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Friday, October 19, 2018

Today the Weekend Reader brings you Days Of Fire: Bush And Cheney In The White House by Peter Baker, who covered the White House for The Washington Post during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies, and now serves as Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times. The excerpt below details how President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made tough decisions on the deteriorating situation in Iraq. At a point when Americans were losing faith in winning the war, Bush and Cheney had no qualms carrying out any and all actions necessary — regardless of whether a majority of  Americans agreed or not.

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Bush understood that bailing out a Wall Street bank would not be popular, and a part of him was chagrined at that. Not Cheney. As the two of them progressed through their last year in office, their public standing had sunk so low that it had become almost like a badge of honor: what they were doing must be about principle, since it sure was not a political winner.

But there was a fine line between ignoring the fickle winds of popularity and losing the consent of the governed. Cheney skated near that line with defiance. On March 19, the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, he traveled to the region to highlight the progress of the surge. During a stop in Oman, he gave an interview to Martha Raddatz of ABC News.

“Two-thirds of Americans say it’s not worth the fighting,” she told him. “So? ” Cheney answered.

Raddatz seemed taken aback.

“So? ” she said. “You don’t care what the American people think? ”

“No,” he said, “I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.”

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The polls actually were not fluctuating; they were heading in one inexorable direction. Even with the evident success of the surge, Bush and Cheney had lost the American public on Iraq. As Cheney saw it, popular opinion should not stop them from doing what was needed  to protect  the country. “He believed that losing these wars was the worst possible outcome for the United States,” said John Hannah, his national security adviser. “He was convinced that we had to win, and you got the sense that he wouldn’t be swayed by bad polls or a lack of public support.” As Liz Cheney put it, “Everything else was less important,  and if it meant  your reputation  was damaged, that was what you had to live with.”

A few days later, the situation in Iraq took a dramatic turn. Shiite militias had fled to the port city of Basra in the southeast near the Iranian border, the hub of the country’s oil industry. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had received reports  of women being beaten  for failing to properly cover up and even mutilated if accused of sexual indiscretions. In a brash move, Maliki ordered the Iraqi army south to take on the militias, only informing David Petraeus after the decision had been made. Petraeus was stunned at the recklessness; without any preparation, there was no way for American forces to support such an operation. “It was very, very precipitous and arguably bordering on impulsive,” Petraeus  concluded. But Maliki disregarded Petraeus’s advice, even traveling to Basra personally to oversee the operation. The American fears were well-founded; Iraqi units were ill-prepared and ran out of ammunition, fuel, and other supplies, and in some cases soldiers refused to fight fellow Shiites. Petraeus ordered Special Forces, Apache helicopters, and Predator drones to follow the prime minister and give him support, but with so little coordination “we couldn’t figure out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.”