George W. Bush Looks Back at His Presidency

One question about Supreme Command stuck a chord with me.

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By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I was there yesterday morning when George W. Bush appeared before an American Enterprise Institute audience at the Mayflower Hotel. Here is the video and here is the transcript. It was not the usual format. Bush and AEI's outgoing president, Chris DeMuth, were seated on the dais and spoke extemporaneously. Bush delivered some remarks, then DeMuth asked him questions; altogether, the program lasted for a little more than an hour.

One question DeMuth asked struck a chord with me, a question about Eliot Cohen's book Supreme Command. Cohen argues that civilian commanders in chief have to engage directly and even abrasively with their military commanders, to challenge and often to overrule them, in order to produce an effective strategy in war. He cites the examples of Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion. I thought Cohen's ideas were important and should be brought to the attention of the Bush White House. I wrote a review of the book for the Weekly Standard, and its editors made sure that multiple copies were sent to the White House. Word came out later that Bush had read the book. His initial response to DeMuth suggested that the book made little impression, although his further words suggested to me that he recalled the book and its argument but didn't want to answer the question directly. Instead, he launched into a riff I've heard before in meetings with journalists where I've been present.

Bush has been criticized often since military operations began in Iraq in March 2003 for not following his military leaders' advice. He and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have insisted that they did follow the advice of the commanders in the chain of command—John Abizaid of Central Command and the various commanders in Iraq—and that those commanders did not recommended any increase in troop numbers beyond what the president ultimately ordered. Abizaid and Gen. George Casey, who was in command in Iraq in 2005-06, believed in a "light footprint" approach, with U.S. troops stationed in well-fortified positions and turning over responsibility to Iraqi troops as soon as possible. Only after the November 2006 elections did Bush seek a different approach and, after two months of deliberation, order the surge strategy of Gen. David Petraeus, against the advice of other military leaders. In retrospect, this course was correct, and my question for Bush at this meeting, if I had been allowed to ask one, would have been: How much earlier could we have adopted the surge strategy? The answer depends, I suppose, on how many counterfactuals you want to put in place, but I think it is an interesting one to ponder.

  • Read more about Bush's legacy.
  • Read more by Michael Barone.