September 15, 2008
By Fred Hiatt
It's easy to forget the utter hopelessness that had settled on Washington with regard to Iraq less than two years ago.
Not only Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ("this war is lost") but also much of the Bush administration had concluded that America's only option was to manage defeat. CIA chief Michael Hayden told the Iraq Study Group in November 2006 that he could not "point to any milestone or checkpoint where we can turn this thing around."
And it's easy to forget the nearly universal skepticism that greeted President Bush's announcement of a new strategy in January 2007. Again, it wasn't just Democrats such as Sen. Barack Obama who doubted that a surge would relieve the violence ("in fact, I think it will do the reverse," Obama said), but Republicans such as Sen. Chuck Hagel ("the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out"), war supporters such as the Post editorial board (we labeled the new strategy "very risky") and -- as Bob Woodward's latest book makes vividly clear -- the nation's top generals.
However historians assess Bush's policies on Iraq -- stretching back to the invasion, the failure to commit enough troops, the delays in acknowledging mistakes -- his insistence 20 months ago on a new strategy requiring more troops will be seen as an act of remarkable courage. With public opinion, Congress, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and most of his administration pushing toward a "consensus" option of managed failure, Bush insisted on a policy that would yet provide a chance of success.
But Woodward's fourth volume on decision making inside the administration, "The War Within," also confirms that Bush never would have been in position to make the hard but correct call had it not been for his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley.
Almost defiantly colorless, invariably courteous and even-toned, Hadley hasn't sought the celebrity of such predecessors as Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski, nor has he advertised a close personal tie with his boss like that of Brent Scowcroft with the first President Bush or Condoleezza Rice with the second.
Yet on the most consequential issue of Bush's second term, as most of the administration remained wedded to a losing strategy of handing control as quickly as possible to an incapable Iraqi army, Hadley pushed for change -- for a counterinsurgency strategy that would provide enough security, especially in Baghdad, to give political reconciliation a chance.
Hadley wasn't alone in his insight. Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, former senator Chuck Robb, NSC staffer Meghan O'Sullivan, strategist Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, retired Army general Jack Keane and a few others were pushing in the same direction. Eventually it would take the new leadership of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Iraq to translate opportunity into actual strategy.
It was Hadley, though, who made something happen. With the State and Defense departments opposed, Congress in Democratic hands, and the public skeptical of anything Bush would say on Iraq, he realized the limits of the president's power. A decree from the White House that was seen as directly opposing Pentagon wishes would undermine morale, confuse the country and fail in implementation.
So Hadley patiently worked the interagency system, the tedious task forces and review groups, to garner at least the appearance of consensus. He didn't seek credit and in fact tried not to be viewed as an advocate of any one idea. But he made sure that the one idea that counted would not get quashed. "You have got to give the president the option of a surge in forces," he told an interagency task force in November 2006, as Woodward recounts. "You can all take your positions for or against or in between, but you have to present him that as an option."
Hadley's goal from the start was to right Iraq policy sufficiently to remove it as a toxic issue in the presidential campaign -- to allow the next president to win without making any rash and irrevocable promises and to take office with at least a prospect of success. Improbably, he has succeeded.
Out of that success, in fact, a new conventional wisdom seems to be settling on Washington -- that the U.S. job in Iraq is nearing completion, and the time has come to move on to Afghanistan and other challenges. If, as seems likely, the celebration is premature and U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq for some time to come, we can hope that the next national security adviser again has the strength to resist the crowd and the deftness to steer the country in the right direction.