CP Note: January 10, 2007, President George W. Bush announced his plans for what would become known as “the surge” in his address to the nation, on military operations in Iraq.

Bush’s Lincoln Moment

Events both on the battlefield and at home in 2006 finally forced Bush to permit a long-overdue reassessment of Iraq policy and ultimately drove him to shift course. In Iraq the violence took a turn for the worse; in Washington pressure mounted to reconsider a situation that even backers of the war agreed was slipping out of control. The president received a stinging rebuke in the midterm elections that cost his party control of both houses of Congress. Soon afterward, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group issued its report, which in effect acknowledged the failure of the American war effort. Bush dug in his heels, however. Against the advice of both the ISG and the Joint Chiefs, he embraced a proposal to increase temporarily the number of American troops in Iraq to tamp down the violence. The decision marked his single hands-on intervention in the direction of the conflict.

A terrorist bomb attack on February 22, 2006, that destroyed the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite shrines, led to reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques in Baghdad and triggered an escalation in sectarian conflict across Iraq. In the months that followed, attacks reached an all-time high, surpassing 3,000 per week. Each morning in Baghdad bodies turned up by the dozens, victims of militias, gangs, or—worse from the American perspective—government security forces. American officials reported that the killers had been “dressed in police uniforms,” but Sunni neighborhoods knew better: the killers were the police. Mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods experienced a process that resembled the Balkan “ethnic cleansing” of the previous decade. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Maliki refused to move against Shiite militias, ignoring American calls for even-handedness. Hope for political reconciliation evaporated. U.S. troops, often assaulted by both sides, suffered mounting casualties.

In the face of the epic tide of violence in Iraq, unease spread among senior Bush administration officials. Although some contended that the insurgency had been contained until the mosque bombing, Iraq policy had stalled much earlier. The bombing and its aftermath served instead as a much-needed wake-up call—much like the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968—that forced a long-overdue reconsideration of the American approach. Not everyone saw it that way: Rumsfeld continued to insist on the need to take the hand off the bicycle seat. But increasingly he sounded as though he had washed his hands of responsibility for the war he had once been so determined to control. An American departure now seemed likely to leave in its wake chaos and perhaps the fragmentation of Iraq into separate and warring Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish entities.

General Casey, though still wedded to drawing down the American force level, conceded that the withdrawal ought to be delayed. By this point, however, the president finally had lost confidence in his commanders, Casey in Iraq and Abizaid at CENTCOM. Sensing an opening in which new ideas might be considered, some of the president’s key advisors (including Secretary of State Rice and Stephen J. Hadley, her successor as national security advisor) began a quiet search for alternatives.

Within the ranks of current and former military officers, too, the worsening situation in Iraq provoked criticism of the American approach. Rumsfeld had been the target of unusually public attacks by several former generals, whom he dismissed as a handful of malcontents. As it became evident that conditions in Iraq were deteriorating, the questions mounted. At issue was whether the Abizaid-Casey project to transfer responsibility to the Iraqis as quickly as feasible made sense. The effort to frame a new counterinsurgency doctrine, pushed by Lieutenant General David Petraeus and others, recognized that an external power such as the United States needed to cede control over military operations to the local government at some point. But the precondition for political success in a counterinsurgency campaign was population security. Absent that, the government could not meet other needs or promote economic development, and its authority would erode. Achieving security in turn required that troops live among the people, use minimal force to safeguard civilians, and earn their trust—“winning hearts and minds.” It was a mode of warfare that looked nothing like the high-tech military transformation Rumsfeld had promoted, calling instead for ample numbers and ample patience.

Through summer and fall 2006, the search for an approach that might reverse the drift toward disaster in Iraq proceeded out of sight in Washington. If word of a strategy review leaked amid the midterm congressional campaigns, it would be perceived as an admission of failure by the administration and dishearten Republicans who still backed the president. On the surface, then, nothing changed: Bush offered the same defense of his policy and his commanders as before, grasping at straws, such as the killing of the vicious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Behind the scenes critical reassessment and consideration of alternatives gained impetus. Several groups, civilian and military, explored whether counterinsurgency methods modeled on earlier military operations such as Tal Afar might become the foundation for a broader operational initiative to “seize, hold, and build.” If enough American troops could be made available to secure Baghdad, success there could create a breathing space in which Iraqi leaders representing the different sectarian factions could finally reach an acceptable political outcome.

In time, this alternative approach would become known by the force commitment involved—a temporary increase of 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops—as “the surge.” With the military overstretched by the war and needing to give units time to recover between deployments, no more than five brigades could be made available. This, too, was a consequence of the decision not to mobilize for a long conflict.

