No room for doubt in the Oval Office

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

THE BODY COUNT continues to mount in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military situation continues to deteriorate. On the home front, Democrats appear resurgent, and Republicans are bracing themselves for losses in November.

If I were George W. Bush, I would have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. But if he is plagued by despair or doubt, he gave no sign of it in an Oval Office meeting last week with seven conservative columnists. Leaning forward in an armchair, clad in a pearl gray suit with a blue shirt, crimson tie and an ornate silver belt buckle from Texas, Bush began by declaring: “I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions.”

He expressed faith that “over time, the inevitable truth will win” -- the truth being that “freedom is universal.” He professed no alarm about bad news from Iraq, saying that recent trends (such as a spike in killings) were just a “nanosecond” in historical terms. “I think the politics of Iraq are going to just take a while to settle out.” He refused to even speculate about what would happen if Democrats were to gain control of the House. “I don’t think they’re going to win,” he said flatly.

Hearing such talk, critics are apt to say that Bush is out of touch with reality. He’s aware of the knock. He knows that people say he’s stubborn and starry-eyed. But his confidence isn’t rooted in ignorance of the difficulties he faces. “I can understand,” he said, referring to the invasion of Iraq, “why people who agreed that we should have done this wonder whether or not we can succeed.” He just refuses to be swayed from his grand strategy because of tactical setbacks. “If you don’t have a set of principles to fall back on, you flounder and ... it creates waves, and the waves rock the decision-making process.”

His steadfastness in the face of adversity is admirable. So is his contempt for the conventional wisdom of the day. But there is a certain fatalism that can come from focusing so much on the long term. (Bush spoke repeatedly of how the world would look 50 years from now.) There is a danger that you will not make the necessary short-term adjustments to achieve results here and now.


In the case of Iraq, in particular, even those of us who support the war effort question whether Bush has done enough to win. A strong case can be made that there have never been enough troops to enforce even a modicum of law and order. The U.S. contingent has surged recently to more than 140,000, and more troops have been moved to Baghdad, but only at the cost of denuding other areas of Iraq.

A Marine intelligence report leaked to the Washington Post last week suggested that at least another division is needed in restive Anbar province. The top Marine general in Iraq was rushed out to rebut those findings, but even he acknowledged that he didn’t have enough troops to defeat the insurgency.

I asked Bush about the Marine report. He dismissed it as just a “data point.” He won’t send more troops to Iraq unless asked to do so by Gen. George W. Casey, the U.S. commander on the spot, and Casey has not made any such request. “I’m certainly not a military expert, nor am I in Baghdad,” he said, so he will leave those decisions to the “experts.”

He cited the Vietnam War on the dangers of “tactical decisions being made out of the White House,” even though the real problem was not Lyndon Johnson’s micromanagement but Gen. William Westmoreland’s flawed strategy. In fact, as Eliot Cohen argued in “Supreme Command,” successful war leaders such as Lincoln and Churchill (whose busts adorn the Oval Office) sometimes overruled their generals or fired them altogether.

Not Bush. “If he’s wrong,” he said of Casey, “I’m wrong.” Yet Casey’s options are severely circumscribed by the inadequate size of the Army, which declined 30% in the 1990s. I pressed Bush on why he hasn’t increased end-strength. He talked of making the existing force “quicker and lighter” and better “able to strike,” but recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that there is no substitute for having an adequate number of boots on the ground. And we’ve never had enough.

I left the meeting unconvinced by Bush’s arguments on troop numbers but impressed by his resiliency and imperturbability.

“Keep punching,” he urged the assembled scribes. He is obviously taking his own advice.