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.”
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.”
At the White House, the national security team was in a panic. Condoleezza Rice called Bush to tell him Maliki’s government could fall. The CIA offered a grim prognosis. “Everybody here thought this was going to be a disaster,” recalled Douglas Lute, the Iraq War coordinator. Lute thought Maliki had gambled everything. “If he doesn’t get killed, he’s going to cripple himself politically because he’s going to be shown as unable to deliver.”
But Bush did not see it that way. “Don’t tell me this is a bad thing,” he said, preempting Stephen Hadley and Brett McGurk when they arrived at the Oval Office to brief him. “Maliki said he would do this and now he’s doing it.”
For the first time, the Shiite prime minister was taking on Shiite militias as the Americans had asked him to do. Bush believed Maliki, however rashly, was finally showing leadership. While he did not say it out loud, there may have been a part of the old Texan who appreciated the cowboy nature of the move; Maliki was following his gut with bold action, just as Bush believed he did.
When he sat down for a videoconference with Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on March 24, Bush stood alone in his assessment.
“This has some potential to be dicey here,” Petraeus said with understatement. While the Americans would of course provide support, he told Bush, “you’ve got to understand there are some serious risks involved here.” Bush said he understood the risks but saw the development as a breakthrough, not a debacle. They had to trust Maliki. “We have wanted him to step up and lead,” he said. “Our job here is to support him, not to try to convince him not to do it.” They had to make sure Maliki succeeded. “This is going to be a decisive moment.”
His team on the ground was not so optimistic. In Baghdad, Crocker, a Bush favorite whose glass-half-empty reports had earned him the presidential nickname Sunshine, turned off the microphone so he could not be heard back in Washington. “I hope it’s going to be decisive the way he hopes it will,” he told Petraeus.
It very nearly was not. Maliki’s headquarters was shelled and his personal bodyguard and childhood friend was killed in the bombardment. Shia militias in Baghdad likewise responded with force, peppering Crocker’s palace headquarters in the Green Zone with rockets, nearly a hundred in a forty-eight-hour stretch. But in the end, Petraeus scrambled enough force and Maliki showed enough fortitude that the militias backed off. Maliki reasserted government control over Basra. Suddenly what looked like a breaking point became the moment he finally became a national leader. “He came back from Basra a different Maliki,” Lute observed. Senator Lindsey Graham, who talked about it with Maliki afterward, agreed that the Iraqi prime minister was a “changed man” who “went from being docile to being John Wayne.”
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From the book Days of Fire by Peter Baker. Copyright © 2013 by Peter Baker. Reprinted by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC