This is the real story of how George W. Bush came to double-down on Iraq in the highest stakes gamble of his entire presidency. Drawing on extensive interviews with nearly thirty senior officials, including President Bush himself, The Last Card offers an unprecedented look into the process by which Bush overruled much of the military leadership and many of his trusted advisors, and authorized the deployment of roughly 30,000 additional troops to the warzone in a bid to save Iraq from collapse in 2007.
The adoption of a new counterinsurgency strategy and surge of new troops into Iraq altered the American posture in the Middle East for a decade to come. In The Last Card we have access to the deliberations among the decision-makers on Bush's national security team as they embarked on that course. In their own words, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and others, recount the debates and disputes that informed the process as President Bush weighed the historical lessons of Vietnam against the perceived strategic imperatives in the Middle East. For a president who had earlier vowed never to dictate military strategy to generals, the deliberations in the Oval Office and Situation Room in 2006 constituted a trying and fateful moment.
Even a president at war is bound by rules of consensus and limited by the risk of constitutional crisis. What is to be achieved in the warzone must also be possible in Washington, D.C. Bush risked losing public esteem and courted political ruin by refusing to disengage from the costly war in Iraq. The Last Card is a portrait of leadership—firm and daring if flawed—in the Bush White House.
The personal perspectives from men and women who served at the White House, Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon, and in Baghdad, are complemented by critical assessments written by leading scholars in the field of international security. Taken together, the candid interviews and probing essays are a first draft of the history of the surge and new chapter in the history of the American presidency.
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About the Author
Timothy Andrews Sayle is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Jeffrey A. Engel is Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of What Good is Grand Strategy? William Inboden is Executive Director and William Powers, Jr., Chair of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin.
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America's War in Iraq
Two years after he stood before a banner that read "mission accomplished," George W. Bush's war in Iraq dragged on. Military officials and intelligence analysts warned of a growing insurgency as early as late 2003. Others hoped political developments would slowly, but surely, overtake opposition, bringing peace and stability to the country.
Mixed signals abounded for any who sought to predict Iraq's future. Sectarian violence spiked anew by the summer of 2005, especially in Baghdad, and with particular barbarity. Political milestones also dotted the landscape, including November's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," the White House's effort to shore up bipartisan support for the war through a clearer explanation of US policy in Iraq. We plan to "clear, hold, and build," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress. Nationwide elections in December suggesting improved governance in Iraq might yet, she and other administration officials hoped, drain momentum from the current wave of violence.
American commanders in Iraq, and Defense Department officials in Washington, disagreed with Rice's optimistic characterization, revealing that American strategy was anything but agreed upon in Washington.
The Insurgency Emerges
Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, US Army, director of operations, Joint Staff: [The insurgency] was unanticipated. We didn't expect it. So from the summer of '03 to sort of the summer or fall of '05, the American forces, the multinational forces, were going through a major transition internally, from what we thought we were going to be doing in Iraq to what we were actually doing. This was not a counterinsurgency army; we didn't have a counterinsurgency army. We developed one on the fly, under fire, between the summer of '03 and the summer of '05, and that's not pretty, and there were a lot of mistakes made, and the transition was not smooth.
General John Abizaid, US Army, commander, US Central Command: I was a deputy commander during the invasion of Iraq, and after the invasion of Iraq I became the CENTCOM [United States Central Command] commander, and this was about three months afterward, and we were in the process of pulling forces out on the orders of the secretary of defense. We were going to leave a very small, residual force behind, and it was clear that that was not going to work, so we had to reorganize the force.
