Accountability in Iraq

MG John Batiste (USA, Ret.), who started the current media swarm over retired generals criticizing Don Rumsfeld (although he was by no means the first), has an op-ed in today’s WaPo entitled, “A Case for Accountability.”

I had the opportunity to observe high-level policy formulation in the Pentagon and experience firsthand its impact on the ground. I have concluded that we need new leadership in the Defense Department because of a pattern of poor strategic decisions and a leadership style that is contemptuous, dismissive, arrogant and abusive. This dismissive attitude has frayed long-standing alliances with our allies inside and outside NATO, alliances that are fundamental to our security and to building strong coalitions. It is time to hold our leaders accountable. A leader is responsible for everything an organization does or fails to do. It is time to address the axis of arrogance and the reinforcing of strategic failures in decision-making.

I would note that relations within NATO were hardly harmonious before Rumsfeld’s arrival on the scene. There have been clashes going back at least to the Suez Crisis in the 1950s, the French withdrawal in the 1960s, the kerfuffles over Pershing IIs and the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s, and the debates over the relevancy of the organization from the 1990s onward.

We went to war with the wrong war plan. Senior civilian leadership chose to radically alter the results of 12 years of deliberate and continuous war planning, which was improved and approved, year after year, by previous secretaries of defense, all supported by their associated chairmen and Joint Chiefs of Staffs. Previous planning identified the need for up to three times the troop strength we committed to remove the regime in Iraq and set the conditions for peace there. Building the peace is a tough business; for a host of reasons, it requires boots on the ground.

The plan was signed off on by the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the then-CENCOM Combantant Commander. Nobody else much mattered. Certainly, not the views of those out of office or the planning conducted around a different political scenario.

Our current leadership decided to discount professional military advice and ignore more than a decade of competent military planning.

No, it made a decision. Military advice varied. Further, “military advice” always calls for overkill. The Powell-Weinberger doctrines still permeate the consciousness of the military despite being grounded in a long-ago era.

It failed to consider military lessons learned, while displaying ignorance of the tribal, ethnic and religious complexities that have always defined Iraq.

This is quite likely true. But, frankly, the number of senior military leaders who had any clue about these things pre-2003 could be counted on a single hand. As a matter of course, generals are not regional experts and regional experts do not make general. Norman Schwarzkopf was a happy exception to that rule.

We took down a regime but failed to provide the resources to build the peace. The shortage of troops never allowed commanders on the ground to deal properly with the insurgency and the unexpected. What could have been a deliberate victory is now a long, protracted challenge.

The problem is not the number of troops but the type. We simply lacked adequate Special Forces, military police, psychological operations, and civil affairs personnel to do the job. The fault for that lies squarely with generations of military officers who ignored reality on the ground and the lessons learned through several 1990s peacekeeping fiascos, preferring to do things the way they had always been done.

The national embarrassment of Abu Ghraib can be traced right back to strategic policy decisions. We provided young and often untrained and poorly led soldiers with ambiguous rules for prisoner treatment and interrogation. We challenged commanders with insufficient troop levels, which put them in the position of managing shortages rather than leading, planning and anticipating mission requirements. The tragedy of Abu Ghraib should have been no surprise to any of us.

The lax policies set forth by the Pentagon and the Attorney General’s office no doubt contributed. But Abu Ghraib was primarily a military failure, not a civilian one. From an incompetent Reserve general to poorly supervised Reserve MPs, this national embarrassment lays squarely at the boots of poor soldiers, not poor civilian leaders. It is a military problem long predating Don Rumsfeld that we pretend that part-time Reserve and National Guard soldiers are interchangable with active duty professionals. The military leadership deserves credit for having made substantial headway on this problem in recent years. It nonetheless remains a fact of life.

We disbanded the Iraqi military. This created unbelievable chaos, which we were in no position to control, and gave the insurgency a huge source of manpower, weapons and military experience. Previous thinking associated with war planning depended on the Iraqi military to help build the peace. Retaining functioning institutions is critical in the rebuilding process. We failed to do this.

Everyone agrees that this was a huge mistake. We tried to correct it within a month, but it was too late. Still, as Christopher Hitchens points out, there were sound political reasons for de-Baathification.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claims to be the man who started the Army’s transformation. This is not true. Army transformation started years before this administration came into office. The secretary’s definition of transformation was to reduce the Army to between five and seven divisions to fund programs in missile defense, space defense and high-tech weapons. The war on terrorism disrupted his work, and the Army remains under-resourced at a time when it is shouldering most of the war effort. Boots on the ground and high-tech weapons are important, and one cannot come at the expense of the other.

This is unfair to Rumsfeld on two counts. First, he doesn’t claim to have invented transformation, just to have ramped it up and redirected it. And it was never just about high-tech weaponry but also about jointness and eliminating wasteful programs. Like the Army’s Crusader. And Rumsfeld has not cut the size of the Army.

