Commentary Magazine


The Truth About Bush and the Military

Lawrence Di Rita, who served as an aide to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, published a piece in the Washington Post on retired Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, President-elect Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs. General Shinseki is best known for his supposed clashes with the Bush administration on its Iraq war strategy. Di Rita attempts to clear away what he claims are myths about Shinseki, including that Shinseki opposed the war plan (Di Rita says he did not) and he was snubbed by Rumsfeld at his retirement ceremony (Rumsfeld was never invited to attend). For the sake of clarifying history, Shinseki, who has served his nation honorably and who so far has remained silent about these matters, should be asked about them during his confirmation hearing.

But as a friend pointed out to me, there’s an important point that Di Rita doesn’t make; namely, that the stories around Shinseki contributed to the larger myth that President Bush ignored military advice and that’s the reason the Iraq war went so poorly. Actually, the problem was more nearly the opposite – like other war presidents before him, including even Lincoln, President Bush deferred to prevailing military thinking for too long.

The force levels in Iraq were basically those recommended by General Tommy Franks, then Commander of the United States Central Command, and later, Generals Abizaid and Casey and supported by Rumsfeld. (Even on the surge, the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed it while Rumsfeld, by late 2006, supported it.)

Beyond the troop levels, it is now clear that we had an insufficient doctrine and training for counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare, which is what we faced after toppling Saddam’s regime in record time. Indeed, if we had sent more troops to Iraq during the occupation phase of the war without a different COIN strategy, we would not be seeing the success we’ve achieved in Iraq. The increase in troops was a necessary but not sufficient condition; because our troops were given a fundamentally new COIN strategy, violence has dropped dramatically and Iraq is on the mend.

It helped, of course, that the “Anbar Awakening” pre-dated the surge and was something we were able to build upon.

It turns out that the United States was institutionally unprepared for the occupation phases of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and we – including those in the Bush Administration and many in the military – were too slow to adjust to the resistance we faced. The effort to institutionalize lessons the U.S. military has learned from both conflicts is among the most important, far-reaching reforms of this decade.

Earlier this month, for example, it was revealed that the Pentagon approved a major policy directive that elevates the military’s mission of unconventional or “irregular warfare” to an equal footing with traditional combat. The purpose of the policy is to prepare us to wage future conflicts against non-state actors, including insurgents and terrorists. This outcome is the result of an intense debate within the defense establishment and is part of a fundamental overhaul of U.S. defense doctrine.

This follows the selection in May by an Army board, headed by General David Petraeus, of several combat-tested counterinsurgency experts for promotion to the rank of brigadier general. This in turn was part of an on-going effort to identify a handful of innovative leaders who will shape the future Army. According to the Washington Post:

The choices suggest that the unusual decision to put the top U.S. officer in Iraq in charge of the promotions board has generated new thinking on the qualities of a successful Army officer — and also deepened Petraeus’s imprint on the Army…. Army Secretary Pete Geren asked Petraeus to head the board… and instructed it to stress innovation in selecting a new generation of one-star generals… Several of the colonels widely expected to appear on the resulting promotion list… are considered unconventional thinkers who were effective in the Iraq campaign, in many cases because they embraced a counterinsurgency doctrine that Petraeus helped craft, the officials said…. According to [retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert] Scales… “We are in a very similar place now to the period after Vietnam in the 1970s, when a lot of officers returned and everyone was asking ‘What is next?'” said Scales. “It’s time now for the Army to think about the future and institutionally anticipate the changing nature of war.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, like many wars before them, have been more difficult and costly than we imagined and than they needed to be. But those costs need to be weighed against the liberation of more than 50 million people from sadistic regimes; from having dealt devastating blows to jihadists in Iraq; and the fact that Iraqis are in the process of (imperfectly) establishing a peaceful, self-governing nation in the heart of the Arab world that is fighting terrorism rather than promoting it and which may, over time, transform the political culture of the Middle East. Beyond even that, those wars triggered a thoroughgoing and necessary rethinking of American military doctrine.

The United States military, while imperfect, is one of the most impressive institutions in American life precisely because it is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating what it is doing, jettisoning what isn’t working, and championing what works. At the beginning of the decade, we were not prepared for the wars we would end up fighting. But that has now changed; the mindset and military culture is different than it was. In that respect, we are better prepared than we were. This revolution in thinking – championed by military minds like David Petraeus and which eventually garnered the vital support of President Bush – will be with us long after the Shinseki v. Rumsfeld stories are forgotten.

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