The crisis in winter
Fred Barnes describes how President Bush decided on the Surge at the Weekly Standard. The short answer is by rejecting the much of the advice of his closest aides.
The Joint Chiefs were disinclined to send more troops to Iraq or adopt a new strategy. So were General George Casey, the American commander in Iraq, and Centcom commander John Abizaid. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice favored a troop pullback. A week earlier, the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, had recommended a graceful exit from Iraq. The presence of former secretary of state James Baker, a longtime Bush family friend, on the commission was viewed in Washington and around the world as significant.
Some of the president's aides feared the chiefs would raise such strenuous objections to a surge that Bush would back off or, worse, they'd mount a frontal assault to kill the idea. Neither fear was realized. The session in the Tank lasted nearly two hours. When it was over, the chiefs were unenthusiastic. Weeks earlier, when Bush aides had asked them to draft a plan for what a surge would look like militarily, the Pentagon had dawdled. Now, with Bush doing the asking, the chiefs agreed to produce a surge plan. Bush had gotten all he needed from them--acquiescence. The surge was on.
If Barnes' account is accurate, the most interesting question to examine is why the conventional wisdom should have been wrong. Why is it that breaking with the consensus, which in this case tended towards retreat, might sometimes leads to a better result? The answer usually revolves around the existence of a plausible alternative to the consensus. In this case, the alternative -- the concept of the Surge -- had the backing of Robert Gates. Without that credible strategic alternative, it was unlikely the consensus would be challenged.
The summer before Bush's visit to the Tank, success in Iraq had seemed unattainable. ... he told [Barnes that] "The cumulative effect of the rise in violence suggested to me we were going to have to do something different."
By early November, the president had a pretty good idea what that something should be. On November 5, the Sunday before Election Day, he met with Robert Gates, deputy national security adviser and eventually CIA director in the administration of Bush's father, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. ...
Gates "informed me in the course of the conversation that, as a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission, he favored a surge of additional troops in Iraq," Bush said. This matched the president's own view. "I was thinking about a different strategy based upon U.S. troops moving in there in some shape or form, ill-defined at this point, but nevertheless helping to provide more security through a more robust counterinsurgency campaign," he said.
But the existence of a plausible alternative was not enough. Two tasks remained before him before bucking the consensus. The first was the organizational challenge of persuading the military chiefs the alternative plan was correct -- a sales job -- and the second and most important, was to make sure he was doing the analytically correct thing -- an exercise in intellectual integrity.
The military, in Bush's view, has to be treated with special deference and tact. "One of the most important jobs of a commander in chief, and particularly in a time of war, is to be thoughtful and sensitive about the U.S. military," he said. Bush believes in persuading the military to embrace his policies rather than simply imposing them. ... This was the attitude Bush sought to mollify when he went to the Tank, the regular meeting place for the Joint Chiefs. ..."
Though Bush had all but decided on a surge before the formal "interagency review" began looking at new options on Iraq, the process wasn't a charade. It forced the president to consider alternatives. And it also involved agencies besides the White House--the Defense and State departments, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs. "At a very minimum," the president said, it made them "feel they had a say in the development of a strategy." In this case, a small say.
Barnes' account of how the Surge was decided upon provides a portrait of how policy is made. It is the story of competing visions; the valuation of information; strategic debate and risk taking. In some ways the story of evolution of the Surge is a saga in crisis management equal to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is finally a study in risk tasking under imperfect information. Neither Bush in 2007 nor Kennedy in 1962 knew they were doing the right thing. There was reasoned wisdom in every alternative; real danger along every path. Which road to take was not logically obvious to the men leading the nation at the time. Some element of risk was involved, some acceptance of the unknowable accepted in a choice that only a President could make. And Bush made the choice. Had his decision been wrong defeat in Iraq would have been Bush's defeat, but it is only fair that if the choice ends in victory some share of the credit should also be his.