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What “I Listen to the Generals” Means


President Bush has said on previous occasions that when it comes to deciding whether more US troops should be added to Iraq or withdrawn, "I listen to the generals on the ground." But apparently he meant only when the generals on the ground are carrying out his wishes. When those same generals advocate a different policy, it's time to replace them.

From ABC News:

January 04, 2007 4:02 PM

ABC News' Martha Raddatz Reports: ABC News has learned that the president intends to nominate Admiral William J. Fallon to replace General John Abizaid at Central Command. The announcement is expected next week, before the president gives his Iraq strategy speech, according to US officials.

Officials also tell ABC that the replacement as MNF-I commander in Iraq (replacing Gen. George Casey) will be LTG David Petraeus. Though Casey was originally staying in position till June, he is expected to leave earlier than expected probably in the next few months. “The president wants a clean sweep” an official told ABC News.

Friday’s WaPo and the NYT have more including an article by Michael Gordon and Thom Shanker:

“The idea is to put the whole new team in at roughly the same time, and send some clear messages that we are trying a new approach,” a senior administration official said Thursday.

In addition to the military changes, Mr. Bush intends to appoint the ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, as the new United States ambassador to the United Nations, a senior administration official said Thursday.

“It was clearly time to move the players around on the field,” said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Mr. Bush had yet to announce the changes. “This helps the president to make the case that this is a fresh start.”

Yes, but a fresh start to what? The need for a clean sweep became apparent when both Casey and Abizaid expressed strong reservations about sending additional combat troops to Iraq, and insisted that any “surge” the President’s men wanted be tied explicitly to some definable, limited, and achievable mission. One has yet to emerge. Those have been inconvenient truths to a President bent on escalating the war, now that the elections are out of the way. The Times article suggests General Petraeus, who will replace Casey, is more sympathetic to adding more troops and thus less likely to say the wrong thing to reporters and Congressional committees. William Arkin has more on the General here.

The choice of an Admiral of the Navy to oversee Central Command for Iraq and Afghanistan is more intriguing (h/t GSD); you don’t usually see a Navy man overseeing ground troops in a ground war. On the other hand, an aggressive Navy guy might admirably fit in with a strategy that recently moved two aircraft carrier battle groups into the waters near Iran. That will bear watching.

For more than a year, the senior US military commanders in Iraq and the Middle East have been pursuing what they thought were the wishes of the President and his "national security team," including now replaced Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. That strategy, whatever its merits and plausibility, was to train Iraqi forces so that when the Iraqis stand up, US troops can stand down. In the meantime, US forces would be heavily engaged in combat operations, fighting Sunni/Baathist resistance in some areas, conducting house-to-house searches for sectarian fighters in others, and fighting frequently with various Shiite militia, particularly those loyal to Muktada al-Sadr. But all that was supposed to taper off as the Iraqi Army and police gradually took over security operations and allowed the American troops to stand down.

The Iraq Study Group, picking up on this military strategy from talking to military commanders in Iraq and here, and wanting desperately to believe that there was a realistic strategy for eventual withdrawal, re-emphasized the need to continue and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. The ISG Report presented this strategy, along with expanded negotiations and other political initiatives, as the necessary step to allow a redeployment of US troops away from combat operations — and eventually, home.

Prior to the elections, the White House seemed more than happy to adopt this strategy, or to at least claim that it was supporting it. WH officials repeatedly dangled the possibility of US troop reductions before the electorate, and they encouraged General Abizaid, the leader of the Central Command in the Middle East, and General Casey, the head of the US/International Forces in Iraq, to discuss the strategy with reporters and before Congress.

The Generals told us that if the training went as planned, we could begin to reduce US troop levels in Iraq by so many thousands by some future date, and reduce them even more later — with withdrawals continuing through the 2006 elections. It seemed the whole strategy was designed to assure the American people that there was a plan to bring the troops home, and it would work.

Of course, the training strategy did not go well as chaos overran Bush’s plan. Despite repeated announcements by Rumsfeld and the President about how many Iraqi battalions were trained and how many were now operating (sorta) on their own, Iraqi forces too often failed. Men deserted or failed to show up for training; units lacked leadership and equipment; and the sectarian militias made up so many of the units that there was greater loyalty to the sectarian leadership than the nominal Iraqi commanders. When looking for the Iraq Army, there was no there there. And of course, sectarian violence exploded after the bombing of the sacred Shiite mosque in Samarra, creating impossible conflicts for the allegiance of the Iraqi forces.

But a funny thing happened along the way: Despite all the problems, the US generals apparently came to believe in the strategy they were told to plan for. To them, it wasn't an election ploy; instead, it became a logical approach to forcing the Iraqi government to deal more forcefully with it's own political and security problems. Instead of invalidating the strategy, the increasing sectarian violence proved the strategy's political importance. And it was a practical necessity, dictated by the increasing fear that an open-ended military commitment, let alone an escalation of US troop involvement, would "break" the Army.

Now however, the elections have passed. The strategy is no longer needed to win the election — in fact, it failed to do that. So the strategy is being abandoned by the White House, leaving the generals the unhappy choice of either defending it openly, in opposition to their Commander in Chief and civilian leadership, or agreeing to implement a different policy they do not support.

These men were already planning to retire; they could have just shut up. But they chose to speak out. And like others who spoke openly of their disagreement with the Bush White House claims, they are now about to be replaced, but on an accelerated schedule.

In coming weeks and months, we will likely hear again from these generals, and many others like them, who have found it necessary to speak out against their Commander in Chief. Only this time, they won't be speaking only on CNN or MSNBC's Hardball. They'll be testifying before Congress, in front of Committees headed by Democrats, who will be very interested in what they have to say. I expect the nation's media will be riveted on the spectacle of watching senior military officials explain why their recommendations were ignored by an increasingly unpopular President and his men.

I've said so many times in the last year or so, I don't remember anything like this in my lifetime. And I don't know how it ends.

And as Dan Froomkin asked Wednesday, “Where’s the outrage over escalation?”

UPDATE: Dems Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi send letter to Bush urging him not to add more US troops. Greg Sargent at TPM (h/t Prof. Foland) has the unofficial text.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley