If the United States were to add forces, Zelikow continued, they should embed with select Iraqi military units to create joint Iraqi-American units in mixed sectarian areas. The United States, he insisted, needed to retain the flexibility to deal with other military challenges, mainly Iran.
The discussion drifted to the Iraqi political situation and the challenges in forming a multi-sectarian state.
"We have been in the business of micromanaging," Rice said. "Maybe we say to the Sunnis, ‘Deal with it': allow a Shia and Kurdish coalition and let the Sunnis find a way in. We can be more tolerant of a Shia and Kurdish deal so long as they don't do certain things along the lines of our objectives: no mass killings."
Hadley had a word of caution. "We need to be careful that in taking our hand off the driving wheel that we don't create the conditions for Iraq to be a place where a regional Sunni and Shia war plays out," Hadley said. "Sunni Arab states may look at a Shia-Kurd government and decide they need to throw their lot in with the Sunnis. Iran may see the Shia government as a proxy. We need to be mindful of these dynamics in the course we choose."
Before the meeting closed, Feaver spoke up again to challenge State's "smaller footprint" approach. There was sufficient public support if the Bush administration wanted to be more ambitious. "That is the judgment of Rove and Bartlett," Feaver said, referring to Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett, respectively the White House political operative and White House counselor.
State's plan also risked alienating the shrinking but still significant group of supporters who were still backing the Iraq war. "We cannot make this look like anything other than a big retreat," Feaver said.
Importantly, Feaver argued, the more limited approach the State Department was arguing for might turn out to be equally unpopular. Focusing on al Qaeda and Iranian-backed groups might entail increased American casualties. Meanwhile, sectarian violence might increase, raising questions about the value of the war effort. Nor was it clear that a "smaller footprint" would give the United States the freedom of maneuver it needed to go after al Qaeda.
Rice was not persuaded. "Peter, I don't think I accept any of your assumptions, particularly on casualties," she said sharply. "We also are not talking about retrenchment. Think about where we want to be in 2008. If we increase our forces significantly, it better work and work fast. I'm not sure we can make that assumption, either."
The State Department and NSC aides, it seemed, were as divided as ever. Rice would eventually come to accept the surge after talking with Ray Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. forces in Iraq who played a major role in devising the plan that was eventually carried out by his superior Gen. David Petraeus, but that change of heart was not yet in the offing.
Before the meeting ended, Hadley hinted at the strategy President Bush would announce two months later, noting that a surge of American reinforcements might serve as a "bridge" to the reduced American presence that would eventually follow.
"I also want to clarify that even with a focus on core objectives, as Condi has laid out, we cannot back away from a broader freedom agenda," Hadley said.
On this much, Rice agreed: "No, that's right," she said.