Doubt, Distrust, Delay
The Inside Story of How Bush's Team Dealt With Its Failing Iraq Strategy
By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008; A01
During the summer of 2006, from her office adjacent to the White House, deputy national security adviser Meghan O'Sullivan sent President Bush a daily top secret report cataloging the escalating bloodshed and chaos in Iraq. "Violence has acquired a momentum of its own and is now self-sustaining," she wrote July 20, quoting from an intelligence assessment.
Her dire evaluation contradicted the upbeat assurances that President Bush was hearing from Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq. Casey and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were pushing to draw down American forces and speed the transfer of responsibility to the Iraqis. Despite months of skyrocketing violence, Casey insisted that within a year, Iraq would be mostly stable, with the bulk of American combat troops headed home.
Publicly, the president claimed the United States was winning the war, and he expressed unwavering faith in Casey, saying, "It's his judgment that I rely upon." Privately, he was losing confidence in the drawdown strategy. He questioned O'Sullivan that summer with increasing urgency: "What are you hearing from people in Baghdad? What are people's daily lives like?"
"It's hell, Mr. President," she answered, determined not to mislead or lie to him.
O'Sullivan was 36, with a PhD from Oxford and a year's experience in Iraq. As the violence had escalated, she began to feel that the strategy of drawing down had become indefensible. For months, she had urged her boss, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, to begin a full strategy review.
That summer, with U.S. casualties eclipsing 2,500 deaths and nearly 20,000 wounded, Bush acknowledged to himself what he was not saying publicly: The war had taken a perilous turn for the worse, with 1,000 attacks a week, the equivalent of six an hour. "Underneath my hope was a sense of anxiety," Bush recalled in a May 2008 interview. The strategy was one "that everybody hoped would work. And it did not. And therefore the question is, when you're in my position: If it's not working, what do you do?"
This is the untold history of how the Bush administration wrestled with that question. Compiled from classified documents and interviews with more than 150 participants, it reveals that the administration's efforts to develop a new Iraq strategy were crippled by dissension among the president's advisers, delayed by political calculations and undermined by a widening and sometimes bitter rift in civilian-military relations.
No administration willingly puts its disagreements on display, but what happened in Washington during 2006 went beyond the usual give-and-take of government. The level of distrust became so severe that Bush eventually activated a back channel to Casey's replacement in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, circumventing the established chain of command. While the violence in Iraq skyrocketed to unnerving levels, a second front in the war raged at home, fought at the highest levels of the White House, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Depart ment.
* * *
By mid-2006, Casey, a stout four-star general with wire-rim glasses, had been the commander in Iraq for two years. As American military units rotated in and out, Casey remained the one constant.
He had concluded that one big problem with the war was the president himself. Since the beginning, Casey felt, the president had viewed the war in conventional terms, repeatedly asking how many of the various enemies had been captured or killed. Casey later confided to a colleague that he had the impression that Bush reflected the "radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, 'Kill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you'll succeed.' "
Casey was troubled by the thought that the president didn't understand the nature of the fight they were in. The large, heavily armed Western force was on borrowed time, he believed. The president often paid lip service to winning over the Iraqi people, but then he would lean in with greater interest and ask about raids and military operations, grilling Casey about killings and captures.
Months earlier, during a secure video conference with top military and civilian leaders looking on, he told Casey that it seemed the general wasn't doing enough. "George, we're not playing for a tie," Bush had said. "I want to make sure we all understand this, don't we?" Later in the video conference, Bush emphasized it again: "I want everybody to know we're not playing for a tie. Is that right?"
In Baghdad, Casey's knuckles whitened on the table. The very suggestion was an affront to his dignity that he would long remember, a statement just short of an outright provocation.
"Mr. President," Casey had said bluntly, "we are not playing for a tie."
Asked later about Casey's perceptions, Bush insisted in an interview that 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. But several of his on-the-record comments lend credence to Casey's concern that the president was overly focused on the number of enemy killed.
