Tensions around Iraq had reached a fever pitch around 2006. It might have been the worst year of my professional career. It was a year in which Hamas won parliamentary elections [in the Palestinian territories]. You had the war in Lebanon. You had Iraq coming apart and the first sense that Afghanistan was not going particularly well. Obviously, what we were doing in Iraq was not working. I had taken a trip there in October—what I saw called into question the Iraqis’ commitment to their own multiconfessional future. In a sense, I felt I had to really hold out and not back the surge until I felt comfortable we were going to be doing something different. Just putting more American forces into a situation where we were trying the same strategy seemed to me just to be a recipe for getting more Americans killed.
I knew President Bush was looking for answers. By that time we’d been together six years [and] I owed him my honest and unvarnished opinion. We had a meeting in the Roosevelt Room: The Situation Room was being renovated. I said something like, “If they’re determined to have their own civil war maybe we ought to just let them have it.” That’s a pretty sharp thing to say to the President of the United States. Then he shot back, “So is your opinion that we should just let them kill each other while we stand on the sidelines?” I think it was surprising to people at the table, because it was pretty sharp, which was quite unusual.
Afterward I followed him into the Oval Office. I said, “Mr. President”—I didn’t say “I resent” but he could tell I resented the implication that I wasn’t committed to Iraq. That’s when I realized, just looking at him, how difficult this was for him. And so I sort of pulled back. I don’t think we could have had that moment five years earlier. We’d been through a lot together. He really trusted me and that basis of trust allowed us to have that exchange.
It was only after a long deliberation about the surge [and] a sense that the change in leadership in the Pentagon was going to make a huge difference … that I came to the conclusion that I’d support it. It would have been easier to just go along with the surge from the beginning. I’m glad I didn’t. By the time we undertook the decision to go forward, it was a better decision. — As told to Romesh Ratnesar