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02-04-2007, 08:10 AM
By Holly Bailey, Richard Wolffe and Evan Thomas
Newsweek
Feb. 12, 2007 issue - President Bush was reaching out—sort of. It was Dec. 7, the day after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group had delivered its recommendation that the administration begin to tamp down its war effort in Iraq and turn to diplomacy. Bush had invited the leadership of the newly Democratic Congress to the Oval Office, a sign that he was perhaps willing to listen to new ideas.

The president did seem mildly chastened by his party's defeat in the midterm elections—but not inclined to change course dramatically in Iraq.

He compared his situation to the crisis Harry Truman faced in the early days of the cold war. Then, as now, Bush said, the United States confronted a dangerous ideological foe. Truman had answered with the Truman Doctrine, a vow to protect free peoples wherever they were threatened with communist domination. Truman's policies had been unpopular in their time, but "history showed he was right," said Bush, according to Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

The Truman comparison didn't seem quite right to Durbin. When the president went to him for comment, Durbin voiced his doubts. "Harry Truman had allies," Durbin pointed out. The Truman administration had helped create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to contain communism. After Britain withdraws its troops later this year, Durbin says he told Bush, "we will be virtually alone in what we are trying to accomplish there." Durbin says that Bush did not become angry, but he did seem irritated and "insisted that this was an ideological struggle, which wasn't my point at all," says Durbin. "He was very defensive." (White House spokesman Tony Snow confirmed the exchange between Bush and Durbin but said "the president was not really trying to compare himself to Harry Truman so much as to talk about the duration and nature of the struggle.")

Bush's grasp of history may have been a little shaky, but there is no doubting the force of his conviction. Bush wants his legacy to be the long-term defeat of Islamic extremism. Indeed, senior officials close to Bush who did not wish to be identified discussing private conversations with the president tell NEWSWEEK that Bush's plan after he leaves the White House is to continue to promote the spread of democracy in the Middle East by inviting world leaders to his own policy institute, to be built alongside his presidential library.

Many presidents find solace in comparing themselves to their predecessors, the only people who could truly understand the job at hand. Truman is a favorite, particularly for presidents with low poll numbers. By 1952, the last year of his presidency, Truman's approval rating sank as low as 22 percent, about 10 points lower than Bush's. David McCullough, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Truman," tells NEWSWEEK that, faced with an uphill re-election fight in 1992, George H.W. Bush invited McCullough to the White House to talk about how Truman had beaten the odds in the 1948 campaign (unlike Truman, Bush lost his re-election bid). The two Roosevelts and Lincoln, of course, are popular role models. Bill Clinton, who spent many hours in office fretting over his legacy, lamented that he might not rank highly because he lacked the opportunity to be a "war president"—perhaps overlooking in his meditations the impact of the Lewinsky scandal.

An avid reader of history and presidential biographies, President George W. Bush after 9/11 felt a kinship with war leaders, including Britain's Winston Churchill. In the last year or so, as Bush's approval ratings have tumbled and the Iraq quagmire has deepened, the president has increasingly invoked Truman. His aides say that Bush wants to be remembered for creating a new and effective framework for fighting the war on terror, just as Truman did for the cold war. That may be so, though no one would put the Department of Homeland Security on the same plane as the Marshall Plan.

Senator Durbin tells NEWSWEEK that the better historical model for Bush is Lyndon Johnson, who was overwhelmed by Vietnam. But that comparison is not quite right, either. Bush has said that he does not want to be like LBJ, who micromanaged the Vietnam War right down to picking bombing targets. Presidents, Bush has said, should leave war fighting to the generals. This is Bush's misreading of history: Lincoln constantly second-guessed his generals; Roosevelt and Churchill plotted strategy in the White House Map Room and John F. Kennedy was the strongest voice in the "ExComm," his council of advisers, during the Cuban missile crisis.