"I asked that on occasion to find out whether or not we were fighting back," he said during the May interview. "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." He said his overall question to his military commanders was, "Are we making progress in defeating them?"
"What frustrated me is that from my perspective," he said at another point, "it looked like we were taking casualties without fighting back because our commanders are loath to talk about our battlefield victories."
* * *
Casey also found himself at odds with others in the administration. Once, when he had called the number of civilian personnel who had volunteered to serve in Iraq "paltry," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had chided him. General, she had said, you're out of line.
On another occasion, in late 2005, he butted heads with Rice after her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which she offered a succinct description of the U.S. military strategy in Iraq -- "clear, hold and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely and then build durable Iraqi institutions."
"I don't know," Abizaid said.
"Did you agree to that?"
"No, I didn't agree to that."
When Rice next came to Iraq, Casey asked for a private meeting with her and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
"Excuse me, ma'am, what's 'clear, hold, build'?"
Rice looked a little surprised. "George, that's your strategy."
"Ma'am, if it's my strategy, don't you think someone should have had the courtesy to talk to me about it before you went public with it?"
"Oh," she said. "Well, we told Gen. [Raymond] Odierno," who served as the liaison between the military and the State Department.
"Look, ma'am," Casey said, "as hard as I've worked to support the State Department in this thing, the fact that that went forward without anybody talking to me, I consider a foul."
Rice later apologized to Casey.
* * *
O'Sullivan and Hadley tried for months in the summer of 2006 to get an Iraq strategy review underway. But they encountered resistance, as well as the inevitable crush of daily presidential obligations.
They realized that conducting a review was risky, even under the greatest secrecy. A leak that the White House was questioning its strategy could be devastating. The midterm congressional elections were barely four months away. Iraq was likely to be the main issue, and the Republicans' thin margins in both the Senate and the House were in jeopardy.
In mid-July 2006, Hadley told the president that he wanted to plant the seed for a full strategy review by asking Rumsfeld, Casey and Khalilzad a series of tough, detailed questions. Because Casey and Khalilzad were in Baghdad, they would have the session in a secure video conference. O'Sullivan hoped that in answering the questions, the three men would wake up and realize, "Hey, this picture has changed."
Bush gave his blessing, and Hadley scheduled the session for Saturday, July 22, which happened to be Casey's 58th birthday.
The general was flabbergasted. Just two weeks earlier, the president had been effusive in praising Casey during an exchange with reporters in Chicago. Now Casey had 14 major questions from Hadley, each with a series of sub-questions. Casey counted a total of 50. It didn't take much to see the list was a direct assault on the current strategy. One question was simply: "What is the strategy for Baghdad?" Casey found it demeaning.
When the video conference was convened, Casey and Khalilzad hoped to put off the questions by giving a routine update. But Hadley was not to be deterred.
"Is sectarian violence now self-sustaining and thus beyond the capacity of the political process meaningfully to influence?" Hadley asked.
What the f---? Casey thought. If the answer was yes, then they might as well give up. "No," he said, and wrote "No" on his page of questions.
Afterward, Rumsfeld made it clear he was not happy with the session, but Hadley and O'Sullivan believed they had at least sparked a strategy debate. Still, it would be almost a month before the president would be fully engaged in a strategy review again, as usual carefully shielded from the public.
Hadley had kept Rice informed of his efforts to get an internal strategy review going, and she was familiar with the 50-question grilling that Hadley had meted out to Khalilzad and Casey. Rice also favored a reevaluation of the strategy but didn't want "to do anything that would be above the radar screen in the heavy political breathing of the November elections." The administration did not need what she called "a hothouse story" that acknowledged Iraq had gotten so bad that they were considering a new approach. That would play into the hands of critics and antiwar Democrats.
