By Peter Baker, Karen DeYoung, Thomas E. Ricks, Ann Scott Tyson, Joby Warrick and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers and Researcher Julie Tate
Sunday, September 9, 2007
For two hours, President Bush listened to contrasting visions of the U.S. future in Iraq. Gen. David H. Petraeus dominated the conversation by video link from Baghdad, making the case to keep as many troops as long as possible to cement any security progress. Adm. William J. Fallon, his superior, argued instead for accepting more risks in Iraq, officials said, in order to have enough forces available to confront other potential threats in the region.
The polite discussion in the White House Situation Room a week ago masked a sharper clash over the U.S. venture in Iraq, one that has been building since Fallon, chief of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees Middle East operations, sent a rear admiral to Baghdad this summer to gather information. Soon afterward, officials said, Fallon began developing plans to redefine the U.S. mission and radically draw down troops.
One of those plans, according to a Centcom officer, involved slashing U.S. combat forces in Iraq by three-quarters by 2010. In an interview, Fallon disputed that description but declined to offer details. Nonetheless, his efforts offended Petraeus's team, which saw them as unwelcome intrusion on their own long-term planning. The profoundly different views of the U.S. role in Iraq only exacerbated the schism between the two men.
"Bad relations?" said a senior civilian official with a laugh. "That's the understatement of the century. . . . If you think Armageddon was a riot, that's one way of looking at it."
For Bush, the eight months since announcing his "new way forward" in Iraq have been about not just organizing a major force deployment but also managing a remarkable conflict within his administration, mounting a rear-guard action against Congress and navigating a dysfunctional relationship with an Iraqi leadership that has proved incapable of delivering what he needs.
Although the administration has presented a united front, senior officials remain split over whether Bush's strategy will work in the long term. Bush gambled that a "surge" of 30,000 troops in the streets of Baghdad and the western province of Anbar would establish enough security to give "breathing space" to Iraq's sectarian leaders to find common ground.
But as Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker deliver progress reports to Congress tomorrow, the questions they are likely to face are the same ones asked internally: How long should the troop buildup last? When should U.S. forces start to come home? Should the United States stand by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or seek another leader? What are the hidden risks of the emerging alliance with Sunni tribal leaders? What is the best outcome Washington can hope for at this point?
Amid the uncertainty, the overriding imperative for Bush these past eight months has been to buy time -- time for the surge to work, time for the Iraqis to get their act together, time to produce progress. In Washington's efforts to come to grips with the war it unleashed, the story of these months is one of trying to control the uncontrollable. And now as a result of a casual idea by Petraeus that hardened into an unwelcome deadline, the administration finds itself at a pivotal moment.
"All the outreach and consultations did not reset as much time on the Washington clock as we had hoped," said Peter D. Feaver, who was a National Security Council strategic adviser until July. "Rather than buying us more time, the D.C. clock seemed to accelerate after the president's speech."A Strategy With Few Supporters
The president was somber as he took his place behind the lectern in the White House library the night of Jan. 10. It was an awkward address. He stood alone in the corner talking into a camera. His subdued tone, appropriate for ordering thousands more men and women into battle, worried some aides who feared it was not persuasive.
It did not take long to figure out just how unpersuasive it was. As Bush said good night and headed upstairs to bed, the reviews came in heavily negative, even among Republicans. The notion that the president was sending even more troops to Iraq after an antiwar public turned control of Congress over to the Democrats exasperated many in the capital. The visceral reaction induced near-panic among some in the White House.
"The concern of some people -- me -- was the floor was going to break politically," said Peter H. Wehner, then White House director of strategic initiatives. "We put all our eggs in the surge-Petraeus basket. The speech just didn't seem to move anything, and, if anything, it seemed to deepen the problem."
The surge was born of a review Bush launched after the midterm elections. Over the weeks that followed, the president came to agree that his strategy was heading to what he later called "slow failure." But rather than heed calls for withdrawal, he opted for a final gambit to eke out victory, overruling some of his commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ushering in a new team led by Fallon, Petraeus, Crocker and a new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.
The logic escaped many. The day after Bush's speech, Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were pummeled during hearings on Capitol Hill. The two tried to assure lawmakers that the troop buildup would be short-lived. "We're thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years," Gates testified. Asked about Maliki, Rice said, "I think he knows that his government is on borrowed time."
So was Bush. "There was a real question about whether we'd be able to do this at all," said a White House aide. Within five weeks, the House had voted to oppose the troop buildup, and Democratic leaders were vowing to tie Bush's hands. Most worrisome was the discontent among Republicans. "It could have potentially strangled this strategy in the crib," Wehner said.Early Turning Points
While Bush played defense in Washington, he also needed to turn up the pressure in Baghdad. The strategy would never work, Bush aides knew, unless Maliki stepped up. National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley had outlined in a memo last fall the deep White House skepticism about the prime minister's intentions and abilities to take on Shiite militias.
Bush instituted videoconference calls with Maliki every two weeks, prodding him to seek accord among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions. At first, the Americans noticed some change. Maliki, who previously had blocked U.S. forces from taking on the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, gave Petraeus the green light to go after anyone responsible for attacks. He also deployed three Iraqi brigades in Baghdad, as promised.
