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Bush As Lincoln: Spinning the Commander in Chief


How credible is the notion that George W. Bush is a brilliant, perceptive military analyst capable of thinking through the weaknesses and illogic of military strategies formulated by the nation's senior military officials and almost single-handedly moving them to see the wisdom of his new plan for moving forward in Iraq? Don't answer that yet, until you've heard the argument.

Ever since it became clear that Bush's plans for escalating the Iraq war might be in serious trouble in Congress, let alone with the American people, his closest advisers have been trying to portray the President as increasingly disillusioned with his military chiefs and more and more convinced that he had to take personal charge of military planning to ensure victory in Iraq.

The President's neocon supporters have been laying the foundation for months by portraying Generals Casey and Abizaid as weak, failed military leaders following policies that would lead to disaster. Furthering this view on Sunday's MTP, Senator McCain openly criticized Casey and stated that he was inclined to vote against General Casey on his nomination to the Joint Chiefs. In another version of the classic "stab in the back" theme, the neocon view is that they were right in leading us to war, but the weak, defeatest generals failed us. Fortunately, our wise Commander in Chief is setting things right, having replaced the wrong generals with the only General who is capable of getting our military strategy right. Expect more of the blame-the-past-generals theme in coming weeks as the neocons try to blame everyone but themselves for their disastrous foreign policies.

Yesterday's Washington Post article by Michael Abramowtiz and Peter Baker gives us the Administration's preferred image of a President almost Lincolnesque in his impatience with overly timid generals and his determination to force the military to recognize the merits of an aggressive escalation in pursuit of victory. The story conveys from Administration sources a portrait of a Commander in Chief whose dogged persistence and determination to win reversed the defeatist attitude among his own generals. The impression we're being sold is that our resolute President may have rescued the nation's failing Iraq policy and laid the foundation for the long wished for victory. No wonder his neocon supporters, whose plan appears to be the basis for Mr. Bush's strategy, are gloating and telling the rest of the country to just shut up.

What's interesting about this Lincolnesque portrait of Bush is that we've seen this picture before. Back on January 2, equally respected reporters at the New York Times, David Sanger, Michael Gordon and John Burns wrote a similar article, Chaos Overran Iraq in '06, Bush Team Says, (Times Select). That article described Mr. Bush as having become convinced over the course of 2006 that the strategy developed by General Casey and supported by General Abizaid and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was failing. Their strategy emphasized the training of Iraqi security forces under the theory that "as the Iraqis stand up, US forces will stand down." Under this version of history, the military did not realize it's strategy was failing; the perceptive Mr. Bush did. Similarly, it was not Mr. Rumsfeld's many critics who convinced the President that Mr. Rumsfeld needed to be replaced; Mr. Bush came to that conclusion on his own based on his own realistic assessment of conditions on the ground and his astute recognition of the limits and obstinacy of his Secretary of Defense. The Times story shows the pattern:

Over the past 12 months, as optimism collided with reality, Mr. Bush increasingly found himself uneasy with General Casey's strategy. And now, as the image of Saddam Hussein at the gallows recedes, Mr. Bush seems all but certain not only to reverse the strategy that General Casey championed, but also to accelerate the general's departure from Iraq, according to senior military officials.

General Casey repeatedly argued that his plan offered the best prospect for reducing the perception that the United States remained an occupier — and it was a path he thought matched Mr. Bush's wishes. Earlier in the year, it had.

But as Baghdad spun further out of control, some of the president's advisers now say, Mr. Bush grew concerned that General Casey, among others, had become more fixated on withdrawal than victory.

Now, having ousted Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Bush sees a chance to bring in a new commander as he announces a new strategy, senior military officials say. General Casey was scheduled to shift out of Iraq in the summer. But now it appears that it may happen in February or March. . . .