* * *
On Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006, the president gathered his war council in the windowless Roosevelt Room of the White House to address the Iraq problem head-on. The temperature outside was headed toward 90 degrees, humid and muggy -- vacation time for most anyone who could escape the summer doldrums of the nation's capital.
Two weeks earlier, during a visit to the president's ranch, Rice had warned him that the very fabric of Iraqi society was "rending." Picking up on that theme, the president said, "The situation seems to be deteriorating," acknowledging to his closest advisers a rebuttal of his public optimism. He said he was searching for a way to go. "I want to be able to say that I have a plan to punch back," he said. "We need a clear way forward coming out of Labor Day." They had nothing close to a clear way forward that day, with less than three weeks to go. "We have to fight off the impression that this is not winnable," the president said. Support for the war had plummeted. In a recent Gallup poll, 56 percent of Americans said the war was a mistake. Bush's latest approval ratings hovered around 37 percent.
"Can America succeed?" he asked, one of the few times he seemed to entertain the possibility that it might not. "If so, how? How do our commanders answer that?"
Abizaid and Casey had joined the meeting through a secure video link. Before they could answer, the president recounted his conversation with a widow of a soldier. The woman had said, according to the president: "Look, I trust you. But can you win?"
Bush then recited his goals: a free society that could defend, sustain and govern itself while becoming a reliable ally in the global war on terrorism. He added a dreary assessment, saying, "It seems Iraq is incapable of achieving that."
For two years, Casey's strategy had rested on the premise that he was preparing the Iraqis to take control. In June 2006, he told Bush, "To win, we have to draw down." Rumsfeld was fond of using a bicycle seat analogy to describe the goal: Train the Iraqi forces to assume responsibility for security, and then "take the hand off the Iraqi bicycle seat," to let them get the hang of riding solo.
The problem during the Vietnam War, Bush told me in 2002, was that "the government micromanaged the war" -- both the White House and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Micromanaging the Iraq war from the White House had been a red line for Bush. The generals' words almost always were unchallenged gospel. He did not want to second-guess them.
That was about to change.
"We must succeed," Bush said. "We will commit the resources to succeed. If they" -- the Iraqis -- "can't do it, we will."
In a direct challenge to Rumsfeld, the president declared: "If the bicycle teeters, we're going to put the hand back on. We have to make damn sure we cannot fail. If they stumble, we have to have enough manpower to cope with that."
"I've got it," Casey said. "I understand your intent."
What he didn't quite understand was just how much his world was about to change.
Bush later told me that he was intentionally sending a message to Rumsfeld and Casey: "If it's not working, let's do something different. . . . I presume they took it as a message."
But the drumbeat of optimism continued from Casey.
* * *
Hadley told Rice and others that he had come to disdain Rumsfeld's bicycle metaphor, in part because it triggered an unpleasant but relevant personal memory. In Hadley's telling, during the early 1950s, when he was in kindergarten in Toledo, Ohio, his father decided to teach him to ride a bike. Dutifully holding the bicycle seat, the father got his son going down the street at a fast clip.
"Great job!" his father yelled, and the young Hadley, wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, pumped away at the pedals. But as his father's voice grew more distant, the boy realized he was on his own. He turned to look back and spilled right over, tearing up his knees and elbows. It would be 2 1/2 years before he got back on a bicycle again.
Now, when Rumsfeld said it was time to take the hand off the Iraqi bicycle seat, Hadley thought, "Well, there are costs and consequences of taking the hand off the bicycle if the lad falls over."
* * *
Despite the 50 questions from Hadley that zeroed in on the essence of the strategy, the tough session with the president and the increasing violence on the ground in Iraq, Casey held firmly to his leave-to-win strategy. He continued to report that within the next 12 to 18 months, Iraqi forces could take over the security responsibilities for the country with very little coalition support.
Casey saw his mandate as accelerating a transfer to the Iraqis. But the president and others had begun to head in the opposite direction.
