NW - War of Nerves; The politicians say we're winning. The generals aren't so sure. How Bush hopes to persuade a wary nation to stay the course.
War of Nerves
The politicians say we're winning. The generals aren't so sure. How Bush hopes to persuade a wary nation to stay the course.
Hard work: A Marine was hit by gunfire on a desert mission near the Syrian border
Scott Nelson / WPN for Newsweek
By John Barry, Richard Wolffe and Evan Thomas
July 4 issue - Generals must always speak truth to civilian power. That is the conclusion of a book considered to be required reading by many senior officers in the Pentagon. "Dereliction of Duty," by Maj. (now Col.) H. R. McMaster, argues that the Joint Chiefs of Staff failed to do their duty by failing to level with the president, the Congress and the American people about the true costs and requirements of fighting the Vietnam War. McMaster, who is now commanding the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, has briefed at least one gathering of four-star generals. "You need to hear this," former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton told McMaster's audience, America's top 17 four-stars, over a breakfast in January 1998. The message these senior officers were supposed to take away is to be honest about foreign interventions like Iraq—to always tell the hard realities to their civilian masters.
Speaking truth to power is one side of the equation that allows you to avoid the GIGO fallacy in government and military interaction. GIGO = "Garbage In, Garbage Out." If your subordinates are feeding you "garbage," only what they think you want to hear, then your decisions, based on "garbage," are going to be "garbage" also.
But do they? Almost every week, President George W. Bush holds a regularly scheduled video teleconference with Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq. Presumably, this would be the time for some truth-telling. Indeed, White House aides say that it is. "The president interrupts a lot and asks questions," a White House spokesman told NEWSWEEK.
How, then, to explain the very different versions of reality in Iraq that come out of the mouths of top Bush administration officials and of senior generals on the ground in Iraq? On Memorial Day, Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the Iraq insurgency was in its "last throes." Yet last week, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Abizaid said that, actually, the insurgency has not grown weaker over the last six months and that the number of foreign terrorists infiltrating Iraq has increased. Pressed by Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, to choose between the general and the vice president, General Casey seemed to struggle. "There's a long way to go here," he testified. "Things in Iraq are hard." He said that the allied forces had weakened the insurgency—but acknowledged that the number of attacks has remained steady.
No wonder the American public is confused, unsure what to believe, and that support for the war is down to 42 percent in the latest Gallup poll. What is the reality? And why can't the president and his generals seem to agree? The answer lies in the culture of the military, the character of the president and his men and the inherent unpredictability of the Iraq war. It may be that the conflict is going both well and badly (that the Iraqis are making some progress toward democratic self-rule, even as the car bombs burst around them) and that the real question is one of time: how long will the American people put up with a war that in the first two years cost $200 billion and 1,700 American lives—and seems sure to claim many more?
It's a war, not a linear equation. Things are happening in four or more dimensions and a sound bite doesn't do it justice.
Bush has talked about noble sacrifice and staying the course—and he will some more this week when he delivers a nationwide address intended to shore up flagging public support. "It's hard work," Bush is fond of saying, and when he sees the families of the dead and maimed, as he often does on unpublicized visits, he becomes emotional. But he has never really laid the groundwork for a long and bitter struggle in Iraq. Accustomed in the post-Vietnam era to quickie wars or quick exits (Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq), most Americans are insulated, except when they look up and see another horrific image on TV. Meanwhile, the men and women of the armed services wearily wonder how long a badly stretched volunteer Army, Reserves and National Guard can maintain 140,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely.
Pres. Bush was very up front about this from the beginning, that this would not be an easy struggle, that it could take years to accomplish. Talk about only hearing what you want to hear . . .
Is the government honest with itself? Those weekly teleconferences between the generals and the president are secret, and it is difficult to know with any assurance what has been said there. But according to a retired general who has spoken to Abizaid, the conversations do not involve much give and take. (The source declined to be identified because he is a friend of Abizaid's.) The president is generous with his praise and support for the generals, who by and large return his salute. Tom Donnelly, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute who is well connected to the Joint Chiefs, says, "There isn't much dialogue. It's 'These are the 14 things we are doing this week.' 'Great job.' 'Thank you, Mr. President'."
It sounds very much like a briefing, not a dialogue. Is the meaning of the term "briefing" somehow unclear at Newsweek?
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Message machine: Abizaid (right) spoke of the insurgents' strength
Despite all the brave talk from generals who have read "Dereliction of Duty," it would be unrealistic to expect a more confrontational atmosphere. The military tends to be an optimistic institution, and generals do not win stars without being gung-ho and can-do. On split screen at these teleconferences is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has repeatedly said that his generals do not need—and have not asked for—any more troops and that the military is winning the war. The generals report to Rumsfeld, and he decides their next job. Also often present at the teleconference is Cheney, who has been equally outspoken about the war's progress. The generals may think they are being reasonably forthcoming about the problems on the ground. But Rumsfeld and Cheney, as well as the president himself, may have a tendency to hear what they wish to hear.
Still, the administration is not politically deaf. Bush and his advisers can hear the rumblings of concern in the public and within their party's own ranks, and last week they began taking steps to shore up support for the war. In the view of the White House, the public is periodically upset by the violent images on its TVs and so the president must, from time to time, speak up. The model for the president's speech this week was his address to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., last year. At that time, the public was badly rattled by the gruesome images of guards abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison. In the War College speech, the president laid out some markers for the Iraqis on the way to achieving "democracy and freedom"—and allowing American troops to go home. Two of those mileposts have been passed: the turnover of sovereignty a year ago and January's elections in Iraq. The next fixed points will be the writing of an Iraqi constitution, elections for a full-term government and, ultimately, the training of Iraqi forces to secure the country. The president will deliver a fairly upbeat progress report on these steps, but he will be careful not to set a timetable for success—or for American withdrawal.
