The War Within

The inside story of how President Bush's team dealt with its failing Iraq strategy

The Dissension  |  Timeline: Road to the Surge  |  About This Series
On the Record

Excerpts from Bob Woodward's Oval Office interviews with President George W. Bush, May 20-21, 2008

Body Counts

Background

Gen. George Casey, the Iraq commander throughout 2006, came to believe that the president didn't understand the very nature of the war. Bush regularly asked about body counts, as if only killing enough of the enemy would lead to victory. The president insisted he understood the nature of the war, whatever Casey might have thought. "I mean, of all people to understand that, it's me," he said.

Transcript

President Bush: You know, what frustrated me is that from my perspective it looked like that we were taking casualties without fighting back because our commanders are loath to talk about, you know, our battlefield victories. (Download Audio File)

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Failing Strategy

Background

The president acknowledged that the administration's strategy to accelerate the training of Iraqi security forces so that U.S. troops could draw down was faltering by 2006. The dilemma he faced was how to proceed.

Transcript

President Bush: Yeah, and that was, you know, a strategy that everybody hoped would work. And...

Woodward: It didn't.

President Bush: It did not. And therefore the question is, when you're in my position, if it's not working, what do you do? (Download Audio File)

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Relying on Hadley

Background

For months in the summer of 2006, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley had tried to jumpstart a coherent Iraq strategy review within the administration. But it kept getting delayed. Hadley, an early advocate of a surge, finally convinced the president to okay an informal review in October 2006. A more formal effort began the next month, after the Republicans lost the midterm elections.

Transcript

President Bush: I mean, what you need to understand is—Okay, look, let's just cut to the chase here. Hadley drove a lot of this. Why? Because I trust he and his team a lot. (Download Audio File)

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Sectarian Violence

Background

President Bush says he recognized in 2006 that Iraqi society, in the words of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was "rending." In the absence of security, citizens were choosing sides, and sectarian violence was rampant.

Transcript

President Bush: If I might ask myself the question that you should be asking me here.

Woodward: Please.

President Bush: What caused you to believe that this was not inevitable?

Woodward: Good question.

President Bush: Yeah.

Woodward: And the answer?

President Bush: Most people want to live in peace and can't stand the idea of their, of this ... Of a life of violence. Nobody likes to be shaked down. Nobody likes to rely upon the local thug. These people were the people, twelve million people, who voted for something better. And yet they now found themselves in a situation where they had to rely upon, you know, the local cat with the big gun. (Download Audio File)

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Strategy Review

Background

The president details how the administration's Iraq strategy review unfolded in 2006, and how he did not impose a deadline for finding a new strategy.

Transcript

President Bush: Here's the thing. Hadley knows me well enough that, you know... We don't need a major seminar to figure out that we got to do something different. So he starts a very thorough process and keeps me posted with the process. It's Hadley, Meghan ... You know your team. You know who they are.

Woodward: J.D. and ...

President Bush: J.D.

Stephen Hadley: Brett McGurk.

President Bush: Brett McGurk. Peter Feaver. And so they start working the process.

Woodward: Did you give them a deadline at this point?

President Bush: I don't think I did. This is nothing that you hurry, because one of the things, one of the interesting lessons of all this, is that the relationship between the White House and Pentagon is a vital relationship. And the president has got to be very careful in understanding the different...

Woodward: I understand.

President Bush: ...you know, moving parts. (Download Audio File)

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Daily Bloodshed

Background

Despite his public optimism in 2006, President Bush realized that political stability could not happen amidst such violence in Iraq. Bush saw the deterioration in security in the daily reports of bloodshed that cross his desk.

Transcript

President Bush: In order for a just society to emerge, there has to be security. What happened was was that we assumed that politics would make the society secure. What happened was people chose sides because the state wasn't giving them the security they needed. And therefore, politics could not go forward.

Woodward: Exactly what happened.

President Bush: Yeah.

Woodward: And when did you realize that? Do you remember? Is that evolutionary also?

President Bush: It is. Absolutely.

Woodward: I understand. Okay.

President Bush: Absolutely.

Woodward: Understand. Where—

President Bush: But it becomes apparent when you're picking up the reports saying, 25 people murdered here, 30 people's throats slit here, 55 here. Ethnic cleansing, refugees, neighborhoods that were once mixed are now pure. I mean, it was beginning to accelerate. (Download Audio File)

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Harsh Rhetoric

Background

President Bush talks about his reaction to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's assertion in April 2007 that the Iraq War "is lost."

Transcript

Woodward: Were you shocked when you heard that?

President Bush: No, I'm not shocked by anything in Washington anymore.

Woodward: Is that right? Did you ever talk to him about it?

President Bush: No. You know, I mean, this war has created a lot of really harsh emotion, out of which comes a lot of harsh rhetoric. And you know, one of my failures has been to change the tone in Washington. And it's the failures of others as well. (Download Audio File)

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Backing Gen. Petraeus

Background

The president explains why he sent Iraq commander Gen. David H. Petraeus a back channel message, through a retired general and around the chain of command, in September 2007.

Transcript

President Bush: I just want Dave to know that I want to win. And whatever he needs, obviously within capabilities, he'll have. (Download Audio File)

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Joint Special Operations

Background

Beginning in about May 2007, the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence agencies launched a series of top secret operations that enabled them to locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups such as al Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. Authoritative sources say these covert activities had a far-reaching effect on the violence, and were very possibly the biggest factor in reducing it. President Bush clearly was impressed with the efforts carried out by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

Transcript

President Bush: Listen, JSOC is awesome.

Woodward: Awesome.

President Bush: And they're really good. (Download Audio File)

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Fighting Back

Background

The president insists he was not preoccupied by body counts, but simply asked for numbers on occasion to be certain that U.S. troops were fighting.

Transcript

Woodward: And you were asking questions. "Well, how many have we killed?"

President Bush: I ask that on occasion to find out whether or not we're fighting back.

Woodward: Okay.

President Bush: Because the perception is, is that our guys are dying and they're not. Because we don't put out numbers. We don't have a tally. On the other hand, if I'm sitting here watching the casualties come in, I'd at least like to know whether or not our soldiers are fighting. (Download Audio File)

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'Don't Let it Fail'

Background

Woodward asks President Bush what he advice he will give his successor about the Iraq War.

Transcript

Woodward: What, you know, not as a Democrat or Republican, but as the president, what are you going to say to that new leader about what you are handing off in Iraq?

President Bush: That's ... Six months is a long time from now. So, you need to ask me that question January the whatever it is, 2009.

Woodward: So, literally, six months. It could be good, could be bad, could be...

President Bush: I think it's going to be better than it is today.

Woodward: And are you going, is this...

President Bush: What I'll say is, "Don't let it fail." (Download Audio File)

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