John Hannah, assistant to the vice president: In my own view, you know I distinctly recall in late 2003, certainly after the UN bombings in August of 2003, after the bombing of the head of the Supreme Council [for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim], his assassination by car-bombing in Najaf, around that same time in 2003. One has a sense that things are not going well, that something is emerging here in terms of the insurgency that looks like it could be a strategic threat to the American effort in Iraq, if and only if, because by that time already, it seemed to me at least, that you had a steady drip, drip, drip, of American casualties, virtually every single day or every other day; one, two, three Americans being killed, and that just seemed to be that over time, would be entirely corrosive of the effort. It wasn't what the American people had been prepared for, and I didn't think you would be able to sustain that over time in terms of achieving our objectives in Iraq. I think that only sort of escalates, and that feeling of unease continues throughout 2004, 2005. There's always a hope in that period, that the political progress that we are seeing being made, in terms of handing over sovereignty back to the Iraqis in 2004, in terms of the series of elections we held through the end of 2005, that that political process is going to be the thing that kind of stanches the insurgency and allows us to begin building that vision of a more representative, inclusive Iraq that is going to be an ally of the United States in the broader region and the broader war on terror. And yet, I think there's a lot of unease in the government, that as each of those milestones passes and the insurgency only appears to worsen, that that in fact is not the case, that there is a fundamental problem of first order, in getting on top of the security situation in Iraq and understanding what the insurgency is and how it might be defeated. And until you can provide Iraqis, at least the vast majority of the population, that fundamental sense of security, our ability to marginalize the insurgency and really proceed forward to develop that model of a representative Iraq is not going to get very far.
Richard Cheney, vice president: [There were] arguments being made that ... there was an inconsistency between what you needed to create a democracy and the role of the military, having a strong military. From the perspective of that view, that the [Iraqi] military was a negative, the military was a force not for good, but something you had to make certain didn't interfere with the political process domestically, inside Iraq. Some of the early debates, as we look back on them, began to take place around that subject. We ended up with the belief, for example, as I recall, in the interior ministry, and if we just go through and get rid of the bad guys at the top, the Baathists, the Saddam Hussein lovers, pull them aside, then you'd have a bureaucracy there and you could get good people in charge, and that unit would begin to function the way it should in the government. It turned out that wasn't valid. So there was an inherent conflict to some extent, and when we got into this debate of what comes first, the military or the civilian, and then if you go back to the original arguments, I think some of those occurred in that first year, and in the immediate aftermath of that, with this debate that wasn't really much of a debate, the [Iraqi] military ended up being basically disbanded and the troops went home. At the same time, we're trying to make progress on the political front, but they were viewed as inconsistent or incompatible somehow, and we had to get around that obviously, if we were going to before we could solve the problem.
Philip Zelikow, counselor of the Department of State: President Bush was passionately interested in what was going on in Iraq, cared deeply about it. He would chair NSC meetings on Iraq virtually every single week, without fail. He was asking Meghan [O'Sullivan, assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan] to write him, like, daily notes, like what happened in Iraq every day. He's intensely curious about what's going on. ... But despite scores of presidential meetings on Iraq, these readings — these meetings, by '05, had acquired a stylized, routine quality. ... How can you meet on Iraq forty or fifty times and not discuss these basic issues? And then you have to kind of understand the stylized and routinized way the process was working then, in which ... you do the briefing on all the things we're doing, and all the little tactical things that go with that, which can easily burn up all your time. And the dog barks and the caravan moves on.
Hannah: I guess the thing that perplexes me more than anything else is probably just how long it took, when there was obviously, again, this unspoken feeling amongst a lot of smart people inside of the US government, not to mention outside of the US government, who just knew in their bones that things were not going right in Iraq, in that 2004, 2005, early 2006 period, and yet it took, you know at least two years, if not longer, to begin righting that ship of state and begin taking the decisions that led to the surge and the necessary course correction. You know, figuring out why that took so long is, like I said, a bit of a mystery to me. ... I'm speculating, but based on some knowledge, that there was, in the administration, and I think properly to some extent, a strong desire and urge to defer to our commanders in the field. In particular, somebody like General Abizaid was, I think, a really strongly respected figure who, if you asked any of those principals, John Abizaid understood the Middle East in general and probably understood Iraq specifically, far better than anybody else sitting in that Situation Room. He was the man who had the responsibility of trying to carry out the president's orders and achieve the president's mission in Iraq. These guys were the experts at the art of warfare, and therefore, I think there was, properly, a strong urge to give them a lot of authority and to stick with them and back them up.
