Being right should count for something

The Washington Post is running a series of articles adapted from Bob Woodward’s book “The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008.” The articles purport to provide an inside account of the dissension over Iraq war policy and especially the surge.

The articles are well worth reading but they have an odd quality. The point of view that Woodward’s narrative conveys is that a cowboy president, at the urging of a cowboy retired general (Jack Keane), ignored or gave short shrift to the sober warnings of top military professionals that the surge wouldn’t work and would weaken the military. Bush did, of course, reject the advice of top military professionals, but events have proven that this advice was poor. And we have long known that the approach many of them advocated was failing on the ground. Yet the way Woodward writes the articles provides little sense of this. The reader almost wants to scream at Bush, “don’t do it,” despite the fact that “it” has been hugely successful.

The tendency among many conservatives is to criticize Bush for waiting so long to reverse course in Iraq and to implement the winning strategy. But if Woodward’s account is true, I think Bush deserves considerable credit for getting it right at all, given the terrible advice he received from his top military professionals.

Even historians not favorably disposed to Bush may have to conclude that he was more sinned against than sinning, especially when it came to Iraq. Prior to the war, he was plagued by an intelligence agency that was largely clueless about the situation in Iraq. Once the war started, he was plagued by military leaders who seemed largely clueless about how to win there and, in Woodward’s account, may not have been sufficiently committed to winning. Yet Bush was able nonetheless to come up with the winning strategy.

Historians should also be impressed by this statement by President Bush to Retired Gen. Keane, that Bush told Keane to deliver to Gen. Petraeus at a time when Petraeus was struggling against superiors who did not support what he was trying to do:

I respect the chain of command. I know that the Joint Chiefs and the Pentagon have some concerns. One is about the Army and Marine Corps and the impact of the war on them. And the second is about other contingencies and the lack of strategic response to those contingencies.

I want Dave to know that I want him to win. That’s the mission. He will have as much force as he needs for as long as he needs it.

When he feels he wants to make further reductions, he should only make those reductions based on the conditions in Iraq that he believes justify those reductions. These two concerns that we are discussing back here in Washington — about contingency operations and the needs of the Army and the Marine Corps — they are not your concerns. They are my concerns.

I do not want to change the strategy until the strategy has succeeded. I waited over three years for a successful strategy. And I’m not giving up on it prematurely. I am not reducing further unless you are convinced that we should reduce further.

This is Lincoln (the resolve) and Grant (the clarity) rolled into one. The author, the recipient, and the intermediary deserve the nation’s gratitude.

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