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Only The President Matters

The Wall Street Journal editors review the basic facts brought to light in Bob Woodward’s “The War Within.” The Journal’s editors recount that after pressure from multiple advisors and the Iraq Study Group to accept defeat, President Bush took a different approach:

Handed this menu of defeat, Mr. Bush played opposite to stereotype by firing Mr. Rumsfeld and seeking advice from a wider cast of advisers, particularly retired Army General Jack Keane and scholar Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. The President also pressed the fundamental question of how the war could actually be won, a consideration that seemed to elude most senior members of his government. “God, what is he talking about?” Mr. Woodward quotes a (typically anonymous) senior aide to Ms. Rice as wondering when Mr. Bush raised the question at one meeting of foreign service officers. “Was the President out of touch?”

No less remarkably, the surge continued to face entrenched Pentagon opposition even after the President had decided on it. Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went out of his way to prevent General Keane from visiting Iraq in order to limit his influence with the White House.

. . .

The success of the surge in pacifying Iraq has been so swift and decisive that it’s easy to forget how difficult it was to find the right general, choose the right strategy, and muster the political will to implement it. It is also easy to forget how many obstacles the State and Pentagon bureaucracies threw in Mr. Bush’s way, and how much of their bad advice he had to ignore, especially now that their reputations are also benefiting from Iraq’s dramatic turn for the better.

It is a sobering tale and a reminder that when all is said and done the fortunes of the country often rest solely on the judgment and tenacity of the President. An experienced VP or a good cabinet can be of no use — advisors disagree and get it wrong all the time. Woodward’s book makes clear that it was President Bush who had either the foresight or the stubbornness (or both) to override and maneuver around his own administration and avoid near certain defeat. It is not a story the media or many American is receptive to hearing, but it appears to be as close to historical truth that we can determine, at least at this juncture.

The voters selecting his successor had better think carefully about which presidential candidate possesses the singular ability to ignore bad advice, fire failing staff, ignore his own party and his political opponents and perceive when virtually everyone around him is just wrong. We know how Barack Obama and John McCain viewed the surge and how they assessed General Petraeus’ advice. What we now know is that as hard as it is to take a principled stance in an election year it’s even harder once you’re in office. And the voters better seriously weigh which of the candidates is best able to do that.



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