Suddenly we have come full circle in the Iraq strategy.
As the war began a distinguished retired general friend argued strenuously at a discussion club to which I belong (and that also included two former officials who would later be members of the Iraq Commission) that the Pentagon’s assigned manpower was woefully shortsighted.
He was echoing the criticism of other longtime military strategists, including the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who had just been shoved rudely into retirement for telling Congress that it would take as many as 300,000 troops to pacify Iraq.
The message to the other generals was clear: If you want to keep your job, keep your mouth shut and follow what your civilian bosses within the Bush Administration tell you, even if those geniuses are meeting criticism of the troop level by saying they are depending on the commanders on the ground to tell them what they need.
Now another top general, John Abazaid, who tried to do the job with what he was given, is retiring at 55 in an atmosphere of disagreement over the so-called “surge plan” for accomplishing what no one outside the Oval Office believes is possible — winning the war. (Few of us can understand what victory even means in this case, seeing that U.S. troops are caught in the middle of a civil war. At best, winning probably means we finally can escape a hideous encumbrance).
The surge plan that George W. Bush seems to be favoring would put some 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops in Iraq at least temporarily to stabilize the deteriorating situation in Baghdad and to allow the Iraqi government to finally take control of the situation. More U.S. troops would be freed up to train the Iraqi military and police for our eventual withdrawal. Well, as my brother told our cousin when he finally decided to take up golf: “It’s too late, Jack.”
That is clearly what Abazaid believes. He is backed up not only by other military experts and a whole lot of popular opinion that regards the plan as merely augmenting the U.S. casualty lists. That is reflected by the fact that Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, who backs the quick-fix plan, has seen a decline of his support in the polls.
Suddenly the president is not talking about what the generals’ want, but about what he decides is needed. And if he says we now need more troops, he reasons, we need them.
Almost 40 years ago I stood in the Oval Office with a handful of my colleagues listening to Lyndon Johnson harangue us for writing that he had decided to increase the troop commitment in Vietnam to above a half million men. He made it clear before ordering us out that he would make that announcement, and not the generals nor those on Capitol Hill who had given us the information. Commanders-in-chief are sensitive about these things.
Abazaid would seem to have been the perfect commander for this conflict. He is of Lebanese descent and speaks Arabic and probably understands the culture of the Middle East better than anyone of his rank in the Army. But even that has not helped in the political battles that have begun to rage between the military and civilian sides of the Bush Administration over the increasingly destabilized situation in Iraq. If Abazaid and his peers, current and retired, believe that the surge plan is wrong, the president should listen to them. The last time anyone looked, George W. Bush’s total military experience was a few months in the Air National Guard, and even that is questionable.
And if these internal disputes weren’t enough, there now are serious questions being raised about the ability of the Army to carry out its general mission under current troop levels that have been depleted by Iraq. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have indicated that serious new recruiting is needed to add to the overall strength if the U.S. is to meet any new global challenges. Bush seems to agree. But he also appears determined to stay the course in Iraq as long as it takes or at least until his term is up in two years.
The old adage about hindsight always being 20-20 doesn’t apply here. The experts warned at the very beginning of this war what was needed if this mission was to have any success. Not only were they ignored, but they were also maligned in the process as out-of-date traditionalists. That’s too bad. We might have been out of this mess by now had the president really paid attention.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)