April 15, 2006

Shooting the Messenger

There’s been a lot of commotion over what seven retired generals have recently said about the war and specifically about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and how he has been handling the military for the past five years. Some suggest that this many officers running from the war means that we are losing; others suggest that other motives may be at work here like resistance to reforms requiring more cooperation between the four service branches.

I thought it would be useful to see their own words what these retired general officers have said:

Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni was the first. In 1998, Gen. Zinni wrote: “I think a weakened, fragmented, chaotic Iraq - which could happen if this isn't done carefully - is more dangerous in the long run than a contained Saddam is now ... I don't think these questions have been thought through or answered.” Eight years later, Zinni now says, “I think we are paying the price for the lack of credible planning, or the lack of a plan. We're throwing away 10 years worth of planning, in effect, for underestimating the situation we were going to get into, for not adhering to the advice that was being given to us by others, and, I think, getting distracted from Afghanistan and the war on terrorism that we were committed to when we took on this adventure.” But, Zinni realizes that we’re in the position we are in, not the best of all possible worlds: “…we can't let [Iraq] fall apart. It is part of a whole myriad of issues that we have regarding stability in the Middle East. We're committed to it now. We have to see this through.” Now, Zinni has a new book that he is promoting and has long been a critic of Rumsfeld, so perhaps he’s using unnecessarily provocative and tainted language. But the thing is, he’s not alone.

Retired Army General Paul Eaton, the "father of the new Iraqi Army" has been more directly critical. Gen. Eaton has said that Secretary Rumsfeld “…has shown himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically and is far more than anyone else responsible for what has happened to America's mission in Iraq. Rumsfeld must step down. … Rumsfeld has put the Pentagon at the mercy of his ego, his Cold Warrior's view of the world and his unrealistic confidence in technology to replace manpower. As a result, the U.S. Army finds itself severely undermanned… .”

Retired 3-star Marine General Gregory Newbold has stated that “I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat – Al Qaeda.” He says that resigned from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in objection to plans to invade Iraq: “I retired from the military four months before the invasion, in part because of my opposition to those who had used 9/11's tragedy to hijack our security policy.” But he regrets that he didn’t fight more on the way out. He accuses Rumsfeld of “McNamara-like micromanagement” and calls for “Rumsfeld and many others unwilling to fundamentally change their approach” to resign or be removed from power. Newbold claims that he wrote these remarks in the New York Times "…with the encouragement of some still in positions of military leadership."

Retired Army Major General John Batiste has stated that “We need leadership up there that respects the military as they expect the military to respect them. And that leadership needs to understand teamwork.” Batiste turned down an offer of an additional star on his shoulder and the #2 position in Iraq and retired rather than continue to work underneath Rumsfeld’s direction.

Retired Army Major General John Riggs says of his peers that they are “a pretty closemouthed bunch,” appropriately so. However, breaking with that tradition, Gen. Riggs echoes Batiste, saying that most of the general officers he knows “pretty much think ... Rumsfeld and the bunch around him should be cleared out” because they have “made fools of themselves, and totally underestimated what would be needed for a sustained conflict.” Of Rumsfeld and his aides, Gen. Riggs says, “"They only need the military advice when it satisfies their agenda. I think that's a mistake, and that's why I think he should resign.”

Army Major General Charles Swannack, former commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, has echoed Gen. Newbold, calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation because he “…has micromanaged the generals who are leading our forces [In Iraq].”

And just yesterday, retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper said, "I admire those who have stepped forward, and I agree with the arguments they are making ... I count myself in the same camp."

Gen. Batiste sums up the importance of all of this: “It speaks volumes that guys like me are speaking out from retirement about the leadership climate in the Department of Defense.” He claims that he is speaking for the silenced majority of the military; out of respect for the chain of command and the Constitution, active-duty members of the military are not criticizing the political leadership of the country despite deep misgivings that the nation’s leaders are compounding mistake after mistake in Iraq.

The President continues to feel differently, however, and insists that Rumsfeld is doing a good job. And it’s true that deaths in Iraq have been substantially lower than in previous military conflicts (say, Vietnam) and there now appears to be something resembling a constitution and a parliament there. But there is still nothing resembling a government, which is a different story altogether. We in America take it for granted that if there are elections which are more or less free, and the winners of those elections get to be the lawmakers, that is what it takes for a government. But that may not necessarily be so.

It’s been suggested to me that these men are cowards, or suffer from a lack of honor, for failing to speak out in public before their retirements. They should, like General Billy Mitchell, have been willing to sacrifice their careers if this was so important.

I suggest, though, that running afoul of Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 88 Is pretty serious business. It is one thing to suggest that these men should have been willing to put their careers on the line for the principle of protecting their troops and protecting the country. It’s something else entirely to say that their honor demands the commission of a crime.

The “T” word has been bruited about, with varying degrees of seriousness. Lower degrees of seriousness are obviously appropriate here. Wesley Clark criticized the government shortly after his retirement in 2001 for its policy of military involvement in Iraq and as part of his campaign for President. No one even hinted that he was doing something wrong. If Clark wasn't a traitor for trying to change the political direction of the country and the military, these guys aren't, either.

All of the sound and fury about whether it’s appropriate for these generals to say these things or not is missing the point – and to the extent that these attacks are taken from White House talking points, it is a distraction from the real question we should be asking ourselves. The military is forbidden by law from publicly criticizing the political leadership of the country. There are a lot of good reasons for that to be the case. But as Gen. Batiste says, it is very significant that so many recently-retired generals are making the same set of criticisms at about the same time.

The real point is that these are political criticisms and they raise political questions. Did America ever really have a feasible plan for rebuilding Iraq? Did the administration have realistic political expectations of what would happen after the invasion succeeded in displacing Saddam’s government? Do the Bushmen have the slightest clue what they are doing now? Has the government learned from history – not just Vietnam, but Germany and Japan in the mid-1940’s, the intifada in Israel, and from previous conflicts in the Gulf region?

If the administration’s response to all of this is to attack the integrity of the generals who have stepped forward with these statements, then that is about as clear a case of shooting the messenger as I have ever seen. One shoots the bearer of bad news when there is nothing else politically acceptable to do in response to the bad news. For whatever reason, Bush seems to think Rumsfeld is indispensable. It’s not like Rumsfeld is the only person in the United States capable of being the Secretary of Defense.

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