In its preview of tonight’s presidential speech, outlining the “new” strategy in Iraq, the Washington Post is trotting out a new theme. By announcing plans for a troop increase to stem the violence in Baghdad, Mr. Bush is “pulling away from his generals,” according to the Post. In other words, our ostensibly dim Commander-in-Chief is rejecting sound military advice, just as he did in the run-up to the Iraq conflict, when some senior officers (notably former Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki) recommended a much larger force for the post-war occupation.
We’ve written about the hypocrisy of that position on previous occasions. When General Shinseki suggested an occupation army of more than 300,000, he knew that goal was unrealistic, even unobtainable. Throughout the 1990s, senior Army and Marine Corps leaders were relatively silent while successive administrations–Republican and Democrat–cut our active duty ground forces. In our post “It’s the Force Structure, Stupid,” we noted that the elimination of six active-duty divisions from the Army (over a ten-year period), left it undermanned for a long-term occupation of Iraq, even when National Guard and Reserve forces were factored into the equation.
If the senior brass was concerned about available forces for Iraq–as outlined by General Shinseki– why didn’t they argue more vigorously when ground units were being cut? True, General Shinseki and other war critics weren’t at the very top of the Army food chain in the late 80s and early 90s, but they were in a position to influence–or protest–the decisions were made. Their record in supporting–or opposing–the elimination of six divisions (roughly 18 combat brigades) has never been a subject for media inquiry. Consider this recent article in Time, from 23 September of last year, entitled (appropriately enough), “Why We Don’t Have Enough Troops in Iraq.” There is absolutely no consideration of force structure issues, only a question of why senior generals didn’t ask for more troops earlier.
In reality, that’s a loaded–and slightly unfair–query. The outgoing CENTCOM commander, General John Abizaid, stated several times that he didn’t need more troops, based on his assessment of the ground situation. For the record, I believe General Abizaid is an exceptionally capable officer, who has provided frank, honest assessments of conditions in Iraq. But, having observed more than a few flag officers in action, I can assure you that they are political animals, and their advice is often tempered by the prevailing winds of politics and public opinion. I believe that General Abizaid firmly believed that he could accomplish his mission with lower troops levels, but I also think he was smart enough to realize that there was little support (in the White House or Congress) for a troop surge, until recently.
Does that mean that Abizaid (and his senior commander in Baghdad, General George Casey), were guilty of giving bad advice? No. Based on their “read” of the military and political situation, they prescribed a course of action which, in their estimation, would meet mission requirements, within the context of domestic politics, and public support for the war. If that sounds a bit calculated, too bad. That’s the environment that senior commanders operate must operate in under our democratic system. Is there a better way of doing business, minus the political considerations? There probably is, but we haven’t found it, and probably won’t, as long as our military is controlled by civilians who are also politicians.
Which brings us to the purported rift between the Commander (and Politician)-in-Chief, Mr. Bush, and his senior military leaders. If you believe the WaPo, most of our military leaders are not in favor of this plan, realizing that it will put a further strain on our armed forces–particularly the Army and Marines–and result in more casualties. But that picture is more than a bit inaccurate. There are a number of senior officers who have favored a troop surge, and a more aggressive approach to the War in Iraq. The de facto leader of that camp is Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus, Mr. Bush’s pick to replace General Casey in Baghdad. Casey’s director of day-to-day operations, Lieutenant General Peter Chiraelli, is said to favor a similar solution. And, we can probably assume that General Abizaid’s replacement, Admiral James Fallon, has signed off on the plan as well. All are superb officers, not given to rash or imprudent recommendations. Their support for the plan certainly contradicts the “rift” that, according to the Post, exists on the Pentagon’s E-Ring.
As for the size of the surge, current speculation suggests that Mr. Bush will propose putting another 20,000 troops on the ground in Iraq, with emphasis on terrorist hotbeds in Baghdad and the Al Anbar region. That proposed increase–about 6 brigades–is on the low side of what some experts believe is needed to get the insurgency under control. In a recent op-ed, British military history Sir John Keegan estimated that the U.S. needs another 50,000 troops to get the job done. While our military could probably support that surge (albeit temporarily), there doesn’t seem to be the political will to make it happen.
And that’s the real bottom line in the War on Terror. Long ago, Al Qaida (correctly) identified our political will and public support as the two critical centers of gravity in battling the United States. Bloody the U.S. sufficiently, the thinking goes, and you’ll undermine support for the war, and force the American politicians to find a way out. Readers will already note that Senator Ted Kennedy has already introduced legislation to block funding for a troop increase in Iraq. He won’t be the last politician to try that ploy.
Meanwhile, articles like this one in the post will raise further questions about Mr. Bush’s revised strategy, what El Rushbo has already called the MSM effort to “purge the surge.” In reality, the purported schism between the President and the brass isn’t much of a split at all–even the Post notes that the Joint Chiefs are now onboard, and to date, there hasn’t been a single flag officer resign (or threaten to resign) over the planned increase. But exaggerated reports of a rift fit the paper’s template that the war is already failed, and with his “new strategy” Mr. Bush is dismissing wise counsel (read: The ISG) that would get us out of Iraq, once and for all.
We look forward to Mr. Bush’s speech tonight, ignore the Post’s exercise in rift exaggeration, and focus on the details of the proposal. From our perspective, a military surge is the right course of action, but we’ll wait for the details before giving it an unqualified endorsement. A surge that’s too small–and too limited in terms of duration–won’t get the job done. Tonight’s address is being described as “the speech” of Mr. Bush’s political career. We only hope he gets the strategy right.