Civilian control of the military is fundamental, but we deserve competent leaders who do not lead by intimidation, who understand that respect is a two-way street, and who do not dismiss sound military advice. At the same time, we need senior military leaders who are grounded in the fundamental principles of war and who are not afraid to do the right thing. Our democracy depends on it. There are some who advocate that we gag this debate, but let me assure you that it is not in our national interest to do so. We must win this war, and we cannot allow senior leaders to continue to make decisions when their track record is so dismal.

I basically agree with this argument, aside from the begged questions of dismissed advice and lack of respect. While Rumsfeld certainly ruffled some feathers, for every retired general who says he was unreasonable we can find two who say he is listens patiently to advice. Former JCS Richard Myers speaks incredibly highly of the man, for example.

For all these reasons, we need to hold leaders accountable. There is no question that we will succeed in Iraq. To move forward, we need a leader with the character and skills necessary to lead. To date, this war has been a strategic failure. On the ground, operationally and tactically, we are winning the war on the backs of our great soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors and their families. Americans deserve accountability in our leaders. We need a fresh start.

This is platitudinous nonsense. If “there is no question that we will succeed in Iraq,” then the entire rest of the article is obviated. This sounds like the whining that came from Vietnam-era officers who claim that they would have won if only their hands hadn’t been tied behind their backs by the civilian leadership. The military can not simultaneously take credit for all the good and escape all the blame for the bad.

Most of the decisions are made at the operational level and day-to-day success is measured there. Ultimately, the strategic measure of the war will be purely political: The success of the Iraqi government. That’s not entirely in Don Rumsfeld’s hands.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. A fine fisking, James. My impression of the Gang of Six, having read their columns, is that their political-military worldview is still firmly grounded in the pre-9/11 world. (I fisked former Gen. Wesley Clark in March 2003 for the same thing.)

    I smacked Rummy down on my own blog about his own smackdown of Gen. Shinseki’s testimony to Congress before OIF. No one can accuse me of being a member of the Friend of Rumsfeld club. In fact, I wish would go away, but I think the WaPo has it right: to bend to the protests of what comes across to me as snively and whiny retired generals would be very bad for the country and bad even more for the military.

  2. Christopher says:

    C’mon! u think Rumsfeld should go away? That’s just lame thinking. He establishes the overall strategy as civilian commander but it is the military who does the main planning. Any criticism needs to go overall to our military. But before anyone does that, remember that they are the BEST in the world and no other country could have done a better job in Iraq.

    People aren’t mad at Rumsfeld or Bush, they are mad that we are in a foreign war that has taken a long time, and they take it out on the admin. But Bush and his admin are to be commended-they have stuck to something good and right that 99.99 of politicians would have abandoned years ago. (and all during a great economic expansion resulting from Bush policy) We haven’t seen great leadership like Bush’s for a long long time and won’t again prob for a long time.

  3. John Anderson says:

    It is not that military advice was ignored, it is that the advice of a thousand generals was weighed and a dozen or so whine that they did not win over the rest.

    Yeah, more troops might have been a help – but without Turkish and Saudi available – even for overflights – how could the Coalition have gotten them in?

    And more might be useful now – which is why the Iraqis are being trained and taking on more responsibilities, instead of us staying on as jck-booted occupiers.

    And on, and on…

  4. Boyd says:

    The fault for that lies squarely with generations of military officers who ignored reality on the ground and the lessons learned through several 1990s peacekeeping fiascos, preferring to do things the way they had always been done.

    As you pointed out to me once before, James, these are obviously “lessons identified,” not “lessons learned.” This situation just reemphasizes that fact.

  5. Herb says:

    I am fed up with these whining cry baby armchair Generals that did not have the guts to say their piece before retiring. They were all scared out of their fancy pants to say anything so they could obviously “Protect their Retirement Benefits” These guys just sound like the CS Generals they are so amply showing everyone.

    Now, the problem is the Liberal blood sucking, blood thirsty, press people who make a living of twisting the truth so they can show the World. “See How Great I am”.

    Most of these press people wouldn’t make a pimple on a real reporters rear end.

  6. Roger says:

    “My impression … having read their columns, is that their political-military worldview is still firmly grounded in the pre-9/11 world.” — No Donald, it was Bushco’s worldview that failed to adjust after 9/11. They implemented their pre-9/11 plan to attack Iraq despite 9/11. They should have adjusted to the new priority 9/11 made clear and stuck with getting Al Qaeda.

    “We havenâ??t seen great leadership like Bushâ??s for a long long time and wonâ??t again prob for a long time.” — Chris, we’ve never seen “leadership” like this before, nor I pray will we ever see it again.

    “It is not that military advice was ignored . ..” — John, Powell tried to tell them from the beginning that Iraq was a bad idea. The chickenhawks did not listen to his sound military advice, or to anyone else’s advice that didn’t agree with what they were already determined to do.

    To hear you guys talk, you’d think Bin Laden had been caught and executed years ago and Al Qaeda had been wiped out and the threat of further terrorists attacks eliminated. Our Great Leader has failed miserably and we will likely pay the price for it. Of course, you’ll always be able to blame our military for it, I suppose, or the next President–but only if a Democrat is in office.

    Your disregard for our country and our military simply to support a politician at all costs is disturbing.

