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Bush Had Ups and Downs, but the Surge Counted Most

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Monday, November 15, 2010

George W. Bush is sitting on a hotel sofa in front of a south-facing window on a sunny November morning. His presidential memoir, "Decision Points," is No. 1 on amazon.com and is expected to be No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. "I've got a very comfortable life," he says.

"Decision Points," as the title suggests, does not purport to be the full story of Bush's life or his administration. It "provides data points for future historians."

Contrary to stereotype, Bush admits some serious errors up front. He failed to see the "house of cards" in the financial sector that led to the crisis of September 2008.

He should have addressed the immigration issues rather than the Social Security issue when he had political capital from his 2004 re-election victory. He should have stopped in Baton Rouge, La., or returned to Washington rather than fly over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and he should have deployed active-duty troops earlier to keep order.

Against this list, he also takes time to spotlight accomplishments that neither his supporters nor critics have been talking much about. He argues that his decision to fund experiments only using embryonic stem cells obtained from existing lines has been vindicated by advances in research on adult and other non-embryonic stem cells.

His Millennial Challenge foreign aid reform encouraging free market development is a clear advance over failed aid policies. And his PEPFAR program combating AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

But some significant material is left out. An early chapter on Iraq ends with the blunder (as Bush admits) of the "mission accomplished" banner in May 2003; a later chapter recounts how he decided we were losing there in spring 2006. What about the three years in between?

The main goal, he writes, was progress in holding elections, which occurred, and that he thought the "light footprint" strategy could succeed. When casualties kept rising, he says, "At first you hope it's a spike, then it's a trend." He decided it had failed in spring 2006.

In the meantime, he writes that he wanted to avoid LBJ-style "micromanaging" and, although he notes he read Eliot Cohen's book "Supreme Command," he apparently didn't follow its recommendation of continual and sometimes acrimonious interaction between commanders in chief and combat generals.

"A president doesn't get to know his generals. I didn't know that Tommy Franks," who was appointed by Bill Clinton, "was from Midland, Texas," his own hometown. "The key to success is to adhere to the line of authority. It's disruptive if the president is talking to the generals all the time."

Why wasn't the surge strategy adopted immediately? "Once I made up my mind to surge, there were a lot of moving parts. I had to convince people in my own administration, I needed new eyes (a new secretary of defense), I had to get beyond the elections, I had to goose (Iraqi prime minister Nouri) Maliki."

The picture one gets from the book and in the hotel room is of a president who suddenly became much more actively engaged in setting a course in Iraq.

He writes that in June 2006 he set up a sort of Team B in the National Security Council to plan a surge strategy. He also makes brief veiled references to the detailed proposals developed outside the government in the following months by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and retired Gen. Jack Keane.

Bush says that he decided to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in spring 2006, but waited until after the November election and after recruiting Robert Gates. And, he writes, this president who had been reluctant to interact with generals had a recommendation to Gates for the new commander in Iraq: Gen. David Petraeus.

The surge was announced in January 2007, eight or nine months after Bush decided the previous strategy was failing. Bush argues that if he had acted more quickly, there would have been divisions in the government that would have led Congress to cut off war funding.

"The strategic consequences of defeat would have been horrific," Bush says. "Embolden Iran -- shudders through the Mideast -- al-Qaida triumphant." But now he's optimistic about Iraq and about democracy in the region.

As the sun pours in, it's hard not to shiver at how narrowly we avoided disaster and achieved success.

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