Those who see the war as a growing disaster might be surprised by Bush's ability to remain upbeat. When he visits the families of the dead, or sees the casualties come home from the battlefront, doesn't he have crises of confidence? Doesn't he wonder if he's made a terrible mistake that has cost the lives of more than 3,000 Americans and more than 54,000 Iraqis, not to mention the stature and prestige of the United States? Those close to Bush say that such questions misunderstand a fundamental aspect of his character: he doesn't get tangled up thinking about his own mistakes in the raw, recent times of his own making. "He's the least backward-looking person I have ever known in my life," says a senior staffer who didn't want to be named discussing the president's emotional state. Bush laments the casualties, says the aide, but never regrets the decision to go to war.

As more details emerge after Bush leaves office, we may learn that he was not quite so detached, that he privately agonized over decisions. A reconstruction of Bush's past six months as commander in chief shows that he has taken a greater interest in the details of the war in Iraq than he has before. Still, he has repeatedly followed his own certitudes over the advice of others. As the war and his poll numbers worsened, Bush did, for the first time, begin to talk to soldiers with on-the-ground experience and civilian experts with a range of views. But it appears that he was at least two years too late, and that he has somewhat simplistically and unrealistically narrowed his options to victory or defeat. He has kept his focus on the big picture, the great march of freedom, from decades past and decades into the imagined future, as a way to insulate himself against the horrors of the moment.

The Bush White House has long counted on democracy to produce a viable Iraqi government. Last June, when Bush traveled to Baghdad to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, he returned optimistic. The president told reporters on Air Force One that he found Maliki to be tough, direct and truthful. Bush was buoyed by the lack of sectarian finger-pointing in his talks with Maliki and his cabinet.

Senator Durbin tells NEWSWEEK that the better historical model for Bush is Lyndon Johnson, who was overwhelmed by Vietnam. But that comparison is not quite right, either. Bush has said that he does not want to be like LBJ, who micromanaged the Vietnam War right down to picking bombing targets. Presidents, Bush has said, should leave war fighting to the generals. This is Bush's misreading of history: Lincoln constantly second-guessed his generals; Roosevelt and Churchill plotted strategy in the White House Map Room and John F. Kennedy was the strongest voice in the "ExComm," his council of advisers, during the Cuban missile crisis.

Those who see the war as a growing disaster might be surprised by Bush's ability to remain upbeat. When he visits the families of the dead, or sees the casualties come home from the battlefront, doesn't he have crises of confidence? Doesn't he wonder if he's made a terrible mistake that has cost the lives of more than 3,000 Americans and more than 54,000 Iraqis, not to mention the stature and prestige of the United States? Those close to Bush say that such questions misunderstand a fundamental aspect of his character: he doesn't get tangled up thinking about his own mistakes in the raw, recent times of his own making. "He's the least backward-looking person I have ever known in my life," says a senior staffer who didn't want to be named discussing the president's emotional state. Bush laments the casualties, says the aide, but never regrets the decision to go to war.

As more details emerge after Bush leaves office, we may learn that he was not quite so detached, that he privately agonized over decisions. A reconstruction of Bush's past six months as commander in chief shows that he has taken a greater interest in the details of the war in Iraq than he has before. Still, he has repeatedly followed his own certitudes over the advice of others. As the war and his poll numbers worsened, Bush did, for the first time, begin to talk to soldiers with on-the-ground experience and civilian experts with a range of views. But it appears that he was at least two years too late, and that he has somewhat simplistically and unrealistically narrowed his options to victory or defeat. He has kept his focus on the big picture, the great march of freedom, from decades past and decades into the imagined future, as a way to insulate himself against the horrors of the moment.

The Bush White House has long counted on democracy to produce a viable Iraqi government. Last June, when Bush traveled to Baghdad to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, he returned optimistic. The president told reporters on Air Force One that he found Maliki to be tough, direct and truthful. Bush was buoyed by the lack of sectarian finger-pointing in his talks with Maliki and his cabinet.