Sadr fled for Iran in February, concerned that U.S. forces would target him. It was a "very personal" decision, not a strategic one, said a senior U.S. intelligence official. "He fled because he feared for his safety." With Sadr out of the picture, his power base weakened, and supporters began fighting among themselves. Some decided to become more politically active and stop mobilizing against U.S. forces. Others began attacking Sunnis.
More striking was the emerging shift in Anbar; al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents had grown so dominant in the western province that military intelligence had all but given up on the area months earlier. Bush benefited from good timing. As he introduced his new strategy, Marine commanders had already made common cause with local Sunni tribal leaders who had broken with the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, also called AQI.
Why the sheiks turned remains a point of debate, but it seems clear that the tribes resented al-Qaeda's efforts to ban smoking and marry local women to build ties to the region. "Marrying women to strangers, let alone foreigners, is just not done," Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, a Petraeus adviser, wrote in an essay.
The sheik who forged the alliance with the Americans, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, traced the decision to fight al-Qaeda to Sept. 14, 2006, long before the new Bush strategy, but the president's plan dispatched another 4,000 U.S. troops to Anbar to exploit the situation. As security improved, the White House eagerly took credit.
The "Anbar Awakening" represented perhaps the most important shift in years, but it generated little debate at the White House. Long before the tribes switched sides, the administration conducted a policy exercise on how to team up with former insurgents. But when such an alliance occurred, it bubbled up from the ground with no Washington involvement. "We're not smart enough to know the course that these matters might take," Rice conceded to an Australian newspaper last week.
The alliances generated angst among Maliki and other Shiite leaders in Baghdad, who wondered whether such groups would turn against them. "There were a couple times we got from Maliki very, very alarming, 'What are you guys doing?' " messages, recalled another top official.Buildup Expands; Concerns Grow
As Petraeus settled into his new command, he decided to press for 8,000 additional support troops beyond the 21,500 combat forces the president had committed. Just a week earlier, Gates had told Congress that only 2,000 or 3,000 more might be needed. As he reviewed a briefing sheet in preparation for more testimony, Gates was annoyed to see a larger request buried on the page. He fumed that "this is going to make us look like idiots," said a defense official. But Gates got Petraeus the troops.
More critical was the defense secretary's decision to extend deployments in Iraq from 12 months to 15 months. The generals told Gates that the extra brigades flowing to Iraq had stretched the military close to the breaking point. "We ran out of forces, that's what happened," said a senior Army official. To keep the buildup going, and to offer predictability for troops and families, Gates approved the longest overseas combat deployments since World War II.
In doing so, Gates -- who three months earlier said no one thought the surge would last 18 months -- enabled it to last almost that long. Although that was not the stated reason for the deployment extension, in effect the change redefined the buildup into a longer mission than first envisioned. Bush aides and U.S. military planners in Iraq then began assuming that the extra forces would remain at least through April 2008 -- even as Congress was trying to force a timetable for withdrawal.
Lawmakers were not alone. Fallon, who took command of Centcom in March, worried that Iraq was undermining the military's ability to confront other threats, such as Iran. "When he took over, the reality hit him that he had to deal with Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and a whole bunch of other stuff besides Iraq," said a top military officer.
Fallon was also derisive of Iraqi leaders' intentions and competence, and dubious about the surge. "He's been saying from Day One, 'This isn't working,' " said a senior administration official. And Fallon signaled his departure from Bush by ordering subordinates to avoid the term "long war" -- a phrase the president used to describe the fight against terrorism.
To Bush aides, Gates did not seem fully on board with the president's strategy, either. As a member of the congressionally chartered Iraq Study Group before his selection to head the Pentagon, Gates embraced proposals to scale back the U.S. presence in Iraq. Now that he was in the Cabinet, he kept his own counsel.
But he consulted regularly with former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, a noted critic of the Iraq war; told Army audiences privately that a troop decrease was inevitable; and tried to avoid Sunday talk shows during the fight over the war spending bill to preserve relations with lawmakers, according to administration sources. "With Fallon, it's pretty much in your face," said a senior official. "Gates is quieter."
A Pentagon official said Gates is "very concerned about all of our energy" being devoted to Iraq, an "overcommitment that is consuming and distracting us from everything else. On the other hand, he knows there can't be another Saigon. There's this balance."
He was not the only skeptic. More than half a dozen retired four-star generals turned down Hadley in his search for a "war czar" who could knock heads and make sure requests from the field survived the Washington bureaucracy.
At the same time, in late April, Gates visited Petraeus as Congress was about to pass war-funding legislation mandating troop withdrawals, a bill Bush would veto. Under pressure to show results, Gates and Petraeus played for time. A day after Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) declared that "this war is lost," they decided that Petraeus and Crocker would give an update in September.
They hoped that would buy them another five months. What they didn't anticipate was that a simple progress report would become a make-or-break moment.Increasing Pressure on Maliki
By that point, there was not much political progress to report in Iraq. Bush became aggravated by Maliki's inability to forge agreements to address grievances fueling sectarian strife, such as allowing low-level members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back into government, passing a law governing oil revenue distribution and setting provincial elections.
Bush had been using his biweekly videoconferences with Maliki to shore up the Iraqi leader, but he also used the calls to make clear that U.S. patience had grown short. He pressed Maliki several times on the oil law in particular, irritated that the Iraqis had told him repeatedly that they had a deal, only to see it unravel.
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."