Dubya’s Smart Decision

Someone close to the now-former president once explained to me his (the president’s) most debilitating character flaw. A rather crowded field, you might think, but the answer, rooted in George W. Bush’s overindulged demand for absolute loyalty, did manage to … Read More

By / January 20, 2009

Someone close to the now-former president once explained to me his (the president’s) most debilitating character flaw. A rather crowded field, you might think, but the answer, rooted in George W. Bush’s overindulged demand for absolute loyalty, did manage to envelope all the other usual suspects like arrogance, dismissiveness, anti-intellectualism, and parochialism. This well-connected person phrased it like this: "When you decide that six or seven people have turned on you, and that they’re now your mortal enemies, that’s not a problem. But when you get up to a 100 million or so Americans who’ve become mortal enemies–that’s a problem."

History will do its work in evaluating the Bush Era once the furies and recriminations have ebbed. (The late Samuel Huntington would have eloquently termed the last five years of angry opposition to this administration a "creedal passion period," now giving way to the level-headed pragmatism that is our nation’s state of equilibrium.) But if vice can be transmuted into virtue, and if Bush can be said to have got anything right during his time in office, surely his defiance of the "realist" prescription for salvaging Iraq in 2006 must record as a triumph.

Recall the almost universal criticism that the "surge" elicited when it was first announced, against a then almost universally embraced Hamilton-Baker plan for quitting Iraq militarily and letting unprepared Iraqis–and other regional dictatorships–sort out a mess of our own making. Andrew Sullivan said the surge was a lost cause, something that should have been tried three years earlier, when we first invaded. Joe Klein and Frank Rich had little time for a rethink of a counterinsurgency policy wedded to an injection of more young servicemen, even though Klein was the most perceptive in analyzing the true nature of that policy. Even Christopher Hitchens, later a champion of the surge, was, as I recall, initially dour about its prospect for success, although he was and has been steadfast in defending the moral and strategic imperative of ending the regime of Saddam Hussein.

I bring all this up for two reasons. The first is that Peter Beinart took the occasion of this week’s Goodbye to All That gleefulness to give credit where he rightly saw it was due, noting that since Gen. David Petraeus’ brilliant war plan–really a local policing one–was implemented, the number of Iraq war dead has dropped from a staggering 3,475 to 500, and American troop fatalities have fallen to nearly a sixth of what they were. Adds Beinart: 

[I]f Iraq overall represents a massive stain on Bush’s record, his decision to increase America’s troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour. Given the mood in Washington and the country as a whole, it would have been far easier to do the opposite. Politically, Bush took the path of most resistance. He endured an avalanche of scorn, and now he has been vindicated. He was not only right; he was courageous.

The second reason I bring this up is amour propre–both the institutional and personal strains. Noxious little neocon that I am, I spent a few solid hours of my time trying to convince my fellow editors that the surge had a chance and should be given one. The result was a piece in Jewcy that elicited its own share of scorn and derision–though not, thankfully, from those editors–when it first appeared:

In Counterinsurgency, Petraeus describes an effective clear-hold-build mission as more akin to urban policing than battlefield combat: Think New York City’s “broken windows” anti-crime initiative. The central paradox of counterinsurgency is that it applies proportionately less force with greater numbers. The goal is to safeguard the native population from pitiless and desperate aggressors without actively hunting down and killing them. For this reason it’s known as “war at the graduate level.”

Here’s how it will work: In the “clearing” phase, Iraqis and Americans will share planning and reconnaissance responsibilities. They’ll establish surveillance routes together and then “sweep” local housing and apartment blocks searching for signs of insurgent activity. Civilians prefer to have their doors knocked on by Yanks than by fellow Iraqis, who may moonlight as sectarian partisans or death squad riffraff. Iraqi troops will serve as cultural and linguistic liaisons and learn the delicate art of questioning civilians. Peace, in other words, will have to be a polyglot phenomenon.


The lessons of Tal Afar, Petraeus’s expertise in clear-hold-build tactics, and Kagan’s proposals as to the necessary number of troops and where those troops should be focused—all of these are crucial planks of a program that has been dismissed as uninsipired and feckless rather than honestly assessed.

Still, when the president warned that the year ahead would be “bloody and violent,” he acknowledged the grim reality that the emergence of a viable post-Saddam state will require extreme forbearance on the part of the American and Iraqi peoples. And so it will.

This isn’t intended as a nyah-nyah (well, maybe a little), but rather as a mild suggestion. It took Democrats too long to acknowledge the obvious success of the surge because doing so, as Beinart points out, might have compromised their candidate’s chances in November. Yet this denial might also have done something far worse: encourage a hasty and irresponsible withdrawal from Iraq at a time when the war looked to be finally going our way.

The rate at which the politics of the negative can become conventional wisdom has increased exponentially since the creation of the blogosphere. Conservatives should take heed from the faults of liberal excess, or what is sometimes known as Bush Derangement Syndrome. If Nemesis should stalk future Obama policies, or look as if it’s doing, don’t succumb to partisan pettiness or wishful defeatism because you don’t don’t like the man pedding the policy. We may not be driven to other "quagmires" by the current president, much less to ones that result in the loss of American lives, but you can be sure that we will be presented with initiatives that are hotly contested and reviled in some quarters. The president’s willingness to take the necessary risks to see them through will be susceptible to popular opinion.

A leader who goes against consensus because he’s adopted a siege mentality or a martyrdom complex is no healthier than one who goes with consensus because he’s afraid his aura will fade. Honesty and dispassionate appraisal from his constituents, and the pundits they rely on for their information, are useful checks on either executive shortcoming.

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