Book Review: The War Within

Ever since Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal in 1973, Woodward has been among the nation’s most respected journalists. In the The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post traces the decision and execution of the Iraq surge. The 4th volume in a series of “Bush at War” books, Woodward generates much of his material from prominent interviews with the administration, classified reports, and meeting transcripts.

The book begins by painting an ominous portrait of the conflict as it stood in 2006. At this point, there were 150 attacks per day in Iraq. Violence had steadily escalated since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. On February 22, 2006, a Shia holy site, al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, had been obliterated in a bombing—causing further escalation in the already devastating sectarian conflict. Iraq had several problems that made the situation seem hopeless. One such problem was a weak government led by a relatively unknown Shia, Nouri al-Maliki. In addition, a 70,000 member Shia militia, Jaish al-Mahdi (arguably stronger than the Iraqi army), strong Al-Qaeda influence in Sunni areas, and a lack of cooperation from neighboring Iran and Syria all put the future of Iraq in serious doubt. The United States had several problems as well. One such problem was that the army was not trained to fight counterinsurgency operations, but rather to fight conventional warfare. The American public, moreover, was losing faith in the operation; most had come to believe that the Iraq invasion was a mistake.

To confront these challenges, Congress launched the Iraq Study Group, while the National Security Council simultaneously tried to find a strategy that would foster security in Iraq. Woodward’s accounts of the White House and President Bush himself seem to indicate that even before the midterm elections in 2006, Bush was pondering whether to withdraw from Iraq if it were impossible to restore security and build a functioning government. His evidence, based on interviews and transcripts, seems to contradict the often assertive and stubbornly hawkish characterization of the president.

Moreover, it was Bush’s decision, against Vice President Cheney’s advice, to replace Donald Rumsfeld before the 2006 elections. Seeing that the strategy had failed, Bush wanted to incorporate new people for a new strategy. Bush appointed Robert Gates, a respected member of the Iraq study group, to lead the Department of Defense.

While much of Woodward’s journalism in this book is not news breaking, he does reveal some interesting facts about the planning and execution of the surge. For instance, it seems that Bush relied heavily on the advice of National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley over other administration officials. Bush eventually saw that a government solution in Iraq would be impossible if basic security couldn’t be provided. For that reason, Bush eventually ordered five more brigades, or 20,000 troops, to be deployed to Iraq. Their main objective would be to secure Baghdad and Anbar Province. General Petraeus would replace General Casey as Commander of US forces in Iraq. Petraeus would emphasize working with the local populations and militias. He believed that the key to success in confronting an insurgency was to win support from the local population. Reports of body counts or terrorists killed would not yield stability in Iraq. As Petraeus said, “we can’t kill our way out.”

Among the more startling claims in this book was that the CIA began to monitor conversations by Prime Minster Maliki. In the words of one official, “we know everything he says.” Although Bush supported Maliki publicly, secretly there was suspicion that he had not been aggressive enough in confronting Shia militia. In addition, Woodward reports that intelligence improvements helped counter the Al-Qaeda/Sunni insurgency as the United States Special Forces began to engage in secret killings.

Moreover, as support for Al-Qaeda diminished in Sunni areas, local militias began to cooperate with the United States. After a several month struggle in which casualties had actually increased, Petraeus’s population-centered approach was beginning to produce results. Military and civilian casualties are now at their lowest point since the war began.

Despite the security improvements in Iraq, Woodward is very critical of Bush for what he considers to be a dishonest spin of the war to the American public. Still, it seems that if Bush had publicly criticized his Generals or the Iraq strategy in 2006, he would have lost support for the surge. If that were the case, Woodward’s own accounts and transcripts indicate that Iraq would be a genocidal disaster right now. There is a fine line between trying to boost morale and being dishonest, but Woodward wishes the president had publicly acknowledged that the strategy was failing. Moreover, Woodward concludes by making the old argument that Bush was stubborn and detached from management of the war. He points to relying too heavily on Stephen J. Hadley in the decision-making process. While it is difficult to say how a president should evaluate war strategies, it does seem in this book that President Bush was more engaging and challenging to the generals and his advisors than in previous Woodward books. Still, Woodward is reluctant to give him credit.

The final outcome of the surge is still uncertain, as we still do not know if and when the Iraqi government will be sustainable without American forces. Also, the sacrifices that Americans have had to make even after the surge began are substantial—more than 1500 American soldiers have died in Iraq since General Petraeus took over command in February, 2007. Moreover, we might come to regret allocating resources to Iraq that could have been used in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, at the moment the American forces appear to be saving Iraqi lives. However, given the military, economic, and political constraints that we have, the Iraqis will have to sustain themselves very soon.

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