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Among Top Officials, 'Surge' Has Sparked Dissent, Infighting
Amid heated congressional debate last spring, the White House again confronted the question Hadley had raised in his memo in the fall: Could Maliki deliver? "There were some who argued that Maliki was not the best guy for the job," said a State Department official. "But the answer came back that if you change the prime minister, then any prospect of progress on the political front stops completely while they try to form a new government."
Bush rejected suggestions to help oust Maliki, reasoning that he was the product of a democratic system that the United States helped establish in Iraq, aides said. Moreover, as officials contemplated alternatives, they concluded there was no better potential leader. "There's no Nelson Mandela in Iraq," Crocker, the ambassador, told colleagues back in Washington. "Saddam killed them all."
But Bush agreed to increase pressure on Maliki by codifying 18 benchmarks set in war-funding legislation, such as the oil law and de-Baathification changes, and asked deputy national security adviser Meghan O'Sullivan to go to Baghdad to help the prime minister and other leaders reach consensus.
Meanwhile, the Maliki government pressed the Americans to sit down with Iranian officials in hopes of stopping Tehran from funding and arming Shiite militias. Bush had rejected proposals by the Iraq Study Group and others to talk with Iran, but Rice decided it was time.
When Rice told Crocker to get ready for talks with Iran, he asked her the "blindingly obvious" question of whether Vice President Cheney would allow it, a U.S. official said. Rice, according to the official, told Crocker that it "wasn't your lane," adding, "I'll work it back here. That's not your problem."
Rice overcame resistance from Cheney for talks with both Syria and Iran, and Crocker met an Iranian envoy in Baghdad. In the end, the talks led nowhere. Around the same time, Sadr, the cleric, decided to leave his seclusion in Iran and return to Iraq, arriving in a showy motorcade to deliver a trademark anti-American sermon. But he has been unable to assert as much control as before, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Anbar now looked even more successful, and while Americans had originally considered the situation unique, they began considering ways to replicate it. As part of the new Bush strategy, Rice had established 10 provincial reconstruction teams around Iraq to work with local officials rather than rely on the ineffectual central government. In speeches, Bush began hailing "bottom up" reconciliation.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Petraeus's deputy, sent a memo to U.S. commanders in Iraq urging them to seek local deals similar to those in Anbar through reward money and nonlethal aid such as radios, clothes and telephones. "Reconciliation is local," he wrote, "and there is no one-size fits all solution to this complex problem."
A Skeptic Takes Charge
By the time Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute arrived at the White House as the war czar overseeing Iraq and Afghanistan, the president's aides were in the throes of writing an interim report on the benchmarks, due to Congress on July 15. Like many of his former colleagues at the Pentagon, Lute had been a skeptic of the surge. Now he was charged with making it successful.
He showed up the first few days wearing his uniform before realizing that it would be better to switch to a suit. Unlike his predecessor, Lute briefed the president at 7 a.m. every day, giving him clout to resolve thorny matters. He told his staff to narrow their priorities from 100 issues to the top 20.
His first task was the draft report to Congress, which he deemed excessively positive. It said twice as many benchmarks had satisfactory progress as had unsatisfactory, despite the Iraqi government's failure to meet most political and economic goals.
On one benchmark, the State Department wanted to say the Iraqis were making satisfactory progress spending their own money on reconstruction, while the Treasury Department disagreed. Lute deemed that the goal was not being met. "He said we've got to call a ball either out or in, and this one was out," recalled one official involved. The White House eventually split the difference, judging that benchmark as "partially met."
Lute also arrived at a time of renewed political alarm inside the White House, as leading establishment Republicans, including Sens. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio) broke with Bush's policy. Aides urged Bush to emphasize that the troop buildup would lead to eventual withdrawals once security was established. The president rejected that, concluding that if he "showed leg," as one aide put it, it would only encourage more Republicans to defect.
Another new arrival in the West Wing set up a rapid-response PR unit hard-wired into Petraeus's shop. Ed Gillespie, the new presidential counselor, organized daily conference calls at 7:45 a.m. and again late in the afternoon between the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the U.S. Embassy and military in Baghdad to map out ways of selling the surge.
From the start of the Bush plan, the White House communications office had been blitzing an e-mail list of as many as 5,000 journalists, lawmakers, lobbyists, conservative bloggers, military groups and others with talking points or rebuttals of criticism. Between Jan. 10 and last week, the office put out 94 such documents in various categories -- "Myths/Facts" or "Setting the Record Straight" to take issue with negative news articles, and "In Case You Missed It" to distribute positive articles or speeches.
Gillespie arranged several presidential speeches to make strategic arguments, such as comparing Iraq to Vietnam or warning of Iranian interference. When critics assailed Bush for overstating ties between al-Qaeda and the group called al-Qaeda in Iraq, Gillespie organized a Bush speech to make his case.
"The whole idea is to take these things on before they become conventional wisdom," said White House communications director Kevin Sullivan. "We have a very short window."
Eight Months Later
Petraeus was doing his part in Baghdad, hosting dozens of lawmakers and military scholars for PowerPoint presentations on why the Bush strategy had made gains. Many Republicans and even Democrats came home impressed, and suddenly even critics were agreeing that Petraeus had made some progress in security even though the Iraqi political situation remained a mess. Petraeus also persuaded intelligence officials to revise some key judgments of a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to reflect security gains.
Some visitors suspected a skewed picture. "We only saw things that reinforced their message that the surge was working," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).
But Bush understood that the "breathing space" had yielded little political reconciliation. As summer wore on, Bush grew blunt in his conference calls with Maliki. As one aide recalled, "He would say, 'Hey, you told me you were going to do X, Y and Z. What happened? Are you going to get agreement on these key pieces of legislation or not?' "
In Baghdad, Crocker and O'Sullivan pressed Maliki to reach consensus with four other Iraqi leaders representing Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. In late August, the five announced agreement on a path forward on stalled legislation such as de-Baathification. A week later, Bush made a surprise visit to Anbar where he met with Maliki and the others to congratulate them, then met with the sheiks to highlight the success of the U.S.-tribal coalition.
The trip energized Bush and his team. Even Gates said he was more optimistic than he has been since taking office. While the secretary had been "cagey" in the past, a senior defense official said, "he's come to the conclusion that what Petraeus is doing is actually more effective than what he thought."
But the trip did not end the debate. Fallon has made the case that Petraeus's recommendations should consider the political reality in Washington and lay out a guide to troop withdrawals, while Petraeus has resisted that, beyond a possible token pullout of a brigade early next year, according to military officials. The Joint Chiefs have been sympathetic to Fallon's view.
In an interview Friday, Fallon said he and Petraeus have reached accommodation about tomorrow's testimony. "The most important thing is I'm very happy with what Dave has recommended," he said. As for the earlier discussions, he begged off. "It's too politically charged right now."