Ask the average American their theory on why we “lost” in Vietnam and you are likely to get this answer or some variation of it: “We didn’t let the military fight the war, the war was fought by politicians. If we’d let the military do their job, we would have won.” This notion has become thoroughly ingrained in our national memory, despite (or perhaps because of?) being completely wrongheaded. One wonders if, in the future, we will see that this is in fact the perfect explanation for what has happened in Iraq. The examples are numerous.
In the buildup for the war, as I mentioned recently, there were widespread reports that the military brass wanted a much larger force than the politicians, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in particular, thought was necessary. General Eric Shinseki testified before Congress that the war and occupation would take several hundred thousand troops and cost at least $100 billion:
“Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required,” General Shinseki told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee today. “We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems.”
General Shinseki continued, “It takes a significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure that people are fed, that water is disturbed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this.”
Paul Wolfowitz called a press conference to publicly undress Shinseki, calling his predictions “wildly off the mark” and adding, “I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down.” A whispering campaign was aimed at reporters to undermine Shinseki:
In semi-private, the Pentagon’s civilian leadership was far more scathing. A “senior administration official” told the Village Voice newspaper that Gen Shinseki’s remark was “bullshit from a Clintonite enamoured of using the army for peacekeeping and not winning wars”.
He was quickly marginalized in the Pentagon by the civilian leaders, replaced as Army Chief of Staff by Peter Schoomaker and hustled off to retirement. When Army secretary Thomas White agreed with Shinseki, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz threw a fit and White ended up resigning after a public feud with the two, saying:
Former Army secretary Thomas White said in an interview that senior Defense officials “are unwilling to come to grips” with the scale of the postwar U.S. obligation in Iraq. The Pentagon has about 150,000 troops in Iraq and recently announced that the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s stay there has been extended indefinitely.
“This is not what they were selling (before the war),” White said, describing how senior Defense officials downplayed the need for a large occupation force. “It’s almost a question of people not wanting to ‘fess up to the notion that we will be there a long time and they might have to set up a rotation and sustain it for the long term.”…
White said it is reasonable to assume the Pentagon will need more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to provide stability for at least the next year. Pentagon officials envisioned having about 100,000 troops there immediately after the war, but they hoped that number would be quickly drawn down.
There were even reports that Rumsfeld wanted as few as 70,000 troops, an example of the quick-strike light military organization that he had been advocating since the end of the Cold War. They ultimately settled on something less than 200,000 troops, still much less than needed.
The warnings came in from the field generals both active and retired, including Wesley Clark and Anthony Zinni in addition to Shinseki, that this simply was not enough troops. Clark said repeatedly on television in the buildup to the war that we would quickly conquer the Iraqi military and take over (as we did, obviously), but that there were not enough boots on the ground to do all of the things necessary in the aftermath of that – control the major cities, prevent looting, protect the government infrastructure, hunt down Baathist holdouts, secure the oil fields from being blown up, seal the borders to prevent outsiders from getting in, and perhaps most importantly, secure all of the Iraqi ammunition and arms depots, which were literally scattered all over the country. The results: widespread looting, including some of the most precious archaeological artifacts and art work in the world, while we protected the oil ministry, sending the obvious message that we didn’t really care about the people of Iraq or their national heritage, we only cared about the oil; the looting and dispersal of huge stores of arms and ammunition from Iraqi military caches to insurgent groups, so that our troops now face an enemy hiding among the people but armed with rocket propelled grenades and mortars; Islamic militants pouring in from Iran and Syria to join the fight against the Great Satan. All of these things were predictable and predicted, especially by current and retired generals, but those predictions were ignored by the administration.
Now we’re in a situation where we no longer control a sizable portion of the country and can’t even guarantee the security of the vaunted Green Zone inside Baghdad. The insurgency is becoming more sophisticated and more organized and the past month has been the bloodiest since the invasion. Meanwhile, intelligence analysts warn that Al Queda has rebuilt its chain of command, has recruited thousands of new members, and is quickly rebuilding its ability to operate. But the President is in the middle of an election campaign, so he’s busy pretending that none of this is happening, that everything is going great and that’s why you should keep him on the job. In the first decent speech he’s given in the entire campaign, Kerry rightly said that every single thing that the Bush administration has said about Iraq, from the justification given prior to the war to his statements about the current reality, has been false. Even the Republicans in Congress are saying publicly that Bush has to stop pretending everything is fine in Iraq. And just look at this utterly moronic response from the President:
Later, asked by reporters about calls from GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) for a more candid assessment about the Iraq situation, Bush replied that both men “want me elected as president. We agree that the world is better off with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell. And that stands in stark contrast to the statement my opponent made yesterday, when he said that the world was better off with Saddam in power.”
A complete non-answer, coupled with a flat-out lie. The fact that both men want him elected as President has precisely nothing to do with the question that was asked, or the valid criticisms that McCain and Nagel have made. And it is simply a lie to claim that Kerry has said the world was better off with Saddam in power. It’s incredible to me that we tolerate from a President what we would never tolerate in any other setting. If you were teaching a class and a student gave an answer to a question that thoroughly stupid, he’d be flunked. But the President says something that foolish, and we hardly even blink. And did the reporter who asked him that question even bother to say, “Mr. President, you didn’t answer the question”? Nope. Did the reporter writing the article in the “liberal” Washington Post bother to point out that he didn’t answer the question? Nope.
Nor is this the only area in which we accept from a President a statement we would condemn as utterly moronic if it came from someone else. As Bill Maher pointed out on his show the other day, if a political pundit said something as stupid as “the terrorists hate us for our freedom”, he’d get laughed off the set. But the President says that over and over again and we just accept it. It’s like we expect so little of our leaders that we don’t even flinch when they tell us obvious lies or make conspicuously idiotic statements. And we wonder why we’re in this situation.