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How Generals in Iraq Became Bush's Flacks

After more than four years of war, even alert news junkies have become so accustomed to having U.S. commanders in Iraq defend administration policy that they are no longer conscious of it.
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The press conference by Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Division in Iraq, is a reminder that in Bush's Iraq War the top generals in the theater have become flacks for the administration.

Lynch was deployed by the administration through the magic of video conferencing to make the case for its policy of keeping the additional 30,000 "surge forces" in Iraq indefinitely just one day after key Republican Senators were beginning to abandon Bush on the issue. Thos forces, he said, "are giving us the capability we have now to take the fight to the enemy." He warned that, if they were withdrawn, "you'd find the enemy regaining ground, re-establishing a sanctuary, building more IEDs, carrying those IEDs in Baghdad and the violence would escalate."

This is the kind of tendentious and highly politicized statement that has become all to characteristic of U.S. commanders in Iraq. It should be recognized as part of the administration's sales pitch for its policy rather than a legitimate comment for a military officer. Unfortunately, after more than four years of war, even alert news junkies have become so accustomed to having U.S. commanders in Iraq defend administration policy that they are no longer conscious of it.

It is one thing for the commander to brief the press on what his forces are trying to do and providing an account of the results achieved -- however skewed to show that they have been favorable. It is quite another thing for these generals to take on the function of explaining why the administration's war policy is certain to be eminently successful and why it is absolutely necessary.

But that is exactly what U.S. commanders in Iraq have done at the behest of the Bush administration. Much of what they talk about to the media has to do with Iraqi politics and the attitudes and interests of Iraqis rather than military operations. And what they tell the media about those issues is not their independent view but is a reflection of the current White House political message.

It process of turning the top generals in Iraq into flacks started with Gen. George W. Casey, the top commander in Iraq from mid-2004 to early 2007. He was ordered back to Washington frequently to voice the administration's message of progress in the war on television talk shows. One of the top priority messages during much of that time was to reassure Americans that the U.S. mission in Iraq had not been essentially rendered irrelevant by rise of sectarian civil war. Thus in October, 2005 Casey responded to a question from Wolf Blitzer about the danger of civil war in Iraq, by telling Blitzer that "the people of Iraq think of themselves as Iraqis. And people are not interested, necessarily in the fragmentation of the country, and I don't see that happening."

Even after sectarian violence had exploded out of control in late February 2006, Casey again made the rounds of Sunday talk shows to issue a soothing reassurance about sectarian tensions: "I believe that as the leadership of this country comes forward [and] forms a government of national unity, and that begins to move forward...we'll gradually see these tensions ebb."

Gen. Lynch has done much the same thing. On May 4, in his first video teleconference with the press after his division had arrived in Baghdad, Lynch offered as evidence of progress in the war the fact that he was "seeing more and more...Sunni and Shi'a helpful interaction."

But the choice of Lynch as the commander of the key U.S. division in Iraq was different from that of his predecessors. Lynch's qualifications for his new command included his service as the spokesman for the U.S. command in 2005 and 2006, which meant that he had learned to communicate the administration's current message on a day-to-day basis.

A crucial characteristic of the conflict in Iraq is that the definition of the enemy changes from one day to the next, depending on the political needs -- or whims -- of policymakers in Washington. One day the militant Shiites are good guys, the next day they are agents of Iranian influence. One day Sunni insurgents are the main enemy; the next they have become our potential friends. Part of Lynch's job as military spokesman was to tell the media who was or wasn't the enemy. In late 2005, as the Bush administration flirted with a Sunni strategy to counterbalance Iranian influence in Iraq he told journalists that the Sunni insurgents, previously referred to by the U.S. command as "anti-Iraqi forces", were now "nationalists", and emphasized how their interests diverged from those of al Qaeda.

But after the administration had abandoned negotiations with several Sunni armed resistance groups in early March, Lynch dropped the distinction between the Sunni resistance and al Qaeda, suggesting once again that they all constituted just one big terrorist enemy.

Lynch's experience in communicating every twist and turn in the White House message to the press makes him the perfect commander for the Iraq War. There is every reason to believe that it was a key factor in his being chosen to command a division in commander in Iraq. That marks a new stage in the morphing of commanding generals from soldiers into flacks for a war conceived and executed in deceit.

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