Senator Durbin tells NEWSWEEK that the better historical model for Bush is Lyndon Johnson, who was overwhelmed by Vietnam. But that comparison is not quite right, either. Bush has said that he does not want to be like LBJ, who micromanaged the Vietnam War right down to picking bombing targets. Presidents, Bush has said, should leave war fighting to the generals. This is Bush's misreading of history: Lincoln constantly second-guessed his generals; Roosevelt and Churchill plotted strategy in the White House Map Room and John F. Kennedy was the strongest voice in the "ExComm," his council of advisers, during the Cuban missile crisis.

Those who see the war as a growing disaster might be surprised by Bush's ability to remain upbeat. When he visits the families of the dead, or sees the casualties come home from the battlefront, doesn't he have crises of confidence? Doesn't he wonder if he's made a terrible mistake that has cost the lives of more than 3,000 Americans and more than 54,000 Iraqis, not to mention the stature and prestige of the United States? Those close to Bush say that such questions misunderstand a fundamental aspect of his character: he doesn't get tangled up thinking about his own mistakes in the raw, recent times of his own making. "He's the least backward-looking person I have ever known in my life," says a senior staffer who didn't want to be named discussing the president's emotional state. Bush laments the casualties, says the aide, but never regrets the decision to go to war.

As more details emerge after Bush leaves office, we may learn that he was not quite so detached, that he privately agonized over decisions. A reconstruction of Bush's past six months as commander in chief shows that he has taken a greater interest in the details of the war in Iraq than he has before. Still, he has repeatedly followed his own certitudes over the advice of others. As the war and his poll numbers worsened, Bush did, for the first time, begin to talk to soldiers with on-the-ground experience and civilian experts with a range of views. But it appears that he was at least two years too late, and that he has somewhat simplistically and unrealistically narrowed his options to victory or defeat. He has kept his focus on the big picture, the great march of freedom, from decades past and decades into the imagined future, as a way to insulate himself against the horrors of the moment.

The Bush White House has long counted on democracy to produce a viable Iraqi government. Last June, when Bush traveled to Baghdad to meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, he returned optimistic. The president told reporters on Air Force One that he found Maliki to be tough, direct and truthful. Bush was buoyed by the lack of sectarian finger-pointing in his talks with Maliki and his cabinet.

American military commanders, however, were much less sanguine, say informed high-ranking officers who did not wish to publicly discuss the private views of their superiors. Senior officers on the ground feared that Maliki would be politically ineffective in confronting the growing violence.

The military's fears were quickly realized. Two successive major operations to pacify Baghdad, Together Forward I and II, were complete flops in the summer. Iraqi troops failed to show up as promised, and Maliki's administration interfered when American troops tried to go after Shiite militias. By September, the top American commander, Gen. George Casey, feared that his strategy of training Iraq forces was failing but did not know what else to do, say four senior military officials who declined to be quoted discussing the private views of top commanders. (Casey, who was preparing for Senate confirmation hearings, was unavailable for comment. Last week he testified to Congress that he believed that the war would be long, but still winnable.)

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sensed that his long and domineering reign was coming to an end, and offered his resignation. With the mid-term elections less than a month away, Bush could not publicly reveal that Rumsfeld was on the way out. At a post-election press conference, Bush virtually admitted that he had held back because voters would see Rummy's exit as a sign of failure.

The GOP defeat at the polls could have been an opening to find a bipartisan way out of Iraq. The report of the Iraq Study Group was greeted with much hoopla in the press. But at the White House, it was a nonstarter. Bush, say two aides who didn't want to be named discussing the president's thinking, dismissed its conclusions; the White House had already begun its own in-depth review, they point out.

The election forced Bush to make a public show of announcing a new strategy in Iraq. He had the usual three options: pull back, stand pat or escalate. Retreat was intolerable; the president could not conceive of managing defeat. In late November, Bush was almost truculent as he publicly addressed reports that the Iraq Study Group would call for a pullout from Iraq. He openly scoffed at the notion of a "graceful exit." At first, say the Bush aides, the president was tempted to pull U.S. troops out of Baghdad and let the sectarian fires burn themselves out. But he soon decided that U.S. forces could not stand by and watch civilian massacres or the breakup of the country.