Mr. Bush came to worry that it was not just his critics and Democrats in Congress who were looking for what he dismissed last month as a strategy of ''graceful exit.'' Visiting the Pentagon a few weeks ago for a classified briefing on Iraq with his generals, Mr. Bush made it clear that he was not interested in any ideas that would simply allow American forces to stabilize the violence. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, later told marines about the president's message.

''What I want to hear from you is how we're going to win,'' he quoted the president as warning his commanders, ''not how we're going to leave.'' [emphasis mine]

The NYT story was at least limited to the more modest notion that even Mr. Bush could figure out that his policy was failing. By last fall, the whole country had figured that out. But the WaPo story goes significantly further, suggesting that Mr. Bush has now taken direct charge of military strategy and planning. Describing Bush's reaction last December to Iraq Prime Minister's proposal to allow Iraqi security forces to take over operations in Iraq, and al-Maliki's recommendation to move US forces to the periphery, we find the President taking personal charge of the US response:

The president listened intently to the unexpected proposal at their Nov. 30 meeting, according to accounts from several administration officials. Bush seemed impressed that Maliki had taken the initiative, but it did not take him long to reject the idea.

By the time Bush returned to Washington, the plan had already been picked through by his military commanders. At a meeting in the White House's Roosevelt Room, the president flatly told his advisers that the Maliki plan was not going to work. He had concluded that the Iraqis were not up to the task and that Baghdad would collapse into chaos, making a bad situation worse. And so the Americans would have to help them.

A reconstruction of the administration's Iraq policy review, based on more than a dozen interviews with senior advisers, Bush associates, lawmakers and national security officials, reveals a president taking the lead in driving the process toward one more effort at victory — despite doubts along the way from his own military commanders, lawmakers and the public at large.

He never seriously considered beginning to withdraw U.S. forces, as urged by newly elected Democratic congressional leaders and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. And he had grown skeptical of his own military commanders, who were telling him no more troops were needed.

So Bush relied on his own judgment that the best answer was to try once again to snuff out the sectarian violence in Baghdad, even at the risk of putting U.S. soldiers into a crossfire between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias. When his generals resisted sending more troops, he seemed irritated. When they finally agreed to go along with the plan, he doubled the number of troops they requested. [emphasis mine]

The common source for these two spinnings includes Mr. Steven Hadley, the ever loyal Bush servant whose primary virtue has not been his success as National Security Adviser — by that measure he has been a spectacular and dangerous failure — but rather his unfailing attention to the security of the President's image. But even the dogged Mr. Hadley must overcome two critical obstacles.

First, if the brilliance of the President's plan is his insistence on having sufficient troops in Baghdad to achieve security in the face of the chaos his own policies and obstinance have helped create, then it appears he has miscalculated by half (about 18 – 20,000 troops) the minimum number of troops his own supporters think is needed. That's based on a comparison with the minimum requirements and recommendations of General Keane and Frederick Kagan, the original authors of the "surge" plan. Greg Djerejian provides a detailed comparison of their assessment versus the President's plan, and Glenn Greenwald provides further perspective here.

Of course, if Steve Gilliard is right that the US plans on taking on Sadr's Mahdi Army soon, then the number of additional troops being sent is even more deficient, because the Keane/Kagan plan explicitly argues against trying to do that while simultaneously moving troops into Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods.

The reply might be, "But our Generals have now endorsed the plan, haven't they?" Well, if you're a general who started with the position that no additional troops were needed in the first place, or would undermine the policy of inducing the Iraqis to assume responsibility, then it would logically follow that any increase in US troops would be "enough." You'd have no incentive to argue the President's plan did not offer enough troops.

Second, and more important, nothing we have seen or heard from this President in his public appearances and utterances over the last six years supports the notion that he is anything other than an inarticulate, illogical and muddleheaded thinker who is incapable of putting together an honest, realistic and coherent assessment of anything as complicated as Iraq. After four years of Mr. Bush's Iraq lies, delusions and failures, I doubt the American people need any further proof of this, especially when the lives of American troops are the evidence. But this White House thinks it's okay to keep spinning away.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley