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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, May 09, 2004

WaPo fronts Tom Ricks article on US military dissent on Iraq

Let's review: we know that
  1. a story on the Washington Post (or New York Times) front page is a memo to the White House (February 10); and

  2. Tom Ricks (Thomas E Ricks in professional life) was in bad odour with USG for daring not to be a Bush cheerleader, Elisabeth Bumiller-style (December 29 2003).

Now, with impeccable timing, a couple of days after Donald Rumsfeld's double-header before the Armed Services Committees, Post editors front a piece (May 9) from Ricks with hed and dek
Dissension Grows In Senior Ranks On War Strategy
U.S. May Be Winning Battles in Iraq But Losing the War, Some Officers Say

He goes with a pretty immediate lede:
Deep divisions are emerging at the top of the U.S. military over the course of the occupation of Iraq, with some senior officers beginning to say that the United States faces the prospect of casualties for years without achieving its goal of establishing a free and democratic Iraq.

The squeaking of anonymice, you straight away conclude?

Let's see:

On the record, we have

MG Charles H Swannack Jr (USA),
the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, who spent much of the year in western Iraq, said he believes that at the tactical level at which fighting occurs, the U.S. military is still winning. But when asked whether he believes the United States is losing, he said, "I think strategically, we are."

Col Paul Hughes (USA)
who last year was the first director of strategic planning for the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad, said he agrees with that view and noted that a pattern of winning battles while losing a war characterized the U.S. failure in Vietnam. "Unless we ensure that we have coherency in our policy, we will lose strategically," he said in an interview Friday.

Then follow some anonymous oppositional brass; for instance,
A senior general at the Pentagon said he believes the United States is already on the road to defeat.

Ricks has an unusually full explanation for their anonymity:
Like several other officers interviewed for this report, this general spoke only on the condition that his name not be used. One reason for this is that some of these officers deal frequently with the senior Pentagon civilian officials they are criticizing, and some remain dependent on top officials to approve their current efforts and future promotions. Also, some say they believe that Rumsfeld and other top civilians punish public dissent. Senior officers frequently cite what they believe was the vindictive treatment of then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki after he said early in 2003 that the administration was underestimating the number of U.S. troops that would be required to occupy postwar Iraq.

Given the antipathy here to anonymous sourcing, I'm loathe to give a free pass: but, in contradistinction to most anonymous sources used by the Post and its rivals, these are dissidents, not spouters of USG policy. And no one needs reminding of Shinseki's humiliation at the hands of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz (for any who do, my piece of March 3 2003 gives a flavour).

Wolfowitz and Gen John Abizaid go on the record for Ricks to defend the situation.

Ricks then gets some officers in Iraq on the record to support the official line:
Commanders on the ground in Iraq seconded that cautiously optimistic view.
(ie, that the current intensity of operations against US forces is due to the imminence of the June 30 handover date):
"I am sure that the view from Washington is much worse than it appears on the ground here in Baqubah," said Army Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, commander of a 1st Infantry Division brigade based in that city about 40 miles north of Baghdad. "I do not think that we are losing, but we will lose if we are not careful."

Army Lt. Col. John Kem, a battalion commander in Baghdad, said that the events of the past two months -- first the eruption of a Shiite insurgency, followed by the detainee abuse scandal -- "certainly made things harder," but he said he doubted they would have much effect on the long-term future of Iraq.

Of course, we don't know - which would certainly be relevant - how these officers came to speak to Ricks, and to do so on the record. Were they put up by the DOD? Are they known to be safe pairs of hands? Perhaps they are known to be licensed by the brass to speak freely to the press, in the knowledge that their comments would be helpful to the USG cause.

The bona fides of these officers' comments is placed in doubt by a
Pentagon consultant
- whose comments are devalued by the fact that he chooses anonymity.

There are then several on-the-record quotes supporting the dissident line from folk outside the military: Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, Rep John Murtha (PA), Larry Diamond, who (apparently) until recently was a senior political adviser of the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, and the aptly-named defense consultant Michael Vickers.

And then a young Army general - I suspect that this is code which is meant to identify the guy to top brass (à la Joseph Wilson - piece of May 6) - says
That strategic objective, of a free, democratic, de-Baathified Iraq, is grandiose and unattainable. It's just a matter of time before we revise downward . . . and abandon these ridiculous objectives.

a senior military intelligence officer experienced in Middle Eastern affairs

Plus one or two more consultant types and a serving anonymouse or two.

Now, it's certainly not my intention to consider the substance - a major lack of expertise and total lack of first hand-experience in the region being but two of the reasons! I'm looking at the contentions of the piece as on a motion for summary judgement: is the lede supported by the rest of the piece?

Deep divisions are emerging at the top of the U.S. military
it says. I'd say the top would not include any officer below the rank of Major-General. How many of them are there? Several dozen, I'm thinking [1].

Opposing the USG line, Ricks has Swannack on the record, and the senior general at the Pentagon and the young Army general off. How do we know that these are in any way representative?

We don't, of course. Ricks could hardly call in Gallup to take a poll.

Now, we know that brass are going to be reluctant to dissent given Shinseki's treatment. But they could have spoken anonymously. And, I suspect, once Ricks started working on the story, the fact he was open for business to hear dissenters would have gone round the Pentagon in no time flat. So, if there had been dozens of generals opposing USG Iraq policy who'd said as much to Ricks off the record, he would certainly have mentioned it; and, given the Shinseki example, readers would tend to discount their anonymity in deciding whether or not to believe them.

One needs to distinguish dissent on principle for the sort of grumbling that an overstretched military are bound to express when faced with an open-ended commitment, and an uncertain political future in theatre and in the US. The large proportion of reservists and National Guard deployed naturally exacerbate the complaints moving up the chain of command.

The fact that, as I understand it, CJCS Gen Richard Myers is by nature a guy who goes along - who, for instance, did not use the tactics at his disposal to put a spoke into Bush's Iraq invasion juggernaut when he could - may work either way: setting an example for generals under him, or stoking up resentment at his lack of cojones.

I have no clear feeling, reading Rick's piece, which, if either, is the predominant sentiment.

Of course, the piece feeds druthers amongst those, like me, who opposed the war. All the more reason to be cautious: it's bad enough to be suckered by Bush, far worse by one's one wishful thinking!

  1. Is there such a thing as an online equivalent of the old British Army List - which famously figures at the end of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, of course. I can't find any list of US generals.

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