The Woodward Way of War

Published September 22, 2008

Weekly Standard Volume 014, Issue 02

Bob Woodward has written his fourth book in six years on the Bush presidency. They have ranged from fairly glowing (Bush at War) to excoriating (State of Denial). The latest, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, while less harsh on Bush than State of Denial, is still plenty critical.

Based on interviews with more than 150 people, including nearly three hours of interviews with the president himself, the book features details from key meetings and secret memoranda, the sometimes candid and often self-flattering thoughts of many of the key actors in the Iraq war, and describes the heated debates and dissents within the administration during the period when President Bush embraced a new strategy in Iraq, “the surge.”

The picture Woodward paints isn't pretty, and his judgment is harsh. In his epilogue, for example, Woodward writes that too often Bush “failed to lead” and states, “The president rarely was the voice of realism on the Iraq War.” In his promotional interviews, Woodward is at least as critical of Bush as he is in his book, portraying him as detached and out of touch, his administration as dysfunctional, and his presidency as essentially a failure.

Students of the Iraq war will find this book well worth reading, but for reasons Woodward probably didn't intend. The War Within reveals something important about key figures in the Washington drama of the past two years.

BOB WOODWARD: In making his judgment about the president during this period, Woodward has focused almost exclusively on the process rather than the outcome of Bush's decision. The author himself admits that the book is “really about a second front in Washington, where the military, the State Department, intelligence people and the White House could not reach agreement.”

In an hour-long interview with Larry King, Woodward uttered only a single (and somewhat peculiar) sentence on the subject of the surge and its success:


[Bush] made a decision that has led us to a much better condition, and if you are of the Karl Rove view of politics and life in America, which is everything gets measured by outcomes, you could look at this and say it's a positive.


I'm not sure what the Karl Rove reference means. I think it would strike millions of Americans, including those who disagree with Rove politically, as right and appropriate to measure decisions by their outcome. We do that when it comes to judging presidents, generals, doctors, coaches, and almost everyone else in life. It is, for most of us, the acid test of a leader.

That appears not to be the case for Woodward. He is overwhelmingly, almost obsessively, concerned about process. Who was driving it (Bush or his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley)? Which meetings did or did not the president attend? Did the “right” amount of communication take place between the civilian leadership and the military?

Process matters and it can influence outcomes, but results matter much more. One cannot help feeling that Woodward would have been more favorably disposed toward the president if a tidy, consensus-driven, bipartisan process had led to a bad outcome (hasty withdrawal from Iraq) rather than a messy process and an unpopular decision leading to a good outcome (the quelling of violence in Iraq).

On the matter of the surge, Woodward downplays its importance. He argues that the enormous drop in violence in Iraq is owed mainly to other factors (the Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda in Iraq and the ceasefire with Moktada al-Sadr), and even to luck (a top-secret operation targeting terrorist leaders came online, he claims, at the same time the surge was being executed).

What Woodward misses, I think, is that the surge reinforced every good thing that has happened in Iraq. All the other actors-the Sunnis in Anbar, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Sadr and his minions, the government in Baghdad, Iraq's neighbors-had to factor the staying power and reinforcment of the U.S.-led coalition into their calculations. It enabled everything else to take place. Yet you would never figure that out reading The War Within.

PRESIDENT BUSH: One comes away from Woodward's account reminded of the phalanx of opposition the president faced in pushing for the surge- from his secretaries of defense and state, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq (General George W. Casey Jr.), the commander of U.S. Central Command (John P. Abizaid), the Iraq Study Group, and almost the entire political and foreign policy establishment.

Bush was close to alone in his advocacy of the surge, which testifies both to his strategic insight and to his political courage. It's revealing that NBC host Matt Lauer, in interviewing the author, took exception to Woodward's claim that Bush failed to lead. “Some advisers are saying don't go with the surge. Military people are saying two brigades, not five. And [Bush] said, 'No, I'm going to go all in on this. I'm doubling down' .  .  . that is leadership, like it or not, isn't it?”

Woodward responded, “Well, of course, but this is a very complicated process.” And then he spent the rest of his answer talking about .  .  . process.

There is no question that changes in our Iraq strategy should have been made much sooner than they were; if anything, the president can be faulted for being too deferential to the top military brass and to his cabinet prior to the surge. That's why some of us are delighted Bush eventually paid such close attention to outside voices like retired General Jack Keane, a strong proponent of the surge.

By late 2006, the president came to embrace a fundamentally different counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. With his popularity low and with only a handful of people standing at his side, he made what was manifestly the right decision. Bush's decision has, by any objective measure, been vindicated. And that, more than anything else, is the significance of the period Woodward covers.

THE MILITARY BRASS: Woodward's book is not quite the “untold” story of the surge its publishers claim. In fact, it has already been told by others, including Michael Gordon at the New York Times, Peter Feaver in Commentary, and Fred Barnes in these pages. Thanks to its much greater length and detail, The War Within is able to drive home with almost jackhammer-like repetition the degree of opposition the president faced from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as from Generals Abizaid and Casey.

“To win, we have to draw down,” Casey told the president in June 2006. In a conversation later that year, Abizaid told the president he was against the surge, arguing that U.S. forces needed to get out of Iraq in order to win. According to Woodward, the Joint Chiefs had “all but dismissed the surge option” and in a series of meetings in November 2006, their “frustrations burst into the open.” So intense was their opposition that Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recommended that Bush sit down with them, allowing them to hear the pro-surge case in person. In that meeting, held in December, General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told the president, “I don't think that you have the time to surge and generate enough forces for this thing to continue to go.” He and others were more concerned about waging a hypothetical future war than about winning the ongoing one in Iraq.

Virtually the entire top Pentagon brass, as well as Bush's key generals, were opposed to the surge. They were wrong on almost every count. Yet Woodward does nothing to highlight this overwhelmingly important fact.

Beyond that, Woodward's book captures the bitterness of the Joint Chiefs at having their advice overridden. General Casey found it “demeaning” to have to
answer a series of 50 probing (and necessary) questions posed by Hadley, the national security adviser. When the president reminded Casey and others, via videoconference, that “we're not playing for a tie,” we learn that Casey considered it an “affront to his dignity,” a statement “just short of an outright provocation.”

It got so bad that Admiral Michael Mullen, who also opposed the surge and replaced Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, attempted to keep General Keane from traveling to Iraq, because Keane allowed for a line of communication straight from Bush to General David Petraeus. “You've diminished the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” Mullen reportedly told Keane. (The White House interceded and saw to it that Keane could travel to Iraq.)

One comes away from Woodward's book with an even greater respect for Petraeus, who, along with General Raymond Odierno, resisted enormous pressure from those higher up in the chain of command and executed the surge with brilliant efficiency.

Woodward's book reports all of these episodes, many vividly. He allows the key actors to have their say. And yet he seems unable to give the president the credit he deserves. (Woodward even asserts that the surge strategy was “crippled” by dissension within the administration, when that is clearly not so.)

What President Bush did in advocating the surge was an extraordinary act of presidential leadership, with few precedents in American history. It doesn't erase the many mistakes and missteps that were made along the way. It doesn't mean the process of decision making was tidy. The human and financial cost of the war has been higher than it should have been. But to have put us in position to redeem a war that was widely considered to be lost is an impressive and honorable achievement. History will deem it such, even if Bob Woodward won't.

— Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President Bush, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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