the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan, congressionally chartered commission headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a close friend of the president's father, and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (Ind.), a widely respected Democrat. At first, officials said, they hoped the group would prove a vehicle for bringing the two parties together after a bitter election.

But the panel advanced several key proposals that the White House quickly made clear were unacceptable to Bush, particularly a plan to withdraw U.S. combat forces by early 2008, open talks with Iraq's neighbors Iran and Syria, and condition U.S. assistance on the Maliki government meeting defined political benchmarks.

Rejecting Plan B

A version of Maliki's surprise proposal during the Amman meeting turned out to be the major alternative considered by Bush, White House officials said. The plan called for ringing Baghdad with U.S. troops while Iraqi security forces fought the sectarian violence in the city. Other U.S. troops in the country would shift to the borders to keep Iranian and Syrian infiltrators out, leaving U.S. forces with one main combat mission -- attacking al-Qaeda elements in Anbar province in western Iraq.

The plan had the appeal of not pulling U.S. troops out of the country while still allowing Iraqis to settle their own differences. But Bush worried that such a move might mean losing the war.

"He became convinced that that was not sustainable," Hadley said in an interview. "Let's assume that the sectarian violence does escalate. Are the American military really going to stand outside the city while sectarian violence rages in Baghdad? I don't think so."

The Bush team concluded that the previous Baghdad security plans had failed for four reasons: The Iraqis never took ownership over security, Maliki placed political constraints on military operations, there were not enough reliable Iraqi and U.S. forces, and there was no serious effort to rebuild areas taken back from insurgents or militias.

Bush spent hours in conversation with Maliki, on the phone and in videoconference, probing to determine whether he could count on the prime minister. "The president decided we need to bring this issue to a head," one senior adviser said. "We need to clarify whether this government is really a partner or not."

Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, said Maliki's presentation of a new plan in Amman was a sign of his heightened interest in tackling Baghdad's security problems.

"We all recognized that it was too ambitious," he said. "What the president liked was the intent and the willingness to take on more responsibility."

Another problem for Bush was that the military did not necessarily want more troops. Army Gens. John P. Abizaid, the Middle East commander, and George W. Casey Jr., the commander in Iraq, opposed an influx of U.S. forces because they were unconvinced it would change the dynamics on the ground.

Resistance from Casey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff flared throughout the process. On Dec. 13, Bush went to the super-secure "tank" at the Pentagon to listen to his top generals, only to walk away convinced that some of them were trying to manage defeat rather than find a way to victory.

Bush decided to placate some of the concerns expressed by the generals about the overextended military and told The Washington Post six days later that he would expand the size of the Army and Marines. When Gates went to Baghdad that week, he came back with Casey's agreement for more troops based on the understanding that the commander would no longer be held back by the Iraqi government and that the United States would address the country's economic needs.

"He was not overriding his commanders," one Bush aide said of the president. "But he was pushing them to identify what went wrong and what do we need to change what happened."

Still, Bush and the military came at the plan from different perspectives. Casey asked for two more brigades for Baghdad, plus a third that would be stationed in Kuwait as a reserve and two others that would be put on call back in the United States.

Bush decided that was not enough. His advisers studied the experience in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul under Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who successfully undercut the insurgency there, and they decided they could not risk having too few troops. Bush had already decided to replace Casey with Petraeus, and through intermediaries the president reached out to Petraeus, who was supportive of more troops than Casey requested.

So the president reversed Casey's plan, deciding that all five brigades would go to Baghdad in a phased deployment. "The president came out and said, 'Let's err on the side of making sure they have everything they need,' " said a senior official.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company