Why America’s generals are out for revenge

By Dean Godson, research director of Policy Exchange (THE TIMES, 18/04/06):

WHO WILL be the Admiral Byng of the Iraq conflict — the symbolic victim executed for the alleged failures of the war? That is what the current “revolt of the generals” against Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, is about. It is the ruthless Washingtonian version of “pass the parcel”.

Much of the military brass feels that it carried the can for the civilian leadership’s errors in Vietnam and is determined never to do so again. General Anthony Zinni — the former US commander in the Middle East and perhaps the most voluble of Mr Rumsfeld’s critics — was particularly taken with a study written by a youngish Army officer, H.R. McMaster, criticising the US Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Robert McNamara era for not speaking up more loudly against a war they knew could not be won.

The generals’ criticisms will certainly strike a chord among critics of the war in Iraq, who contend that neoconservative ideologues at the Pentagon rode roughshod over professional military advice. They particularly alight on the supposed insufficiency of troop numbers sent to Iraq for post-conflict operations and the failure to plan for the insurgency.

What of these charges? Mr Rumsfeld was right in believing that the war itself could be won with a much smaller force than was used in the first Gulf War of 1991, not least because the Iraqi army had halved in size. He was right effectively to send Tommy Franks away with a flea in his ear when the then US commander presented the original war plans, as General Franks has conceded. Pace George Galloway, there was no Stalingrad by the Tigris.

This was no McNamara-style micromanagement of targeting when Pentagon “whiz-kids” constantly encroached upon professional military prerogatives. Rather, Mr Rumsfeld’s big picture approach is exactly what civilian control of the military is supposed to be all about: in other words, asking what would be the price in blood and treasure of a particular plan? Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, did much the same as Defence Secretary in 1990 when he asked Norman Schwarzkopf to revise his plans for a costly frontal assault on the Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

What about the postwar period? General Jack Keane, the Army Vice-Chief of Staff during this critical period, told me that it was just as much the military’s responsibility to anticipate the insurgency, if not more so. “We had no plans for that”, he said. “It was our fault, not Donald Rumsfeld’s.”

The point was inadvertently underscored in Franks’s autobiography when he told Pentagon civilians that he would not involve himself in the detailed work on Phase 4 or “stability” operations — that is, after major combat was over. “I’ll do the day of and you’ll do the day after,” he snorted. He also refused to work alongside “Free Iraqis” ready to take up postwar security tasks. All of this cost the US dearly when the looting began in Baghdad. Yet Rumsfeld et al acquiesced.

The real issue in postwar Iraq was less that of numbers than of the mix of forces. The Americans did not need many more GIs who cannot speak Arabic patrolling the streets in heavy body armour; rather, they could have done it with the existing size of force, but with more military policemen, intelligence officers and civil affairs specialists.

Curiously, Mr Rumsfeld’s position does indeed resemble that of his predecessors in the Vietnam era — but the analogy is with the hopeful period of the early 1960s rather than the tragic finale. John F. Kennedy fought a tremendous bureaucratic battle with the US Army brass to reconfigure the forces for more British-style counter-insurgency operations in the Third World: the Green Berets were the best known expression of that aspiration.

But JFK’s more ambitious plans were seen off by the US Army Chief of Staff, George Decker — who was concerned about the diversion of resources from US conventional forces facing the Soviet divisions on the Central European plain. The incomplete nature of those reforms cost the American forces dearly later on.

Mr Rumsfeld, by contrast, has had far more success than Kennedy in shaking up the US Army. Until September 11 it was still too much of a garrison force, geared up for Cold War contingencies. Or, in the quip of one of Rumsfeld’s intimates, it was full of “Fulda Gap warriors”, rather than the kind of expeditionary forces required for the War on Terror.

The Defence Secretary has trod on toes in this process. He has insisted on interviewing every appointment to four and three-star rank — something that was more of a pro forma process under his predecessors. He appointed a retired Special Forces general, Peter Schoomaker, as US Army Chief of Staff, thus passing over stacks of serving officers. And with his greater emphasis on high-tech “jointery”, he has forced both the Army and the Marines to depend more on Air Force and Navy supporting fire.

The real criticism of Mr Rumsfeld is not that he “kicked to much butt”, but that he kicked too little. At George Bush’s behest, he sent the US armed forces into a war that they weren’t yet fully ready to fight: they are much more prepared now, but the insurgency genie is out of the bottle. He was part of the Republican consensus that was contemptuous of Clinton-era peacekeeping operations, believing that real soldiers don’t do social workerish stuff. Like so many reformers, his problem is that his changes discomfit existing interest groups before the benefits become fully visible.