Proponents of a troop surge swam upstream against powerful political currents within and beyond the Bush administration. Although influential former officers such as retired Army General Jack Keane and a cohort of counterinsurgency enthusiasts at the middle ranks of the military hierarchy promoted the surge and “seize, hold, and build” tactics, the Joint Chiefs did not agree. These senior officers worried that Iraq had damaged the military, especially the army, and saw disengagement as a vital step toward restoring it. They doubted whether a modest temporary increase to 160,000 troops could accomplish what 130,000 had not been able to do in more than three years. Instead the JCS concluded that it would be best to continue gradual withdrawal coupled with an effort to prepare the Iraqi military to take over—essentially a continuation of the current Abizaid-Casey policy. Similarly, the administration’s unpublicized interagency review concluded on November 26, 2006, that an accelerated version of the current policy made the most sense. Only a minority, mostly National Security Council staffers, backed the surge. Among policy experts and informed politicians generally, it seemed time to look for a graceful exit. Some recommended a “soft partitioning” of Iraq that would turn it into a loose federation of states, each dominated by its main ethno-sectarian group, effectively ratifying the sorting process already under way.

With the public showing less patience for the war, moreover, it would be hard to sell a troop surge. The magnitude of public disenchantment became clear on election day when voters handed control of Congress to the Democrats. As is usually the case with elections, a number of factors contributed to Republican losses, but disapproval of the president’s Iraq policy figured high on the list—only 29 percent approved of his handling of the war. The day after the voters had spoken, Bush accepted Rumsfeld’s resignation, too long delayed whether measured by results or political value. Incoming Democratic leaders Representative Nancy Pelosi (soon to become Speaker of the House) and Senator Harry Reid (the next Majority Leader) made plain that bringing home the American troops would be one of their top priorities. From the new congressional majority, the notion of sending additional brigades to Iraq could expect little support.

Pressure for a gradual troop withdrawal increased when the Iraq Study Group made public its recommendations in early December. Pronouncing the current U.S. policy to have run its course without yielding success, the ISG proposed that American combat troops (other than those needed for force protection) be withdrawn from Iraq by early 2008. They might remain in the region to continue to combat extremist forces and help police a political resolution. Further, the ISG urged diplomatic overtures to Syria and Iran to enlist their support for a stable Iraq. At the insistence of one ISG member, former Democratic Senator Chuck Robb, the report included a temporary troop increase among its list of options.

The thrust of the report’s recommendation, though, ran in the opposite direction, and the commission aligned itself with the swelling chorus of critics who wanted the United States to cut its losses and seek an exit strategy. For a president under siege, the ISG provided useful political cover, a withdrawal timetable with bipartisan sanction. Public opinion strongly favored the withdrawal timetable, too, with 71 percent in favor; only 9 percent responded that victory was still possible.


The president faced a pivotal juncture. Having left too much in the hands of others for too long, he recognized the imperative to assert himself. The war had run off course, with a military strategy no longer connected to the national political objectives he had established at the outset. Determined not to be Lyndon Johnson, he had also not heeded Eliot Cohen’s advice that he be Abraham Lincoln. In December 2006 and January 2007, with the war in Iraq at a turning point, Bush had his Lincoln moment. He finally claimed ownership of his war.

Rejecting the popular ISG proposal for a withdrawal timetable, Bush opted instead to augment U.S. troop strength temporarily. He saw disengagement as an admission of defeat that he was not prepared to make. To those around the president, such as Hadley and Cheney, or to anyone who had followed Bush’s statements on the war, it was clear that the president had invested far too much to accept such an outcome. He reiterated the apocalyptic implications of leaving Iraq to its fate in his January 7, 2007, speech announcing his choice:

Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions . . . . Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people. On September 11th, 2001, we saw what a refuge for extremists on the other side of the world could bring to the streets of our own cities. For the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.

Withdrawal, then, was out of the question. But so, too, was massive, sustained escalation. The skeptical Democratic congressional majority would not authorize or fund force expansion on the scale that would be required. With no other options at hand, Bush seized on the surge concept. The prospects for success were not promising, either: the additional forces would create only a brief window in which to reverse the trends in Iraq, while COIN doctrine emphasized that the “seize, hold, and build” formula worked only if given time.

The president also put in place a new team to implement the surge policy. Robert Gates, a well-respected member of the Iraq Study Group but an agnostic about whether the new approach could work, replaced Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. On the ground in Iraq, Petraeus replaced Casey, who would be given the Westmoreland treatment—kicked upstairs to serve as army chief of staff .

