Bush Must Stop Blaming Military Leaders for Failed Strategy

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that if the Iraqi government does not meet the benchmarks set by Congress by September, the Bush administration should call off its latest escalation and begin reducing the American troop presence. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Iraqi government will not meet those benchmarks. But President Bush does not wish to make such a major shift in his strategy. Therefore, on July 19, he had the generals in Iraq brief Congress and tell them that September is much too soon to judge whether the surge is working.

During wars that became unpopular because of how and why they are fought - like Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq -- political leaders, who got us involved in these conflicts, are tempted to use military leaders as part of the domestic political debate to stem demand on the part of the public to withdraw American forces. There is also a tendency on the part of military leaders to enter into the debate to support the current strategy. But while politicians and military leaders have occasionally succumbed to these temptations in the past, the extent to which the Bush administration has used the military as political pawns to support its failed policies in Iraq is unprecedented.

In 1967, President Johnson did arrange for General William Westmoreland, the commander of our forces in Vietnam, to address a joint session of the Congress to report on the "progress" the attrition strategy was making in Vietnam. General Westmoreland, who was Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1967, gave a glowing report that supported President Johnson's "Strategy for Victory," rather than a balanced assessment of the situation on the ground.

But, this was the exception rather than the rule for the Johnson and Nixon administrations, who presided over that war. As the war in Vietnam became increasingly unpopular, Johnson never tried to shift the blame to the military by claiming that he had given them all the forces they requested, though in fact he had. Nor did Johnson, or Nixon who presided over the last four years of the Vietnam War, ever argue that the Congress had to support the strategies of Westmoreland or his successor General Abrams'. For better or worse it was the strategy of the two Presidents.

The behavior of Johnson and Nixon was similar to that of President Truman during the Korean War. Public opinion turned against the war in Korea in late November 1950, when the Chinese launched a massive attack on the General Macarthur's widely dispersed American forces and drove them back into South Korea. But Truman never blamed Macarthur even though he had approved Macarthur's plan to advance toward the Yalu only after Macarthur had assured him in October 1950 that the Chinese would not interfere. Nor did Truman fire the "American Caesar" until six months later when Macarthur wrote a letter to the House Minority leader, Joseph Martin (R-MA) condemning Truman's decision not to use Taiwanese military forces in Korea.

Not so with the Bush administration. Ever since the US became bogged down in Iraq and the President's yearly pronouncements about progress have turned out not to be wildly exaggerated, the President has consistently blamed the generals. For example, when it became clear that the US did not send enough troops to secure Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein, President Bush claimed General Franks, the combatant Commander, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff assured him that we had enough troops to succeed. And during 2005 and 2006, as the violence in Iraq and American casualties increased, the President said that General Casey the Commander in Iraq had not asked for more troops. Of course, Bush never mentioned the fact that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld made it clear to the Generals that they would not get more troops. And that Rumsfeld and his top lieutenants had publicly criticized General Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff for having the temerity to testify before Congress that several hundred thousand troops would be necessary to stabilize Iraq after the regime change.

The President's use of the military as part of the domestic debate did not stop there. The combatant Commanders on the ground and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been continually "offered" to the Sunday morning talk shows to buttress the administration's case for staying the course in Iraq. Moreover, when Congressional Republicans blamed General Casey for the problems in Iraq, Bush was silent.

However, the most flagrant use of the military to influence the domestic political debate has been with General David H. Petraeus. When Petraeus was in charge of training Iraqi security forces he was permitted or encouraged to write an op-ed in the Washington Post on September 26, 2004 that spoke glowingly about the progress that Iraqi Security forces were making under his tutelage. Not only was this not true, but coming a bare six weeks before the presidential election, the Petraeus op-ed assured an increasingly anxious public that the Bush strategy in Iraq was succeeding and helped the President secure reelection.

As a "reward," Petraeus was promoted and given charge of the President's latest escalation, the so-called surge strategy. Whenever anyone points out that this strategy needs to be changed, the President claims that it is General Petraeus's strategy. Moreover, Bush argues that since Congress confirmed him, it must support the "Petraeus strategy." Since Petraeus took command in Baghdad in February 2007 the President has invoked his name over 150 times.

However great the temptation to have military leaders become part of a domestic debate, it must be resisted by both the political and military leaders. While Bush is to be blamed for his use and abuse of the military, many generals are equally at fault. These professionals need to stop allowing themselves to be used as political props. They do not work for any administration but for the American people.