Over the past 18 months, anyone proposing any policy for extricating the United States from the Iraqi quagmire has been told by critics that the proposal should be vetted by Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of the U.S. forces in Iraq in February 2007. For example, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, criticized his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, for revealing his plan to end the war in Iraq before sitting down with Petraeus.
The assumption behind this line of thought is that political leaders should defer to the military commanders when it comes to issues of war and peace, especially in the middle of a war. But American history tells us that, in the postwar period, military leaders from Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Korea to Petraeus in Iraq have more often been wrong than right when it comes to dealing with threats to U.S.national security. In fact, America’s civilian leaders have usually been better off ignoring their advice.
In October 1950, for example, President Harry S. Truman traveled to Wake Island to meet with MacArthur, the commander of the forces in Korea, to ascertain whether the U.S. military’s headlong rush to the Yalu would provoke China to intervene. MacArthur assured him it would not, and predicted that the war would be over by Christmas. One month later, the Chinese launched a massive attack on the advancing, widely dispersed U.S. forces and sent them reeling back into South Korea.
MacArthur then advised Truman to attack the Chinese mainland with nuclear weapons, and surge hundreds of thousands more U.S. troops into the theater. In January 1951, MacArthur referred to the war in Korea as a crusade. He said that in Korea, Washington was fighting for a free Asia. Fortunately, Truman realized that Europe was the central front in the Cold War. He fired MacArthur and began negotiations with North Korea that ultimately restored the status quo ante bellum.
In 1954, when the French asked for U.S. assistance to bail them out against the North Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu, Adm. Arthur Radford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or CJCS, pushed hard for U.S. involvement and recommended attacking the North Vietnamese forces with nuclear weapons. President Dwight D. Eisenhower instead sent an envoy to Paris to work out the partition of Vietnam.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his fellow chiefs urged President John F. Kennedy to launch a full scale invasion of Cuba. We now know this would have produced a nuclear attack on the United States. Kennedy wisely chose a quarantine and sent his brother, Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, to negotiate with the Soviet Union. His Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, had to intervene with the chief of Naval operations, Adm. George Anderson, to prevent the Navy from actually firing on Soviet ships.
In trying to win the “war in Vietnam” in the 1956-72 time frame, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the ground commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, recommended steps that included sending a million troops to Vietnam, bombing North Vietnam’s petroleum facilities and Hanoi’s locks, dams, and rail yards and, after the Tet Offensive, surging 206,000 more troops on top of the 525,000 already in the South.
In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson, on the advice of his new defense secretary, overruled these “military experts” and began negotiations with North Vietnam. President Richard M. Nixon continued the negotiations, undertook a policy of Vietnamization, and began the process of normalization of relations with China, North Vietnam’s main supporter.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush ignored the advice of then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, when it came to evicting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Powell and the central commander, Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, opposed the invasion and instead wanted to rely on sanctions. Powell became so outspoken in his opposition to the war that then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had to tell him to confine his advice to the subject of how to evict Saddam, rather than whether.
Over the past 60 years, U.S. military leaders often compounded their bad advice by presenting overly optimistic reports on our progress in winning these wars. The most famous example of this was Westmoreland’s address to a joint session of Congress in 1967, when he actually assured the legislators and the American public that there was light at the end of the tunnel in South Vietnam.
The mistakes of the military leaders in Iraq, from Gen. Tommy Franks onward, have been legendary. In March 2003, Franks and the majority of the chiefs (including Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Jack Keane, the author of the surge) told their superiors and the U.S. public we had enough troops to overthrow Saddam Hussein and secure the country. In November 2003, every division commander (including Petraeus of the 101st Airborne) assured Gen. John Abizaid, the central commander, that we were winning in Iraq.
In late September 2004, right before the presidential election, Petraeus, then in charge of training Iraqi forces, assured the American people, in a Washington Post op-ed article, that there was tangible progress in the training of Iraqi security forces and there were reasons for optimism. In March 2005, Abizaid said that he did not see civil war on the horizon. In June 2006, Gen. George Casey, Petraeus’ predecessor, said that by December 2007 the U.S. would only need 5 or 6 combat brigades in Iraq, instead of the 15 that were — and still are — there.
It is clear that had we listened to some of our military commanders, the United States may have gone to war with China in the 1950s; may still be in Vietnam trying to prop up a corrupt South Vietnamese government, and may have provoked a nuclear holocaust with the Soviet Union.
Moreover, by listening to our military commanders, the Bush administration sent too few troops to Iraq and, by ignoring the warning signs of the developing insurgency and civil war in that country, proclaimed mission accomplished more than five years ago.
It is important for our political leaders to keep these examples in mind when deciding what to do about Iraq. It is not surprising that Petraeus sees Iraq as the central front in the war on terror, just as MacArthur saw Korea as the central front in the Cold War. It is also not surprising Petraeus is opposed to setting a date to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq, as Westmoreland was in Vietnam.
Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and the first President Bush were correct in ignoring the advice of flag officers like MacArthur, Radford, Westmoreland and Powell. The next president should keep this in mind when it comes to listening to military officers. As Clemenceau reminded us, war is too important to be left to the generals.
LAWRENCE J. KORB, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information.