"We've got to pull this together now," Hadley told Rice in October 2006. "We've got to do it under the radar screen because the electoral season is so hot, but we've got to pull this together now and start to give the president some options." Rice agreed both that a more coherent review was warranted and that secrecy was key.
In mid-October, after months of inaction, Hadley told the president, "I want to start an informal internal review."
A small group of NSC staff members and Rice's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, would operate under the radar. They could decide later to formalize it.
"Do it," Bush said.
On Oct. 17, Hadley summoned O'Sullivan to his office. He asked her to start the review quietly. Rumsfeld, Abizaid and Casey -- the man the president said he trusted on strategy -- wouldn't be involved. Soon, the review was underway in O'Sullivan's office. No one from the Defense Department and no one from the military was included.
Brady Dennis and Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.
Outmaneuvered And Outranked, Military Chiefs Became Outsiders
By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008; A01
At the Joint Chiefs of Staff in late November 2006, Gen. Peter Pace was facing every chairman's nightmare: a potential revolt of the other chiefs. Two months earlier, the JCS had convened a special team of colonels to recommend options for reversing the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Now, it appeared that the chiefs' and colonels' advice was being marginalized, if not ignored, by the White House.
During a JCS meeting with the colonels Nov. 20, Chairman Pace dropped a bomb: The White House was considering a "surge" of additional troops to quell the violence in Iraq. "Would it be a good idea?" Pace asked the group. "If so, what would you do with five more brigades?" That amounted to 20,000 to 30,000 more troops, depending on the number of support personnel.
Pace's question caught the chiefs and colonels off guard. The JCS hadn't recommended a surge, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Iraq commander, was opposed to one of that magnitude. Where had this come from? Was it a serious option? Was it already a done deal?
Pace said he had another White House meeting in two days. "I want to be able to give the president a recommendation on what's doable," he said.
A rift had been growing between the country's military and civilian leadership, and in several JCS meetings that November, the chiefs' frustrations burst into the open. They had all but dismissed the surge option, worried that the armed forces were already stretched to the breaking point. They favored a renewed effort to train and build up the Iraqi security forces so that U.S. troops could begin to leave.
"Why isn't this getting any traction over there, Pete?" Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief, asked at one session inside the "tank," the military's secure conference room for candid and secret debates. Was the president being briefed?
"I can only get part of it before him," Pace said, "and I'm not getting any feedback."
Pace, Schoomaker and Casey found themselves badly out of sync with the White House in the fall of 2006, finally losing control of the war strategy altogether after the midterm elections. Schoomaker was outraged when he saw news coverage that retired Gen. Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff, had briefed the president Dec. 11 about a new Iraq strategy being proposed by the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank.
"When does AEI start trumping the Joint Chiefs of Staff on this stuff?" Schoomaker asked at the next chiefs' meeting.
Pace, normally given to concealing his opinions, let down the veil slightly and gave a little sigh. But he didn't answer. Schoomaker thought Pace was too much of a gentleman to be effective in a business where forcefulness and a willingness to get in people's faces were survival skills. "They weren't listening to what Pete [Pace] was saying," Schoomaker said later in private. "Or Pete wasn't carrying the mail, or he was carrying it incompletely."
In several tank meetings, Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations, voiced concern that the politicians were going to find a way to place the blame for Iraq on the military. "They're orchestrating this to dump in our laps," Mullen said. He raised the point so many times that Schoomaker thought the Navy leader sounded "almost paranoid."
* * *
The atmosphere in the tank was tense Monday, Nov. 27, 2006, as Pace briefed the chiefs and the colonels on a White House meeting about Iraq the day before. J.D. Crouch, a deputy to national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, had presented the results of a secret strategy review on how to respond to the escalating violence. "I walked out happy because I got my views on the table," Pace said, making it clear that this was not always the case.
The president, Pace told the group, is "leaning into announcing a new phase in the war that will help us achieve our original end state. . . . By April 1, 2007, we would have five more brigades in Iraq."