As long as the American people "understand the trajectory, they are going to have a considerable tolerance for sacrifice," said a senior White House aide, who did not wish to be identified. That may be true, but it's not clear that Bush's speeches serve to inspire. According to the Gallup poll, support for the war in Iraq went up 1 percentage point after his War College speech last year. Public confidence seems to more closely track the ebbs and flows in violence. It went up as the killing went down briefly last summer, dipped when the violence flared before the election and has stayed below 50 percent since then.
The enemy understands this. Last week, at a military briefing at the White House, Abizaid told Bush that training manuals on jihadist Web sites taught their followers how to use car bombings and kidnappings to influence public opinion. The day before, a car bomb seemed intentionally aimed at a convoy of female Marines who run checkpoints in Fallujah. At least four were dead (including one female), and 11 of the 13 wounded were female, the Pentagon said. The attack undermined a claim by Rumsfeld, uttered that same day, that "terrorists can no longer take advantage of sanctuaries like Fallujah."
Rumsfeld, in particular, sees the Iraq war as a test of wills and draws comparisons with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968, when the Viet Cong managed to convince the American people, through suicide attacks, that the war was not worth the cost. Privately, Bush acknowledges that public opinion in America will always be weaker than the terrorists' determination. "He told me the other day that the fundamental difference between us and them is that we hurt when people die and they don't," said the senior aide.
How very succinctly and cogently put. And they call this man "inarticulate."
But Bush rejects one critical Vietnam analogy. That war, he points out in conversation with his advisers, was a widespread popular uprising against the Saigon regime. The Iraqi elections show that the Iraqi people support the political process underway in Iraq and oppose the insurgents. One lesson Bush has learned from Vietnam is not to interfere with his military commanders on the ground. He doesn't want to repeat the mistake of Lyndon Johnson, who used to pick bombing targets. (Bush's hands-off approach may help explain the lack of real debate in those weekly teleconferences with his ground commanders; Bush may ask "a lot of questions," but, according to the White House aide, he does not second-guess.)
Unfortunately, it is less clear that Sec. Rumsfeld has learned the lessons of his predecessor Sec. McNamara's mistake.
The historical analogy that is truly burned into Bush's brain—though he has not talked about it much publicly—is Somalia. Bush has told aides that America's hasty exit from Somalia after 18 soldiers died in the 1993 raid made famous in the movie "Black Hawk Down" emboldened America's terrorist enemies.
Bush's role, he believes, is to prop up the fledgling government in Iraq and public support at home. To that end, he appeared last week at a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, indulged in some cynical base-building. Speaking to conservatives in New York, Rove castigated "liberals" who, after 9/11, "wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." Democrats immediately howled that Rove was smearing them. Basic rule of politics: when rallying people to the flag, it's always useful to warn of the "enemy within."
How very odd of Newsweek to admit that there is, in fact, and enemy within. And he is who?
Bush's base may need a little restoring in Congress. Three weeks ago, Rep. Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican who was once avidly pro-war (he was the one who wanted to call the french fries in the House dining room "freedom fries"), introduced legislation requiring the administration to set specific goals for troop withdrawals. Other congressmen from states and districts with military bases have warned that their constituents are losing confidence. But so far, the Bush administration has not seen any really meaningful defections. "Is the Republican caucus nervous? Sure," says Sen. John McCain, a strong hawk. "But I haven't detected any real erosion in support for the policy. Because the senators know that we can't afford to fail in Iraq."
That will come as good news to a group of Iraqi officials who dined two weeks ago with a NEWSWEEK reporter in Baghdad. Told that American opinion was souring on the war, the officials became very quiet. One tried to brighten the room by reporting that on a recent trip he took to Washington, Bush administration officials had given him a "consistent message, saying, 'You have our support'." But then the conversation turned to the congressional resolutions nudging the administration to find an exit. The Iraqi seemed unsure what to believe.
Although they never announce it publicly, senior commanders in Iraq have recently written a "phased deliberate draw-down"—a plan to get out, according to a senior U.S. military official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly. The military makes lots of plans, so this exercise is just another option, not evidence of a change of policy.
But military commanders interviewed by NEWSWEEK all concede that eliminating the Iraqi insurgency by military means is probably impossible. The goal is to train enough Iraqis to replace U.S. troops, while the insurgency is pacified by political means. Given the infighting and weakness of the Iraqi government, that day will not come soon. A few elite Iraqi units are effective, but American GIs training Iraqi soldiers complain that their charges sometimes close their eyes and fire "death blossoms"—GI parlance for random rounds of bullets.
On the ground in Iraq, Colonel McMaster, the author of "Dereliction of Duty," is practicing what he preached. His regiment is up on the Syrian border trying to shut down the flow of jihadists into Iraq across 10,000 square miles of desert. McMaster gave his officers permission to speak with brutal frankness. One of them told a reporter from the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, "There's simply not enough forces here." A hard truth, which the American people need to hear.
From that 3rd ACR officer's mouth to the ear of, if not God, the SecDef.
With Howard Fineman and Holly Bailey in Washington and Melinda Liu and Scott Johnson in Iraq
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.