From George to Barack: A Look at Secret Bush Memos to the Obama Team

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“The surge strategy reset negative trends and set the conditions for longer-term stability,” the memo said. “The coming 18 months, however, may be the most strategically significant in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein,” it added, putting that in boldface. Referring to Al Qaeda of Iraq, it said, “AQI is down but not out and a series of elections will define Iraq’s future.”

The memo warned the Obama team that the situation could still unravel again: “There is no magic formula in Iraq. While our policy is now on a more stable and sustainable course, we should expect shocks to the system that will require a flexible and pragmatic approach at least through government formation in the first quarter of 2010.”

The memo included a warning that would figure in a later debate. While Mr. Bush’s agreement called for a 2011 withdrawal, the memo reported that Iraqi leaders “have told us that they will seek a follow-on arrangement for training and logistical (and probably some special operations) forces beyond 2011.” Mr. Obama tried to negotiate such a follow-on agreement, but talks collapsed and his allies later played down the notion that anyone had ever expected such an extension.

In her postscript to the Iraq memo, Ms. O’Sullivan skated lightly over the false predicate for the war (“intelligence that was tragically later proven wrong”) and the mistaken assumptions (“an unanticipated collapse of order and Iraqi institutions”). But she was more expansive about the “shortcomings of the 2003-2006 strategy,” which she defined as the “mistaken belief” that political reconciliation would lead to improved security, inadequate troop levels, “too aggressive a timeline to transition” to Iraqi control and “a failure to take on Iranian influence more directly.”

“America’s experience in Iraq demonstrates that it is neither all-powerful nor powerless,” she wrote. “It has the ability to help countries make dramatic changes. But it should not underestimate the significant time, resources and energy that doing so requires — and the overwhelming importance of a committed, capable local partner.” Moreover, she added, “significant efforts to rebuild countries should only be undertaken when truly vital U.S. interests are at stake.”

The Bush team drew similar conclusions about Afghanistan. “Rarely, if ever, were the resources accorded to Afghanistan commensurate with the goals espoused,” Ms. O’Sullivan and two colleagues wrote in a postscript for that memo. “Policymakers overestimated the ability of the United States to produce an outcome” and “underestimated the impact of variables beyond U.S. control.”

Some of the memos underscored how much has changed in the last 14 years — and how much has not. Paving the way for administrations that followed, the Bush team saw India as a country ripe for alliance — and in fact its improved ties with India were seen as one of its foreign policy successes — even as it saw Pakistan as duplicitous and untrustworthy.

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