Staying the Course Redux

Having chosen the troop surge option and picked a new commander, Bush again stepped back and let his subordinates run the Iraq War. Many critical choices had yet to be made, and presidential delegation meant they would be left to Petraeus and those around him. For a time the issue remained in doubt: violence in Iraq continued to increase and American casualties mounted. However, by fall 2007, insurgent attacks declined, the result of both new American tactics and other developments on the ground, notably the polarization between Sunni tribal

leaders and foreign jihadists. Some Democrats tried to impose a deadline for American troop withdrawals, but the president and his allies easily forestalled these attempts. Bush thus staved off both the worst in Iraq and his opponents at home. Nonetheless, set against his initial war goals, the results fell far short of expectations. The American people responded in turn by distancing themselves from the war.

As we’ve seen, other presidents have relinquished hands-on direction of military affairs in the later stages of a war. Lincoln deferred to Grant after picking him as the overall Union commanding general in early 1864, going so far as to decline to inquire into the details of the general’s plans. By that point in the Civil War, though, Grant had a demonstrated record of battlefield success, and he and Lincoln agreed on the need for a “hard war” against the South. It would be a stretch to claim that Petraeus had a comparable track record as an effective battlefield commander when he ascended to the top slot in Iraq in 2007. His previous assignment, developing the new COIN doctrine and codifying it in an official Army manual, had been seen within the service as derailing his rise to the top level of command. Roosevelt also left most operational decisions to his military commanders in the latter stages of the Second World War. Not only had they proven their capacity, they had shown that they understood the president’s grand strategy and how to connect lesser choices to it. Petraeus, by contrast, would be asked to implement the still-unproven “seize, hold, and build” operational approach in Iraq and to gain the cooperation of hostile Iraqi factions.

Still, Bush bestowed broad operational latitude and freedom from political oversight on the new American commander. Just where and how to use the additional troops rested with Petraeus and his subordinates. They decided to disperse U.S. troops in contested areas of Baghdad, where they would live among the people. This tactic sought to make security visible to strife-torn neighborhoods and gradually build the residents’ confidence that they would be protected from attacks by the various Iraqi factions. In time, such confidence would translate into better intelligence about insurgent activities, planned attacks, and membership, though in the short run U.S. troops would face local hostility and be more vulnerable to attack.

Initial returns were discouraging. As expected, the troops sent to stay in Baghdad’s most dangerous areas came under frequent attack and suffered high casualties. Back home, where ordinary citizens knew little of the logic behind the tactics, the figures—more attacks, more Americans dying—suggested that nothing had changed for the better.

Iraqi politics, too, continued to bedevil American efforts to improve security. American commanders soon came to understand that Prime Minister Maliki’s government was widely seen among Sunnis as a pro-Shiite actor in the sectarian violence rather than as a neutral broker. That the Sunni perception had a sound foundation became evident when Maliki insisted on his right to approve any U.S. operation that targeted Shiite militias. Sunnis also complained about killings by the Iraqi army, which had been penetrated by Shiite extremists. In cooperation with various American civilian officials, including the president, Petraeus pressured the Iraqi leader to be more even-handed and to distance himself from his hard-line Shiite backers. But as the Americans had discovered decades earlier in Saigon, an external power deeply invested in the success of a client regime exercises little leverage.

Nevertheless, some developments held promise, and Petraeus moved quickly to capitalize on these. Among Iraqi Sunnis, a number of tribal leaders had become disenchanted with al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had emerged as a powerful and brutal rival to their authority within their community. Beginning in Anbar Province (hence, termed the “Anbar Awakening”) as early as September 2006, the increasing friction between the indigenous leaders and the foreign-led AQI took a violent turn, adding another layer of complexity to the sectarian strife ripping apart the country. Some tribal leaders, at great risk to themselves and their families, decided to seek ties with the U.S. military. Interestingly, they did so because they believed they had already defeated the American forces, which would soon begin to withdraw. In the time the U.S. troops remained, they could be useful allies in taking down AQI. The tribal leaders proposed a quid pro quo: arm us and we will help expose AQI so you can destroy it, while we also protect our communities against Shia depredations. Over objections from the Iraqi government, Petraeus agreed to give weapons to the Sunni groups, many of whom until recently had been fighting American troops. The move soon paid dividends in improved intelligence that could be used against AQI leaders and in lessened violence in Sunni neighborhoods. Through the confluence of COIN tactics and the shift in Sunni priorities, then, insurgent attacks began to decline in the latter half of 2007.

Moreover, the Iraqi government started to move at last to curb Shiite militia power. In southern Iraq, an area of British responsibility, forces aligned with Moqtada al-Sadr had largely taken over Basra. Sadr himself maintained close connections with Iran, and American officials were keenly sensitive to the prospect of expanding Iranian influence. Prime Minister Maliki decided unilaterally in early 2008 to mount a military operation with Iraqi troops against the Sadrist forces to restore government control. To the surprise of many, including U.S. commanders, Iraqi units demonstrated new effectiveness against the militia. Facing likely defeat, Sadr ordered his forces to stand down, permitting the reestablishment of government control over Basra. The government finally showed it was not entirely the captive of Shiite factions.

