Juicy Bits

I’m the Decider—Aren’t I?

Juicy bits from Bob Woodward’s latest book on George W. Bush.

Bob Woodward’s first three books on George W. Bush were national best-sellers, and it’s all but certain that his newly released fourth will be the talk of your next cocktail party. The War Within details the commander in chief’s backseat approach to the Iraq war. It reveals a sharp disagreement between Bush and Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq before Gen. David Petraeus, over how to assess combat progress and suggests that many key decisions regarding the troop surge were made not by Bush but by National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Woodward also describes three factors other than the surge that have led to a drop in violence. To help you keep up with political gossip, Slate has put together a reading guide that will fast-forward you straight to the juiciest bits.

The Real Decider

Although Bush famously described himself as “the decider,” Woodward makes the case that, leading up to the surge, the real decider was National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

Page 8: Asked about his relationship with the president, Hadley told Woodward: “If I feel it, he feels it. If he feels it, I feel it.” When Woodward read this bold statement to Bush in Hadley’s presence, Bush agreed. “I’m watching him all the time,” added Hadley. “I’m watching him watch me all the time,” Bush responded. “Hadley didn’t need permission to walk into the Oval Office. He could stop by or call anytime.”

Page 102: By the summer of 2006, Bush was worried that the administration’s strategy in Iraq wasn’t working. He told Woodward during an interview that “the fix-it was Stephen J. Hadley. … Look, here’s the thing. Hadley knows me well enough that we don’t need a major seminar to figure out that we got to do something different. So he starts a very thorough process and keeps me posted.”

Page 177: In October of 2006, Hadley proposed starting “an informal internal review” with a small group of NSC staff to get the war back on track. Bush gave him carte blanche. “Do it,” the president said. Later, Bush tells Woodward: “Let’s just cut to the chase here. Hadley drove a lot of this. Why? Because I trust he and his team a lot.”

Pages 320-321: Bush told Woodward he should write a book about Hadley: “[I]t ought to be ‘The Life and Times of Stephen J. Hadley, Great American Patriot.’ … When you’ve got a complex problem to describe on major national security issues, unleash Hadley. That ought to be the book: ‘Unleash Hadley.’ “

Page 27:Bush trusted Hadley in part because the feeling was mutual. “The guy’s a real visionary,” Hadley told Woodward. “He defies the conventional wisdom by his boldness. He’s unapologetic. He sits there and reaffirms it, and clearly relishes it. And, you know, it traumatizes people. And they think, ‘What’s he doing … this cowboy?’ … [But] those of us who are here [in the White House] believe in him. Believe in him and believe he has greatness in him.”

Bush and Gen. Casey

Although Bush always backed Gen. George Casey in public, Woodward argues that each man mistrusted the other.

Page 4: Casey once told a colleague in private that Bush reflected the “radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, ‘Kill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you’ll succeed.’ “

Page 6: Bush infuriated Casey by suggesting he wasn’t doing enough militarily. “George, we’re not playing for a tie,” Bush once told Casey. “I want to make sure we all understand this, don’t we?” Casey later summarized Bush’s approach as: “If you’re not out there hooking and jabbing with American forces every day, you’re not fighting the right fight.”

Page 13: In interviews with Woodward, Bush lent credence to Casey’s concerns: “What frustrated me is that from my perspective, it looked like we were taking casualties without fighting back because our commanders are loath to talk about our battlefield victories.” He’d ask about kills and captures to “find out whether or not we’re fighting back. Because the perception is that our guys are dying and [the insurgents are] not. Because we don’t put out our numbers. We don’t have a tally. … [I]f I’m sitting here watching the casualties come in, I’d at least like to know whether or not our soldiers are fighting.”

Spying on Maliki

Page 382: U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t trust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, so they spied on him. “We know everything he says,” one source told Woodward. A second source explained that Maliki suspected this surveillance and took countermeasures. Woodward writes: “In some specific cases … human sources had given senior U.S. officials a heads-up on positions, plans, maneuvers and secret actions of the prime minister, members of his staff and others in the Iraqi government.”

Bush’s Managerial Style

Page 5: Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, would watch Bush’s body language to figure out what he was thinking. “What do you think?” Casey would ask. “Did we get through today?” “Oh, no, I don’t think so. … I think the body language was bad on that one,” Abizaid would reply.

Page 7: Bush kept his generals on their toes. Shortly after Katrina, Bush told Casey and his staff via video conference, “Guys, you’re doing a heck of a job.” He added, “But then, I said the same thing to Brownie.” Then the screen went blank.

Page 407: Bush would often become impatient and bully his colleagues. Once, when Condoleezza Rice raised a State Department budget issue at a meeting, Bush snapped: “Now’s not the time and place for you to be advocating the interests of your building. I told you, I don’t want to hear about that.” And he’d often push his advisers to cut short their presentations: “Speed it up. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

Page 319: Bush described himself as “a contemplative person” but “not a brooder.” He also bragged that he made up his mind about the troop surge during the busy holiday meet-and-greet season. “This was a very, for me, a very all-consuming decision. Now, this is a period of time [the winter of 2006] where I’ve got, I don’t know how many, holiday receptions. I mean, it’d be interesting for you to know. We probably shook hands with 9,000 people when they came through.”

Why Violence Is Down

Pages 380-381: Woodward argues that “at least three other factors were as, or even more, important than the surge” in quelling sectarian violence. First, U.S. intelligence agencies launched a series of operations enabling them to “locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups such as al Qaeda.” Derek Harvey, an intelligence expert, said that the operations were so effective they gave him “orgasms,” but Woodward can’t go into detail because these missions are still top-secret. Second, the U.S. military started working with tribal leaders to build local security forces and set up armed neighborhood watch groups to patrol their communities. Third, as is well-known, Muqtada Sadr told his Mahdi Army to suspend operations.

No Love for the Maverick

Page 318: John McCain was pressing for more troops as far back as 2003, but in interviews with Woodward, Bush refused to give the senator credit for his foresight. Woodward asked, “Do you wish you’d listened to him earlier?” Bush replied: “The question really is, should you have put more troops in earlier? Whether it’s listening to McCain or listening to anybody else. And history is just going to have to judge.”

Page 344: After visiting Iraq in early April 2007, McCain said at a press conference that “[t]hings are getting better in Iraq, and I am pleased with the progress that has been made.” Behind closed doors, however, he made clear that he wasn’t optimistic. He told Condoleezza Rice, “We may be about to lose the second war in my lifetime.”