My view is that that was the wrong strategy, and yet taking on the military commanders in that way, I think has got to be a difficult thing for a president to bring himself around to doing. Again, even as you have this track of the security situation deteriorating so steadily and dramatically over time, you did have milestones being achieved at some level, on the political front, and that allowed you to kind of attach yourself to those things and always believe that just the next milestone. Get us through this political transition to Iraq, to a permanently elected parliament and prime minister, and everything on the security situation will become much more manageable and we'll then begin to get on top of that because the politics will have moved to the place where it itself will begin to become a major factor undermining the insurgency and taking the energy out of the insurgency. And so it just took a matter of time. The US government is this huge bureaucracy, and fighting a war is no different, perhaps even more intense, than any other sort of normal events, and trying to turn that around when you have that much at stake and that many people involved in the process, I just think became a very difficult thing to do.
Abizaid: I went to Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and the president, and I said ... it was my opinion that we were in a long war situation and that there would be no early victory anytime soon, that it was going to be a long, hard military slog, but the real work that had to be done was political work. ... There was a lot of consternation about whether we called it "insurgency," not on my part, but on the part of many of the political leaders. But I thought it was important to make sure the political leadership had an idea that was going on. ... I don't think it was a surprise to them, they just didn't want to hear it. That's one of the great benefits of being a military commander; your job is to give military advice, and you have to tell them what you think. You try to do it privately, and Secretary Rumsfeld was very unhappy with me when at a press conference I used the term "insurgency." And then we went through a period of back-and-forth over whether it was an insurgency or not, and finally I said to him, "Look, Mr. Secretary, we're fighting an insurgency. A counter-insurgency. You can call it what you want to call it, but I have to fight it the way our troops know to fight it, and it's a counterinsurgency, and those are the tactics, techniques, and procedures we're using, and I'm not going to change how I talk about it." They were using terms like "dead-enders." ... This was really not so much the president as it was Secretary Rumsfeld. ... When I told the president I thought it was a long war, I laid out a briefing for why I thought that. I told them I thought there was a struggle here that just wasn't about Iraq; it was about the struggle against Islamic extremism. And he had me go to all of our allies and explain to them the long-war strategy. No one liked it. It's not that they disagreed with the premise, but they didn't like the idea of a long war.
Though Iraqi politics frequently concerned the Bush administration, the president had politics of his own to worry about in the fall of 2004. Iraq played a central role in the close-fought election between Bush and Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry. Bush won, and as is commonly the case, key personnel retired or shifted responsibilities for the second term. Secretary of State Colin Powell retired. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice took his place. Her deputy, Stephen Hadley, replaced her at the White House, overseeing at once an optimistic yet trepidatious period in the president's international agenda. On the one hand, Iraq's future, and with it American blood, treasure, and prestige, remained in doubt. On the other, Bush proclaimed at his second inaugural a new "freedom agenda," promising the United States would strive to end tyranny around the world.
"We are led, by events and common sense," he proclaimed, "to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."
No president had ever promised something so ambitious. Even as the situation on the ground in Iraq, the signature foreign policy arena from his first term, continued to unravel, American strategists engaged in a critical if indecisive debate: whether security would flow from political stability in the occupied country, or whether political instability would lead to an increasing loss of security. More ominously, was Washington's strategy producing neither security nor stability? Bush was unsure which path to follow as his second term began, nor was he convinced he had yet assembled the right team for the job. Indeed, having changed leadership at the State Department and the NSC, his staff reached out to a potential new leader for the Pentagon.
Stephen Hadley, national security advisor: I remember a meeting with [Robert] Blackwill [deputy national security advisor for strategic planning until 2004] right after I became national security advisor, who said to me, "Your number one job is to get Iraq right. We owe it to the men and women in uniform. It is important to our country, and it's important to this president because this president's legacy is going to be about how he managed Iraq." So with that ringing in my ears for four years, whatever the other distractions, Iraq was always going to be at the top of my agenda.
