Surprise: Bush doesn't really listen to the commanders

George W. Bush says that when it comes to Iraq, we should listen to the generals, not the politicians -- easy for him to say, considering he picks and chooses which generals to listen to.

Published September 8, 2008 10:37PM (EDT)

By now, it's a familiar line from the right, and especially President Bush: We civilians should listen to the commanders, and not anyone else, for judgment about Iraq. "Troop levels will be decided by our commanders on the ground, not by political figures in Washington, D.C.," Bush himself said in July 2007. Of course, that's easy for Bush to say -- if he doesn't like what one group of commanders is telling him, he can always find another who says what he wants to hear.

It wasn't a secret that Bush leans so heavily on Gen. David Petraeus in his public pronouncements in part because Petraeus tends to see things his way. But what the excerpts of Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within," have chiefly revealed thus far is the extent to which Bush ignored the advice of military leaders when it conflicted with what he wanted to do in Iraq.

Here's one revealing bit from an excerpt the Washington Post published on Monday, in which Woodward's discussing concern inside the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the surge, which was under discussion at the time. Mentioned in the section are Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, then the Army's chief of staff, and Gen. George Casey Jr., then the commander in Iraq and later Schoomaker's successor.

A rift had been growing between the country's military and civilian leadership, and in several JCS meetings that November, the chiefs' frustrations burst into the open. They had all but dismissed the surge option, worried that the armed forces were already stretched to the breaking point. They favored a renewed effort to train and build up the Iraqi security forces so that U.S. troops could begin to leave ...

Pace, Schoomaker and Casey found themselves badly out of sync with the White House in the fall of 2006, finally losing control of the war strategy altogether after the midterm elections. Schoomaker was outraged when he saw news coverage that retired Gen. Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff, had briefed the president Dec. 11 about a new Iraq strategy being proposed by the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank.

"When does AEI start trumping the Joint Chiefs of Staff on this stuff?" Schoomaker asked at the next chiefs' meeting.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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