Small signs of political progress could also be discerned, though not in the form the Bush administration had expected when the president approved the troop surge. Notwithstanding American urging, no political reconciliation occurred at the top of the Iraqi political system. Neither Shia nor Kurds nor Sunnis displayed willingness to compromise on power sharing, control of oil revenues, or other disputed issues. Instead, the Awakening led local Sunni tribal leaders to make deals with the U.S. military, the first step toward incorporating them into the Iraqi political system. By arranging to put 100,000 armed Sunni irregulars on the U.S. payroll, Petraeus took the first step in establishing a bond between erstwhile insurgents and the Maliki government.

Better security brought in its wake the restoration of some public services and the beginning of small reconstruction projects. Left unresolved was whether these low-level steps could be parlayed into a broader political settlement.

With Petraeus setting the direction for the war, the president limited himself to giving firm White House support. The original surge decision left open the total number of additional troops to be sent to Iraq. Some in the military hierarchy sought to hold down the increment to as few as two brigades. These senior officers included Admiral William J. “Fox” Fallon, the choice to run CENTCOM in tandem with Petraeus in Iraq. Fallon, who perceived himself as an expert on Iraq and COIN methods, adopted Rumsfeld-style skepticism toward each request for additional forces. When Petraeus indicated that he needed the full allotment, Bush overruled the resistance within the chain of command. He assured Petraeus, moreover, that he need not worry about having enough time to complete his mission.

Paradoxically, time was a commodity that Bush had gained as a consequence of his recent policy and political setbacks. He had dissipated his second-term political capital in his quixotic effort to dismantle Social Security. With no significant domestic agenda left to fulfill, he did not need to think about political strategies that would let him assemble majority coalitions to support legislative initiatives. The Republican defeat in the 2006 midterm contests confirmed that the remaining two years of the president’s second term would be spent in a holding pattern. This freed him to focus on preserving the policies he had earlier established. Whether his political foes could force him to bend on his timetable for Iraq was the only question.

With the help of his diminished cohort of congressional allies, Bush easily beat back attempts by the now-Democratic Congress to impose a deadline for withdrawing American troops from Iraq. Despite their majority status in both chambers, Democrats could not translate the antiwar sentiment that helped bring them to power into concrete measures to end American involvement. They tried repeatedly during their first months as a majority to force an end to the war through legislative action. Each attempt failed, either by falling short of sufficient votes in the Senate, by a Republican filibuster in the Senate, or by a presidential veto that Democrats lacked sufficient votes to override. Even when measures did not require an extraordinary majority, as with the supplemental spending bills used to keep the war off -budget, Democrats could not muster the votes to block passage. As was the case during the Vietnam War, lawmakers simply would not refuse funding for American troops in combat. Congress passed a measure that required the administration to report on eighteen benchmarks of progress in Iraq, but the legislation did not tie war funding or aid to Iraq on meeting the standards. The situation frustrated antiwar activists outside Congress, who railed against legislative timidity. But for lawmakers, it sufficed to cast symbolic votes against the president’s policy without being shackled with the political responsibility for the outcome of the war that would have accompanied a successful measure to set a fixed withdrawal timetable.

Had lawmakers engaged in serious oversight of the war, they might have uncovered one of the more significant changes that occurred under Petraeus. The core national objective that Bush had framed in going to war in Iraq was quietly shelved. No longer did American military commanders and civilian officials in Iraq expect to establish a pluralist, liberal democracy within the foreseeable future. Petraeus and company defined success down. At best, the United States might leave behind a stable government with some representation for the three main ethnosectarian groups and a level of violence not so extreme as to disrupt the precarious political order. As for transforming the Middle East, the Iraqi solution would hold little appeal, especially given the enormous price Iraqis had paid. Yet no one in the American leadership in Iraq ever explicitly declared the original goal unachievable. The president continued to express his vision of an Iraq that would become a beacon of hope across the region.

Nothing Bush said about Iraq by this point registered with the American people. Throughout his last two years, the president’s approval ratings remained below 40 percent. The public had soured on its limited investment in Iraq; even the continuing signs of progress in curbing violence and the sharp reduction in American casualties did not improve the citizenry’s view. For a time it appeared the war might again be an issue in the 2008 election. Republican John McCain, who had been an early and outspoken advocate of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, hoped to convert the good news into political gain. Voters did not respond, however, leaving his opponent, Senator Barack Obama (an early foe of the war) free to focus on other issues. The financial crisis that struck in September 2008 turned the contest decisively into a referendum on domestic issues.

Excerpted from Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War by Andrew J. Polsky.

Copyright 2012 by Andrew J. Polsky.

Reprinted with permission from Oxford University Press.