J. D. Crouch, deputy national security advisor: I think about the period of '05 really, to some degree, as one of quite a bit of hope and optimism. ... There was kind of a general sense, amidst problems as well, that things were heading politically in a positive direction. There were also counter sides, and you know, one of the things that ... is difficult [is] to sort of read the distinction between those two things. We're also getting, I think, fairly positive views from the leadership team that was forward deployed, Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad and the commanding general ... George Casey.
David Gordon, vice chair, National Intelligence Council: In late 2005, we saw some contradictory things happening, actually. Late 2005 was a time when the sectarian part of the conflict was really beginning to get a lot more intense. A lot more intense. But late 2005 was also a time when finally the efforts, particularly by the [Central Intelligence] Agency, in Anbar Province and western Iraq to mobilize forces against AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] were beginning to gain some traction. So late 2005 was a funny time, because there were some interesting positive things going on. They were basically not in the public domain, so the picture that most people were getting was one that was pretty negative. My view was that there were some very contradictory things going on. But ... I think there was a lot of uncertainty about the military strategy in particular.
Cheney: My recollection is that as we went through '05, a couple of things stand out. One were the elections, worked basically on the theory that if we could get elections, a democratically elected government, turn things over to the Iraqis as soon as they were able to put together a government, a functioning government.
Part of the difficulty was we were having to deal with the Iraq, Shia-Sunni conflict, and we were in a position where, because of the progress we were making politically, elections, you end up in a situation where you have the country ... that had been governed by the Sunnis, power shifting to the Shia, there were more of them, they that won the elections, and that complicated the progress toward our objectives, and I don't think that we went into it with as comprehensive an understanding of the politics inside of Iraq. I think sometimes that was reflected in the military view, as our military view, that the State Department or the civilians in the business couldn't get it right and therefore they were having to deal with a very difficult situation. I think our military, based on tradition, based upon the way they're trained and what their focus is, they win wars. They don't have a heavy emphasis on setting up and running governments, and so I think that there was a natural built-in conflict there.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
Editorial Note, vii,
Introduction: The American Occupation of Iraq by 2006 and the Search for a New Strategy Timothy Andrews Sayle and Hal Brands, 1,
1. America's War in Iraq: 2003–2005, 25,
2. This Strategy Is Not Working: January–June 2006, 46,
3. Together Forward? June–August 2006, 74,
4. Silos and Stovepipes: September–October 2006, 89,
5. Setting the Stage: Early November 2006, 113,
6. A Sweeping Internal Review: Mid–Late November 2006, 130,
7. Choosing to Surge: December 2006, 153,
8. What Kind of Surge? Late December 2006–January 2007, 182,
9. How the "Surge" Came to Be Stephen Hadley, Meghan O'Sullivan, and Peter Feaver, 207,
10. Iraq, Vietnam, and the Meaning of Victory Andrew Preston, 239,
11. Decisions and Politics Robert Jervis, 260,
12. Blood, Treasure, and Time: Strategy-Making for the Surge Richard K. Betts, 277,
13. Strategy and the Surge Joshua Rovner, 296,
14. Civil-Military Relations and the 2006 Iraq Surge Kori Schake, 314,
15. The Bush Administration's Decision to Surge in Iraq: A Long and Winding Road Richard H. Immerman, 328,
16. The President as Policy Entrepreneur: George W. Bush and the 2006 Iraq Strategy Review Colin Dueck, 344,
Appendix A. Cast of Characters, 361,
Appendix B. Time Line, 363,
What People are Saying About This
"This book does not disappoint! It nicely illuminates the complexities and challenges of crisis decision-makingI don't know of another project quite like it."
"The Last Cardis an exhaustively researched account of how President George W. Bush made the decision to conduct the Surge in Iraq. Readers will find this a gripping description of how the president made one of the toughest calls of his time in office."
"The Last Card provides an extraordinarily useful collective oral history of the decision-making leading to the 'surge,' and offers a set of incisive essays that critique and assess the decision and process that led to it."