  7. RJN says:

    Give ’em hell Roger. You are spot on.

    This was a fiasco pushed by the neo-cons. Nothing mattered to them except getting the U. S. into a strategic position in Iraq.

    By the way, the Taliban are retaking Afghanistan, and increasing their influence in Pakistan.

  8. anjin-san says:

    The “long-ago Powell era”? You mean the one where we actually won a war?

  9. Jem says:

    Roger and RJN,
    Having seen the target lists for the war plan before Rumsfeld and Franks had it redone and worked some targeting issues during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, your argument about going with the pre-9/11 plan simply doesn’t mesh with reality.

    But it’s not bad as rants go…so long as your audience is equally ignorant of the facts.

  10. Roger says:

    Jem, let me clarify for you. Pre-9/11, Bushco planned to attack Iraq. After 9/11, Bushco and company proceed to attack Iraq rather than deal with the threat to our country revealed by 9/11. Your response pretends you don’t understand thias simple point. The neocon game of playing “stupid on purpose” has been overused and is no longer effective.

  11. LJD says:

    When will you people understand that Iraq was/is/ will be fundamental to the GWOT? 9/11 was only the tipping point for us to become involved in treating a long festering sore.

    Blaming the current state of the world on your imagined foe “the Neocons” is no different than blaming the GWOT on “those Brown Peopole”. Wake up and smell the coffee.

  12. Christopher says:

    Remember liberals: everyone in the military volunteered. gawd how that must make you frustrated!!!

  13. McGehee says:

    Pre-9/11, Bushco planned to attack Iraq.

    In 1998, so did ClintonCo. But he’s excused because he didn’t actually do anything.

  14. LJD says:

    I suppose Clinton ‘planned’ to capture Bin Laden as well. He managed not to do anything there either.

  15. legion says:

    When will you people understand that Iraq was/is/ will be fundamental to the GWOT?

    When someone can actually demonstrate that that was true prior to OIF.

    Yes, Iraq could have become, over a number of years, a threat to regional stability. Yes, Saddam was a complete bastard, desparately in need of two to the head. But considering them a threat to the existence, or even physical security, of the US is ridiculous. And before you spout off that the GWOT is supposed to protect “the world” from terror, not just the US, you might want to ask the State Dept how many more terror attacks there have been worldwide since we invaded Iraq. If that info hasn’t been retroactively classified due to Bush’s embarrassment.

    The simple fact is that it made _no damn sense_ to invade Iraq. We hadn’t properly secured Afghanistan. Pakistan, with its rogue scientist, has proven to be more of a nuclear-proliferation threat than Iraq (or Iran, for that matter) could ever hope to be. North Korea is a threat to both regional stability _and_ the US physically – a half-cocked, fully loaded, fully insane, nuclear-bombing NK isn’t in China’s interest either.

    No matter how you slice it, Iraq was NOT central to GWOT until we invaded.

  16. Roger says:

    Amen, legion. I keep waiting for LJD to actually explain his rants, but no dice.

    Hmmm. Seems to me when Clinton was fighting Al-Qaeda, the Repubs kept shouting “wag the dog” and doing everything they could to stop him. They were more interested in talking about Clinton’s sex life than defending the country. Hypocrites.
    Wait, I forgot how all the Repubs were clamoring to invade Afghanistan before 9/11 and were eager to back Clinton’s military actions against dictators and warlords around the world, like in Somalia and Serbia. My bad.

  17. LJD says:

    No matter how you slice it, Iraq was NOT central to GWOT until we invaded.

    Keep living in your ‘assessment’ of the past. Regardless of what you belive in the run-up to the war, Saddam WAS a key contributor to terror. Being a threat to the mainland U.S. is now irrelevant: He was in violation of international law, was continually attacking our military enforcing the law, he needed to be toppled, and we were the ones the U.N. chose to do the job. Again, regardless of the past, sounds like you admit that Iraq IS central to the GWOT. – nuff said about that.

    I love how you guys move the goalposts. Going to Somalia and Yugoslavia are o.k. It is now o.k. to trample over Afghanistan to find one guy. It is o.k. to trade nukes with North Korea (or Iran). It’s o.k. to sacrifice tens of thousands in bloody all-out conventional warfare in Sudan. Iraq is not o.k. I guess in your minds, it depends on who is making the call.

    Also, you carry many many assuptions. As if things would be any different in Afghanistan, North Korea, or Iran if we had stayed out of Iraq. Must be great to have that crystal ball that works in reverse.

  18. Roger says:

    It made no sense to invade Iraq before rooting out Al-Qaeda, LJD. No one argued for or against Somalia, etc. The point was the Repubs hypocrisy then vs. their sudden eagerness to go after evil dictators now that we should be focused on a direct threat to our country. This stuff is not difficult.

  19. anjin-san says:

    I thought Bush was “the decider”. Do you cats hold him responsible for anything that has happend on his watch?

  20. Roger says:

    Well, they think his tax cuts for the wealthy are responsible for an improved economy. But, of course, they have nothing to do with our huge trade deficits.

    And so on . . . .