Schoomaker was dismayed. Suppose the surge didn't work? "What is our fallback plan?" he asked.
There was no fallback, Pace replied.
"Are people engaged on this," Schoomaker asked almost defiantly of the surge proponents, "or is this politics?"
"They are engaged," Pace replied. But if progress is still lacking "after we surge five brigades," Pace said, "then you are forced to conscription, which no one wants to talk about." To mention a draft was to invite the ghosts of Vietnam into the tank.
"Folks keep talking about the readiness of U.S. forces. Ready to do what?" Schoomaker growled. "We need to look at our strategic depth for handling other threats. How do we get bigger? And how do we make what we have today more ready? This is not just about Iraq!"
Part of the chiefs' job was to figure out how to accelerate the military's overall global readiness and capacity, Schoomaker said. "I sometimes feel like it is hope against hope," he said. "I feel like Nero did when Rome was burning. It just worries the hell out of me."
Several colonels wanted to applaud. It worried them, too. Others disagreed, feeling it was more important to focus on the current war. But they all maintained their poker faces.
"Look, no one is whistling 'Dixie' here," Pace told the group. "The president and the White House understand the resource constraints."
It was not clear that anyone believed what the chairman was saying, or whether even Pace believed it.
"We need to position ourselves properly for the decision likely to come," Pace said. "The sense of urgency is over Iraq, but not over the other issues."
Mullen said the all-volunteer force might break under the strain of extended and repeated deployments. "I am still searching for the grand strategy here," Mullen said. "How does a five-brigade surge over the next few months fit into the larger picture? We have so many other issues and challenges: Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and places we are not even thinking about today."
* * *
In Baghdad, Gen. Casey realized that he had lost a basic, necessary ingredient for a commanding general in wartime. He had lost the confidence of the president, a stunning and devastating realization.
He wasn't alone. The president was not listening to Casey's boss, Gen. John P. Abizaid at Central Command, anymore, either.
"Yeah, I know," the president said to Abizaid at a National Security Council session in December, "you're going to tell me you're against the surge."
Yes, Abizaid replied, and then presented his argument that U.S. forces needed to get out of Iraq in order to win.
"The U.S. presence helps to keep a lid on," Bush responded. There were other benefits. A surge would "also help here at home, since for many the measure of success is reduction in violence," Bush said. "And it'll help [Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki to get control of the situation. A heavier presence will buy time for his government."
The rest of Iraq wasn't as tenuous as Baghdad, Abizaid said. "But it's the capital city that looks chaotic," Bush said. "And when your capital city looks chaotic, it's hard to sustain your position, whether at home or abroad."
* * *
The chiefs' frustration grew so intense that Pace told Bush, "You need to sit down with them, Mr. President, and hear from them directly."
Hadley saw it as an opportunity. He arranged for Bush and Vice President Cheney to visit the JCS in the tank Dec. 13, 2006. The president would come armed with what Hadley called "sweeteners" -- more budget money and a promise to increase the size of the active-duty Army and Marine Corps. It would also be a symbolic visit, important to the chiefs because the president would be on their territory.
"Mr. President," Schoomaker began, "you know that five brigades is really 15."
Schoomaker was in charge of generating the force for the Army. Sending five new brigades to Iraq meant another five would have to take their place in line, and to sustain the surge, another five behind them. This could not be done, Schoomaker said, without either calling up the National Guard and Reserves or extending the 12-month tours in Iraq. The Army had hoped to go in the other direction and cut tours to nine months.
Would a surge transform the situation? Schoomaker asked. If not, why do it? "I don't think that you have the time to surge and generate enough forces for this thing to continue to go," he said.
"Pete, I'm the president," Bush said. "And I've got the time."
"Fine, Mr. President," Schoomaker said. "You're the president."