The president is sensitive to the caricature of Bush-in-a-bubble, and he began reaching out more actively for independent assessments of Iraq. He had two important strategy sessions, described to NEWSWEEK by knowledgeable military and White House officials who wished to remain anonymous discussing confidential presidential meetings. On Dec. 11, Bush summoned five military experts to the Oval Office: retired Gens. Jack Keane (former vice chief of staff of the Army), Wayne Downing (former head of Special Forces) and Barry McCaffrey (armored-division commander in the first gulf war); and two well-known scholars, Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University and Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. Two of the generals, Keane and Downing, argued for significantly more forces—but while Downing argued for more Special Forces, Keane pushed for as many as 50,000 to 60,000 combat troops to protect the population in Baghdad. McCaffrey countered that such a surge would fail. The two civilians warned that it might be too late to save Iraq, but backed a buildup.

On Dec. 13, Bush met directly with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their Pentagon meeting room, the Tank. After four years of war, it was the first time Bush had directly quizzed the top brass in their own lair. The recently resigned Rumsfeld was still in the room, but for once he was not an overbearing presence. The chiefs were grim. The Coalition forces were not winning in Iraq, said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter Pace, which meant they were losing because time was not on their side. (Pace's staff declined to comment.) The generals warned that a significant escalation—along the lines proposed by Keane—ran the risk of "breaking" the Army, which was already badly worn.

The outcome of these dire warnings was a compromise. The clamor in Congress for a pullback seems to have only stiffened Bush's resolve to show that he could make the hard choices of a lonely war leader. But he could not create troops out of thin air. Bush decided to surge in Iraq, but to request essentially half a loaf—some 21,000 combat troops. Not a few military commanders have privately complained that those reinforcements are too few to really take control of Baghdad and Anbar province, which is ridden with Sunni insurgents.

Bush seemed once again to be counting on sheer will power to bring success. His apparent plan: to buy time while still hoping that Maliki can create a viable government that won't allow the country to collapse into sectarian slaughter. The strategy may indeed produce a lull in the fighting. Press reports suggest that Shiite militiamen have been told to put away their guns and lie low—until the Americans leave. But counting on Maliki to countenance raids on militias that keep him in power may be a forlorn hope. Even Bush's own national-security adviser, Steve Hadley, questioned Maliki's reliability and competence for the long haul in a secret memo that was leaked to the press, possibly by the military.

The cynical view is that Bush is also buying time for himself—so he can dump the problem on the next president without having to admit defeat. But two years is a long time, and Bush is no cynic. He is a true believer, and he is willing to wait to be vindicated by history. Though he has visibly aged on the job and can appear weary or miffed when speaking to reporters or in front of a camera, he is generally optimistic in private, say his friends and confidants. His routines are unvarying: he gets plenty of rest and exercise and reads voraciously. (After an election hiatus, he has recently resumed a competition with political adviser Karl Rove to see who can read the most books.) But when Bush reads, does he learn? At Henry Kissinger's recommendation, he recently read "A Savage War of Peace," an account of the failed French attempt to suppress the rebellion of its Algerian colony in the late 1950s. American military officers in Iraq regard the book, by British war historian Alistair Horne, as required reading. Bush found the book interesting, says one of the aides, but regards the French experience in Algiers as fundamentally different from the American experience in Iraq. Bush focused on the problems of the French bureaucracy—as if to say the French failed because they were, well, French.

In his history reading, Bush likes to identify with Truman because the former Missouri haberdasher was also mocked by the chattering classes for being inarticulate and unsophisticated. Bush and Truman share a kind of flinty self-reliance: just as Bush likes to call himself "the decider," Truman liked to say "The buck stops here." There is a crucial difference between the approaches of the two men, however. Truman early and often sought out the advice of establishment foreign-policy experts like Gen. George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson, the two men most responsible for postwar European recovery and the Western Alliance. And then he actually listened, with close attention to detail, to what they had to say.

With John Barry