The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008; The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq; Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq

In This Review

The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008
By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 2008
512 pp. $32.00
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The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq
By Bing West
Random House, 2008
464 pp. $28.00
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Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq

By Linda Robinson
PublicAffairs, 2008
432 pp. $27.95
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The final episode of Woodward's chronicle of George W. Bush's journey from 9/11 through the Iraq war starts with the situation in Iraq deteriorating and describes the six-month-long effort first to get the president to pay attention to the possibility of having to write off Iraq as a catastrophic failure of policy and then to decide on a new strategy. This volume lacks the revelations of the earlier episodes, and Woodward is coy when it comes to some of the most sensitive operations, which seem to have had something to do with targeted assassinations. With Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld deflated and eventually departing, there is less drama. Yet , with its more coherent and focused story, is the best of Woodward's quartet. During 2006, with a civil war taking root in Iraq, the betting might have been on the administration's finding a way to escape from the chaos, whatever the loss of face. But Bush had invested so much in the war that once he was offered a plausible alternative promising something closer to victory, it was irresistible. The access Woodward had to top players gave him his unique advantage, although Bush must have wondered why he kept talking to a reporter who has done him few favors. The indictment of the insouciant Bush's alarming reliance on his gut instincts has now become familiar, but what is striking here is how much the case for the "surge" developed independently of the military chain of command.

As he does not really spend much time examining the conditions in Iraq, Woodward does not dwell on the factors that have left the country with a more optimistic prognosis. Improvement was not so much the result of extra troops or of the intelligence with which they were deployed, although these were undoubtedly important. It had more to do with the extent to which the Iraqis turned away from the logic of civil war, notably because of a strong reaction among the Sunnis to the brutality of al Qaeda and a recognition among senior Shiite figures that Muqtada al-Sadr was acquiring, through his militia, too much control over the political agenda. These developments necessitated a much more subtle approach to Iraqi politics than the established U.S. policy of handing responsibility back to the Iraqi government as soon as possible, whether or not it was able to cope.

West, a Vietnam veteran who has made numerous visits to Iraq, provides a full account of how the war has appeared to those doing the fighting. He complains of strategies that ask the military to do too much with too little while misrepresenting the scale of the problem and the ease of the available solutions. His first two chapters, "How to Create a Mess" and "Descent Into Chaos," open his scathing critique of a political and military leadership that put soldiers in impossible situations. Only as the troops were able to pick up on and work with the changing character of local politics did they make real progress. Then they could take advantage of being, as one Iraqi colonel put it, "the strongest tribe."

The basic themes of both these accounts are confirmed by Robinson. Her focus is on General David Petraeus, the former top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who now gets most of the credit for turning around the situation on the ground. Petraeus had worked effectively in the Mosul area in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and was known both for his frustration at the cavalier alienation of the Sunnis by the Coalition Provisional Authority and for his championing of sophisticated thinking about counterinsurgency. Although her attention is set on the high-achieving general and his steely focus on the task at hand, Robinson also does a good job of setting the scene and explaining the many factors that let the first glimmers of light into what had been unremitting gloom.