Iraq is disintegrating to the point where the Bush administration can no longer conceal the truth that American ground forces are islands of impotence in a sea of sectarian violence and civil war.
In fact, the climate of hatred against Americans cultivated by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and his division commanders, generals who transformed a minor insurgency in the summer of 2003 into an Arab rebellion against the American military presence in April 2004, has now spread to the Shiite south.
How did this happen? In his book, “Fiasco,” Tom Ricks explains that generals steeped in a military culture that exalts masses of men and firepower used a meat cleaver when a scalpel was needed – a strategic catastrophe from which American policy in Iraq has never recovered.
At the center of this tragedy stands Gen. John Abizaid, presented three years ago to the American public as the general fluent in Arabic with the perfect military resume.
Years of sterling service in the light infantry of the peacetime garrison Army earned Abizaid universal approval from the influential community of retired four stars, the men who selected all of the generals commanding in Iraq since the war began. For the Bush defense team, he seemed like the perfect choice.
Yet, when Abizaid took command in the summer of 2003, he did nothing to change the destructive pattern of raids, checkpoints and intrusive patrols, actions that created far more enemies among the Arabs than they killed or incarcerated. His response to the shameful revelation of Abu Ghraib was tepid. Sanchez and his generals escaped accountability.
When Fallujah exploded in April of 2004, providing Abizaid with a tailor-made opportunity to dominate the enemy psychologically, Abizaid advised inaction.
Then, in the summer of 2004, in an unprecedented move, another four-star general, George Casey, was assigned to command in Iraq, effectively giving Abizaid political cover. Still in overall command, Abizaid could either deny responsibility or claim credit, depending on changing conditions.
To date, other than holding seminars on Arab culture for visiting members of Congress and the administration, it’s hard to know what decisive action Abizaid has taken. Insisting that Americans allegedly win all the battles despite the daily U.S. death toll, and, in 2006, that Iraq is on the verge of civil war are patronizing statements of the obvious.
What can be said of Abizaid is that he is an intelligent, hard-working person, anxious not to offend anyone, especially his superiors. And therein lies the problem.
Frustrated with generals who were unable to win a single battle in the first years of World War II, Britain’s Winston Churchill wrote angrily to the chief of the Imperial General Staff, “We must not confine appointments to high command to men whose careers have excited no hostile comment.”
Churchill knew his defeated generals were amiable men who made no waves. Eventually, he axed most of them and Britain’s situation changed.
Unfortunately, during the Vietnam War, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara did not embrace Churchill’s philosophy. Taking the generals provided by the military’s system of cronyism, Johnson and McNamara simply elevated the most sycophantic officers to four-stars, men willing to be media props for their civilian masters in return for further promotion and reward in lucrative civilian jobs after retirement.
Sadly, President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chose the path of Johnson and McNamara, and that has made all the difference.
Tactical blunders have strategic consequences and the generals have blundered badly in Iraq. In war, military strategy is supposed to reduce the probability of armed conflict, to persuade those who might fight not to fight, and when necessary, to win at the least cost in lives and treasure. In Iraq, the top generals achieved the opposite outcome.
Democrats, celebrating their control of Congress, should be thorough and judicious in their investigations of why the military occupation of Iraq has gone so terribly wrong.
They should question the accepted wisdom of the retired and active four stars that flooding Muslim Arab Iraq with hundreds of thousands of Christian Europeans in U.S. and U.K. uniform would somehow have salvaged the disastrous decision to govern Iraq with American soldiers and Marines.
And they should embrace the critical need for military reform to establish a professional system of general officer selection that rewards character, competence and intelligence, not just compliance with bad ideas in return for promotion.
But whatever the Democrats do, they should reject the current schoolboy excuse we hear from active and retired generals that “Rumsfeld made me do it.”
Douglas A. Macgregor is a retired Army Colonel and a decorated Gulf War combat veteran who has authored four books on military reform. His latest is Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights. He writes for the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.