Several of the chiefs noted that the five brigades were effectively the strategic reserve of the U.S. military, the forces on hand in case of flare-ups elsewhere in the world. Surprise was a way of international life, the chiefs were saying. For years, Bush had been making the point that it was a dangerous world. Did he want to leave the United States in the position of not being able to deal with the next manifestation of that danger?
Bush told the chiefs that they had to win the war at hand. He turned again to Schoomaker. "Pete, you don't agree with me, do you?"
"No," Schoomaker said. "I just don't see it. I just don't. But I know right now that it's going to be 15 brigades. And how we're going to get those 15 brigades, I don't know. This is going to require more than we can generate. You're stressing the force, Mr. President, and these kids just see deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan for the indefinite future."
* * *
"The tank meeting was a very important meeting," Bush told me during a May 2008 interview. "In my own mind, I'm sure I didn't want to walk in with my mind made up and not give these military leaders the benefit of a discussion about a big decision."
The president said that if he were just pretending to be open-minded, "you get sniffed out. . . . I might have been leaning, but my mind was open enough to be able to absorb their advice."
I told him that, based on my reporting, some of the chiefs thought he had already decided, that they had sniffed him out.
"They may have thought I was leaning, and I probably was," Bush said, noting that the chiefs had felt free to express themselves. "But the door wasn't shut."
Still, Bush fully understood the power of his office.
"Generally," he said, "when the commander-in-chief walks in and says, done deal, they say, 'Yes sir, Mr. President.' "
* * *
Just after Christmas, while in the United States, Casey got an e-mail from one of his contacts. "Hey, you need to know that the White House is throwing you under the bus," it read.
A couple of days later, Abizaid phoned Casey with a warning. "Look," Abizaid said, "the surge is coming. Get out of the way." Casey was soon offered a promotion to Army chief of staff, and in February 2007, he left Iraq, replaced by Gen. David H. Petraeus.
The president said later in an interview, "The military, I can remember well, said, 'Okay, fine. More troops. Two brigades.' And I turned to Steve [Hadley] and said, 'Steve, from your analysis, what do you think?' He, being the cautious and thorough man he is, went back, checked, came back to me and said, 'Mr. President, I would recommend that you consider five. Not two.' And I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because it is the considered judgment of people who I trust and you trust that we need five in order to be able to clear, hold and build.' "
The views of those trusted people came largely through back channels, rather than through the president's established set of military advisers -- Casey's deputy saying that a surge wouldn't work with fewer than five brigades and Jack Keane making the same case to Hadley and Vice President Cheney.
Hadley maintained that the number "comes out of my discussions with Pete Pace."
"Okay, I don't know this," Bush said, interrupting. "I'm not in these meetings, you'll be happy to hear, because I got other things to do."
So the president did not know what his principal military adviser, Gen. Pace, had recommended. Pace, however, had told the chiefs Nov. 20, 2006, that the White House had asked what could be done with five extra brigades.
* * *
The president announced the surge decision Jan. 10, 2007. Five more brigades would go to Baghdad; 4,000 Marines would head to Anbar province.
The next morning, he went to Fort Benning, Ga., to address military personnel and their families. His decision had been opposed by Casey and Abizaid, his military commanders in Iraq. Pace and the Joint Chiefs, his top military advisers, had suggested a smaller increase, if any at all. Schoomaker, the Army chief, had made it clear that the five brigades didn't really exist under the Army's current policy of 12-month rotations. But on this morning, the president delivered his own version of history.
"The commanders on the ground in Iraq, people who I listen to -- by the way, that's what you want your commander-in-chief to do. You don't want decisions being made based upon politics or focus groups or political polls. You want your military decisions being made by military experts. They analyzed the plan, and they said to me and to the Iraqi government: 'This won't work unless we help them. There needs to be a bigger presence.' "
Bush went on, "And so our commanders looked at the plan and said, 'Mr. President, it's not going to work until -- unless we support -- provide more troops.' "
Brady Dennis and Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.