The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006–2008
by Bob Woodward
(Simon & Schuster, $32)

In the summer of 2006, President George Bush announced, at a White House meeting of his war council, that the situation in Iraq “seems to be deteriorating.” Attacks against U.S. coalition forces were averaging 1,000 a week, and daily life in Baghdad had come to resemble hell. In public, the administration remained upbeat. But as early as July, says reporter Bob Woodward, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was telling Bush that a comprehensive strategy review was necessary. Three months later, Hadley was more explicit. He told the president that he wanted to form a secret task force that would exclude Bush’s commander in Iraq and his defense secretary. “Do it,” said Bush.

Woodward’s “brilliantly reported” fourth book about the Bush White House portrays our departing commander in chief as “the worst kind of wartime president,” said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times. Though the result of Hadley’s secret meetings was a troop surge many now believe has reduced violence in Iraq, Woodward awards Bush no credit. He portrays the president as simultaneously “controlling and disengaged”—slow to absorb bad news, slower to respond to it, and likely to do so only when he receives advice that aligns with his preconceived notions. Tellingly, the author sympathizes with the military commanders who in 2006 were telling Bush that the only way to stabilize Iraq was to withdraw troops, said William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal. The story behind the surge is about the resistance that Bush eventually overcame “to get his commanders to start winning in Iraq.” Woodward doesn’t give Bush enough credit.

The other hero Woodward overlooks is John McCain, said Nicholas Wapshott in The New York Sun. Behind closed doors, the current Republican presidential candidate began pushing Bush to increase troop strength “at least two years before” the surge became reality. Woodward instead asks readers to believe that the troop increases were less important than a “top secret” high-tech operation that has enabled U.S. forces to track and kill insurgency leaders. But he offers no details about the new program that would allow us to judge. If the surge indeed has made little difference, its backers have a lot of apologizing to do, said Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation. Had they not steamrolled the cries for troop withdrawals in late 2006, the war today “would be largely over.”