Bush and the Generals: A Growing Split?

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In his press conference Wednesday morning, President George Bush made an interesting verbal pivot, which was not lost on senior military officers listening in the Pentagon. Talking about troop levels in Iraq, Bush did not use his usual line that the commanders on the ground would get whatever they need. Instead, he said he would "listen" to the commanders.

That semantic shift underscores what many defense analysts see as an increasing divide between the top military brass and the civilian leadership on how to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For much of the three and a half years of the Iraq war, top-level military officers like CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abziaid mostly stood by mutely while Bush and now-departed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly said the commanders in Iraq were orchestrating the military strategy on the ground. (The message: if the war isn't going well, ask the generals why.) The Joint Chiefs of Staff — the top officers of all four services and the Chairman and Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — never aggressively challenged Rumsfeld's micromanaging. Nor did they object when Rumsfeld broke with tradition and refused to meet with them as a body — instead, including senior civilians in policy meetings with them. According to one former retired senior officer, Rumsfeld met only once in the last four years with the Chiefs alone.

But the Chiefs finally "have found their manhood," in the words of one military officer. They are beginning to challenge, in private for the most part, the political leadership to a degree unprecedented in this Administration. According to Pentagon sources, the senior officers are demanding that the White House finally come up with a definable and achieveable military strategy for Iraq. "We would not surge without a purpose," Army Chief Gen. Pete Schoomaker said bluntly to reporters last week. "And that purpose should be measurable."

"We need a strategy before we send troops," says one retired senior officer. A comprehensive plan, he adds, would include "a reasonable and frank assessment of the enemy and friendly forces, an identifiable and reasonable objective/end state, appropriate tasks for the various departments and agencies to achieve the objective, a unified command plan for coordinating the otherwise disparate efforts of the agencies, milestones for achieving tasks, various branches to the plan to accommodate the unexpected, and metrics for judging success, followed by an exit plan. Do you want Iraq to look like Iowa? Or is it sufficient that there are three regions of Iraq [Shi'a, Sunni and Kurd] co-existing in a loose federation with their own militias?"

Two chiefs, Gen. Schoomaker and the new Marine Commandant James Conway, are also more openly arguing that their services are stretched too thin and need more forces overall. Schoomaker, a former Special Forces officer who was brought back from retirement to run the Army, last week said the Army would "break" without an increase. Congress has allowed the Army to temporarily grow by 30,000 soldiers beyond its active-duty cap of 482,000. It is about 5,000 troops short of that goal. Army officials want the temporary increase to be permanent, and many favor a still larger increase. Schoomaker said that the Army could accommodate an annual increase of up to 7,000 troops.

Gen. Conway, the first Chief who actually served on the ground in the Iraq war, has brought a new boldness to his post, which he took over a month ago. He is calling for the Corps to grow by at least 5,000 from its current level of 175,000. In meetings with legislators, sources say, Conway has argued for a bigger increase, up to some 190,000.

In his press conference, President Bush expressed support for the idea of increasing the size of the military, though he remained noncommittal on whether he would send more troops in Iraq. But the military chiefs appear to be running out of patience. "What has finally put some backbone in the Chiefs," says a former senior officer who maintains good contacts with the Pentagon, "is that, to date, there has not been a realistic end state in Iraq identified that matches the realities on the ground. Tactics without a strategy are a recipe for failure."