President Bush and His Generals

Two major publications today, presumably independently, launched a new meme in response to President Bush’s speech yesterday at the Naval Academy outlining his plan for victory in Iraq: That, after years of being at odds, the commander-in-chief and his generals are now on the same page.

Tyler Marshall and Mark Mazzetti on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times:

Bush Is Now in Step With His Generals

Much of the rhetoric was familiar. But in his U.S. Naval Academy speech Wednesday, President Bush seemed to accept the hard realities both on the ground in Iraq and politically in the United States by pledging a smaller American force. After months of a lingering disconnect between the White House and senior military commanders, Bush’s comments at the academy in Annapolis, Md., seemed to bring him into line not just with America’s military but with much of his administration. Repeatedly, military commanders have made the case that only a drawdown of U.S. troops would make Iraqi forces take control of their nation’s security. On Wednesday, Bush finally seemed to buy into the argument. The revised mission would reduce the exposure of U.S. troops to enemy attack and the potential for U.S. casualties.

In many ways, his speech was an artful domestic tightrope walk, one in which he forcefully rejected his critics’ calls for an immediate troop pullout — or even a timetable for one — and repeated the applause lines cherished by his core supporters. “I will settle for nothing less than complete victory,” he said at one point. “We will stay as long as necessary to complete the mission.”

Yet behind these words, Bush’s glowing assessment of the progress of Iraqi forces provided a response to two of his most crucial political constituencies: his core supporters desperate for reassurances that a plan exists for the victory he has so often promised, and the growing number of supporters-turned-skeptics who now demand a viable exit strategy.

The thrust of Bush’s remarks easily dovetailed with earlier statements made by his two top commanders in the region, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, and Army Gen. George W. Casey, the military’s senior officer in Iraq. In Senate testimony two months ago, the two generals had argued that a smaller U.S. force was necessary because the very presence of Americans was fueling the insurgency and fostering a dependency on a continued U.S. presence by the nascent Iraqi security force.

In their Baghdad Memo, featured atop the NYT website but with no indication as to the print page number, John F. Burns and Dexter Filkins reach the same conclusion through an entirely different route.

For Once, President And His Generals See The Same War

For anyone who has spent time in the field with American officers here, President Bush’s speech on Wednesday was a watershed: for the first time in the two years since the conflict here turned brutal, the war Mr. Bush described sounded much like the one his generals grapple with every day. The president acknowledged problems that have hobbled the American enterprise since the 2003 invasion: An American effort to build up Iraqi forces that went through a top-to-bottom makeover after early deployments of Iraqi troops saw them “running from the fight.” Iraqi units that are “still uneven,” despite the new American effort to train and equip them that has cost more than $10 billion. A Sunni Arab community that remains largely unyielding, despite months of efforts by Americans seeking to draw them back into the corridors of power.


But for all that, Mr. Bush, in some passages of his speech, came much closer than he has before to matching the hard-nosed assessments of the war that have long been made by American commanders here, at least among themselves. While maintaining a stoic confidence in public, many of these commanders, over the past 18 months, have pressed behind the scenes for the Pentagon to move toward a more realistic appraisal of the war than has been common among major administration figures in Washington.

These generals contend the war is winnable, though they do not says so with the tone of certainty that Mr. Bush mustered Wednesday at Annapolis. But they recognize, privately, that for winning to be an achievable goal within the time frame that American politics is likely to allow, things that have rarely gone America’s way so far will have to improve steadily over the next 6 to 12 months.

The war strategy that Mr. Bush outlined is one that the current group of top generals here developed in the wake of crisis in the spring of 2004. At that time, the abrupt halting of a Marine offensive in Falluja, ordered by Washington after heavy Iraqi civilian casualties, left the city in the control of Islamic militants who promptly began an orgy of kidnapping and beheading. The failure in Falluja, just 25 miles west of Baghdad, became a hallmark of what many saw as the muddled American handling of the war.

Shortly after formal Iraqi sovereignty was restored in June last year, a new American commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., joined with a new American ambassador, John D. Negroponte, to order a complete review of the way the Iraq war was being fought. At that point, officers involved in the review have acknowledged, the war on the ground, with insurgents running rampant in Falluja and elsewhere, bore little relationship to what one senior commander called the “illusionist” version put out by the American occupation authority, or by Mr. Bush and other top officials in Washington.

Kevin Drum, reacting to the LAT piece, is skeptical.

Actually, I hope this is true. But I doubt it. Bush said a lot of things in his speech today, but the military arguments in favor of a drawdown weren’t among them. In fact, they were conspicuously missing. I didn’t get the sense that he’s modified his views in any way at all.

I agree, although for somewhat different reasons. President Bush has been saying that we need to turn the war over to the Iraqi forces for quite some time. Remember his Army War College speech of May 24, 2004? Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Iraq’s military, police, and border forces have begun to take on broader responsibilities. Eventually, they must be the primary defenders of Iraqi security, as American and coalition forces are withdrawn. And we’re helping them to prepare for this role. In some cases, the early performance of Iraqi forces fell short. Some refused orders to engage the enemy. We’ve learned from these failures, and we’ve taken steps to correct them. Successful fighting units need a sense of cohesion, so we’ve lengthened and intensified their training. Successful units need to know they are fighting for the future of their own country, not for any occupying power, so we are ensuring that Iraqi forces serve under an Iraqi chain of command. Successful fighting units need the best possible leadership, so we improved the vetting and training of Iraqi officers and senior enlisted men.

At my direction, and with the support of Iraqi authorities, we are accelerating our program to help train Iraqis to defend their country. A new team of senior military officers is now assessing every unit in Iraq’s security forces. I’ve asked this team to oversee the training of a force of 260,000 Iraqi soldiers, police, and other security personnel. Five Iraqi army battalions are in the field now, with another eight battalions to join them by July the 1st. The eventual goal is an Iraqi army of 35,000 soldiers in 27 battalions, fully prepared to defend their country.

This was a major address with the title, “Steps to Help Iraq Achieve Democracy and Freedom.” These things bear repeating, to be sure, but he’s said these things before.

Update: Steve Bainbridge notes a disconnect between the NYT editorial page and their reports vis this piece.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    Two major publications today, presumably independently, launched a new meme in response to President Bush’s speech yesterday at the Naval Academy outlining his plan for victory in Iraq: That, after years of being at odds, the commander-in-chief and his generals are now on the same page.

    Awful lot of coincidence, that.