WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday disputed an assertion in a new book by Bob Woodward that President Bush was slow to react to escalating attacks in Iraq, forcefully arguing that Bush's military buildup was responsible for a sharp drop in the violence.
In a sharply worded, two-page statement, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley pushed back on other revelations in the book, but did not address Woodward's assertion that the Bush administration spied extensively on Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others in the Iraqi government.
Woodward's book, "The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008," tells of a president detached, tentative and slow to react to the escalating violence in Iraq, The Washington Post reported on its Web site Thursday night.
But once Bush decided that thousands of additional troops were needed, he moved with focus and determination even though top military advisers resisted him, wrote Woodward, a Post associate editor.
Hadley said Bush was not "detached" from an internal review he ordered of the war in late 2006. Woodward writes that the review was done in secret because the White House was worried it would damage GOP chances in midterm elections. "We've got to do it under the radar screen because the electoral season is so hot," Hadley is quoted as telling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the book.
Hadley countered, saying the review was done in secret to avoid politicizing the process.
"If he (Bush) had wanted to boost the Republican chances in the election, he would have publicly announced both the strategy review and the decision to change his secretary of defense," Hadley said, referring to Bush's decision to oust Donald H. Rumsfeld, the powerful defense secretary and architect of the Iraq war. "The president did neither so as to avoid politicizing these decisions."
The book is fourth by Woodward to examine the inner debates of the Bush administration and its handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was scheduled for release Monday.
The book said Bush's decision in January 2007 to send about 30,000 more troops to Iraq — the so-called surge — was not the primary factor behind the steep drop in violence. The article identifies four factors that together reduced the violence: covert operations, the military buildup, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to rein in his Mahdi Army, and the "Anbar Awakening" in which Sunnis joined Americans in fighting al-Qaida in Anbar province in western Iraq.
"I beg to differ," Hadley said, arguing that the military buildup actually "enabled" the other factors.
"It was the surge that helped us convince Sadr that a cease-fire was in his best interest because his Mahdi Army could not prevail on the battlefield," he said. "It was the surge that gave the Awakening Movement the confidence to continue to stand up to al-Qaida and take back Anbar province.
"It was the surge that provided more resources and a security context to support newly developed techniques and operations. And it was the surge that allowed the Iraqi security forces to grow and build their capacity to fight."
Hadley said the picture of U.S. policy in Iraq presented in the Post was "at least incomplete." But he did not address the spying allegation, which prompted sharp reactions Friday in Baghdad.
The Iraqi government warned that future ties with the United States could be in jeopardy if the report is true. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Baghdad would raise the allegations with the U.S. and ask for an explanation. If true, he warned, it shows a lack of trust.
White House press secretary Dana Perino also declined to directly comment on the spying allegations. She stressed the daily communications between Washington and Baghdad. "We have a good idea of what Prime Minister Maliki is thinking because he tells us, very frankly and very candidly," she said.
The book is coming out just as the two governments are in delicate negotiations over the future of American troops in Iraq. Those talks have already extended past their July 31 deadline and have drawn sharp criticism from Iraqis who want an end to the U.S. presence. Critics may well use the allegation to step up pressure on the government not to sign a deal or hold out for the most favorable terms.