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The day he decided on Iraq surge

This excerpt from Bob Woodward's latest book, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, describes the scene at President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch on Dec. 27, 2006, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice realizes that the president has decided to order the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.

At 4 p.m. that day, Rice arrived in Crawford to have a private dinner with the president and his wife, Laura. The rest of the national security team was coming down the next morning. Before dinner, Bush and Rice sat on a bench in front of the president's ranch house.

She said she could tell that he had come, in his own mind, to the belief that he had to do a surge. "I think you've got to do this," she said. "You're going to, aren't you?"

"Are you now for it?" the president asked.

"Well," she said. "I've never been against more forces." She simply wanted to know what their mission would be.

"Are you telling me that you're now for it?"

"I think you probably have to do it," she replied. "But this is going to be one of the most consequential decisions of all time. You are probably, because of the things that you've chosen to do, one of the four or five most consequential presidents — maybe in the history, certainly of the last 100 years, but maybe in our history. And you have to think about how you're going to do this and hold the country together. Because consequential presidents can't be divisive."

"I have to do the right thing," he said.

"Yeah, I know that," she said. "But what we've got to do is, we've got to find a way to bring as many people as we can along." The surge was not going to be popular. The country and Congress were expecting a drawdown. So it was going to be important how he explained it. She told him that he couldn't say, "I've made this decision, and to hell with all of you who disagree." That simply wouldn't work. It would have to be "This was hard. And people have good reason to be concerned. This has been harder than we ever thought, and we've done a lot of things wrong, but we cannot lose in Iraq. And I don't think Americans want to lose in Iraq."

He would have to be conciliatory, she said. He would have to acknowledge that those who disagreed with him had valid arguments. He indicated that he agreed.

"What if it doesn't work?" she asked. "What do we do then?"

Bush didn't answer.

Such an addition of forces, she said, depends heavily on (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-) Maliki. Did the president have a feel for whether Maliki was really up to this?

Bush said he would talk to Maliki again.

There is a very specific set of things, Rice said, that we could ask him to do that would be measurable and visible. She returned to what Plan B might be. "If we do it and it doesn't work," she said, "it'll be the last bullet. The last card." This is our ace, she said. She figured the total surge would be about 30,000, when support troops were included.

"If you play 30,000 American forces, put out 30,000 American forces and things don't change, what do you do then?" If the violence doesn't come down, she said, and the fabric of the society doesn't stop tearing, then what would be the argument for the continuation of the war in Iraq?"

Bush didn't answer, and they headed inside for dinner.

"I'm not sure I bought the last card concept," Bush told me later. "First of all, to me the last card would be to pull out and hope for the best. Hope the thing, you know, fizzled out, the enflamed (sic) sectarianism just petered out on its own energy as opposed to exploding inside the capital and we sat there and watched it happen. To me, that's the last card."

"Does the president ever have a last card?" I asked.

"That's a really interesting question," Bush replied. He paused for a few seconds. "No. There's always another card."

The day he decided on Iraq surge 09/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 5:50pm]
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