Streetwise Professor

December 8, 2008

It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You In Trouble. It’s What You Know For Sure That Just Ain’t True

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:55 pm

The nomination of Eric Shinseki to be Secretary of Veteran Affairs has touched off an avalanche of false memories about the retired General’s (supposed) victimization at the hands of Donald Rumsfeld for his temerity in asserting that hundreds of thousands of troops would be required to maintain peace in Iraq post-invasion.   Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s failures to pay heed to Shinseki’s allegedly Cassandra-like (that is, allegedly true, prescient–and ignored) warnings were repeatedly lamented during America’s travails in Iraq in 2005-2006.

Except it ain’t true.   First, Jamie McIntyre of CNN(!):

It’s an appealing narrative, but the facts as we know them are not nearly so complimentary to the retired Army chief.

You see, Shinseki never made any recommendation for more troops for Iraq. In fact, as Army chief of staff, it wasn’t really part of his job to take part in direct war planning.

But as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he did owe the president his best military advice. And if he felt strongly enough that the advice was not being taken, he could have resigned.

According to senior military officers who were in the pre-war meetings, Shinseki never objected to the war plans, and he didn’t press for any changes.

When the joint chiefs were asked point-blank by then-Chairman Gen. Richard Meyers if they had any concerns about the plans before they went to the president, Shinseki kept silent.

He kept his counsel

But Shinseki was a very private leader who did media briefings only when ordered to and rarely gave interviews. If he had concerns about the Iraq war plans, he kept them to himself.

He admitted as much in a rare e-mail exchange with Newsweek magazine in 2006.

Asked to respond to the criticism that he failed to push to stop Rumsfeld from going into Iraq with too few troops, he told the magazine, “Probably that’s fair. Not my style.”

Knowing his opinions were not particularly welcome, Shinseki kept his mouth shut. In that sense, he was “marginalized,” as some say.

And it’s true that in retrospect, many U.S. commanders believe there should have been more troops sent to Iraq, even though it’s far from clear that would have prevented the insurgency and sectarian violence that the Pentagon failed to anticipate.

But the idea that Shinseki was a strong advocate for a bigger force and that no one listened vastly overstates his role.

It’s one of those Washington myths that are almost impossible to dispel — like the popular misconception that Shinseki was fired for standing up to Rumsfeld.

That myth is so pervasive, the authoritative Associated Press repeated it again Saturday night, saying “Shinseki was removed from [his] post after challenging the Bush administration.”

He did not stand up to Rumsfeld, nor was he fired.

There’s no question that Shinseki was on the outs with his civilian bosses, especially Rumsfeld.

Shinseki ordered that all soldiers wear black berets, a move that infuriated the special forces community, for whom the berets were a badge signifying their elite status. Rumsfeld, according to aides, was particularly miffed that Shinseki spent so much effort changing the Army’s head gear, when the nation was at war.

He retired after serving a full four years as chief at a ceremony in 2003 that neither Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz attended.

Next, Mack Owens of the Navy War College:

In fact, Shinseki’s February 2003 statement before Congress suggesting that “several hundred thousand” troops might be necessary in postwar Iraq was far from the example of prescience that Bush’s critics have claimed. As my Naval War College colleague John Garofano wrote in an article for the spring 2008 issue of Orbis, “no extensive analysis has surfaced as supporting Shinseki’s figures, which were dragged out of him by Senator Carl Levin only after repeated questioning.”

Shinseki’s claim was based on a “straight-line extrapolation from very different environments” — an analysis by the Army’s Center for Military History that based its figure of 470,000 troops for Iraq on the service’s experience in Bosnia and Kosovo. But as Tom Ricks pointed out in an article for the Washington Post, this effort was criticized as naïve, unrealistic, and “like a war college exercise” rather than serious planning.

The best that can be claimed on Shinseki’s behalf is that he was right for the wrong reasons. His claim that more troops would be needed in Iraq was based on his incorrect assumption that humanitarian operations rather than counterinsurgency would be the main driver of U.S. force requirements.

But misleading claims about Shinseki do not stop there. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw identified Shinseki as “the man who lost his job in the Bush administration because he said we [would] need more troops in Iraq than Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld thought . . . at that time.” But this oft-made charge is simply false. Service chiefs are appointed for a maximum of two two-year terms. It is true that Rumsfeld named Shinseki’s successor a year before the end of his second term, but Shinseki finished that term before leaving — he served for the entire time permitted by law. Shinseki was never “forced into early retirement.”

The fact that most politicians have accepted the need for a larger Army and Marine Corps seems to vindicate Shinseki’s broader — and correct — warning about the danger of trying to implement a “12 division strategy” with a “10 division army.” But numbers aside, the Army’s experience in Iraq indicate a more serious failing of that service’s leadership — including Gen. Shinseki: a failure of vision.

In a blistering critique of U.S. Army leadership in the April 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal, Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling wrote:

For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq’s grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America’s general officer corps. America’s generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America’s generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America’s generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.

The fact is that Gen. Shinseki failed to prepare his service for the kind of war that emerged in Iraq in 2003: an insurgency. The “surge” implemented in 2007 by Gen. David Petraeus was successful not only because of an increase troop strength. It was successful because of the application of a new counterinsurgency doctrine that Gen. Shinseki and most other Army generals had rejected. As Garofano observes, the situation in Iraq “comes down, as it did in Vietnam, to analysis, getting it right, and providing clear alternatives that address or confront policy goals.” In the final instance, this Shinseki failed to do.

In brief: (a) Shinseki’s statement about troop strength was based on an ad hoc, facile analysis; (b) this analysis was based on an assumption that the main challenge facing the US military in the post-kinetic phase of Iraqi freedom would be humanitarian relief, not a vicious insurgency; and (c) Shinseki was, like too many high-ranking officers, unimaginative and unable or unwilling to adapt to the circumstances on the ground.   He was not prescient.   He was not a casualty of Pentagon retribution for speaking truth to power.

Rumsfeld also made mistakes, just different ones.

In the end, the debate over numbers was almost completely a distraction.   As Owens’s article states, the issue was not how many troops were in Iraq, but how they were used.   The   crucial failure of the Army’s leadership (under George W. Casey, now, unbelievably, the Army Chief of Staff) and Rumsfeld was their blindness to the seriousness of the insurgency, and their unwillingness to respond to it aggressively using well-known doctrine and tactics.   Out of fear that a visible American presence would outrage Iraqi sensibilities, Casey and Rumsfeld advocated hunkering down in bases, effectively leaving vast swaths of Iraq in control of the Sunni insurgents.

Using far fewer troops than Shinseki suggested might be needed to pacify Iraq, General Petraeus aggressively and systematically wrested the initiative from Al Qaeda, using local allies to augment the combat power of American and Iraqi regular forces.   In the end, it wasn’t the numbers that were decisive; it was using the number of troops available in an intelligent and aggressive way, rather than ceding the initiative to the enemy.   It is all very, very basic.

The great tragedy is that the country’s civilian and military leadership–Shinseki among them–didn’t recognize the basics, and apply them in a timely way.     This cost us years and thousands of lives, and undermined America’s position and prestige in the region and the world.   It effectvely gutted the Bush administration.   And it cost tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.

Churchill once said that America always does the right thing, after trying everything else first.   Iraq, sadly, is a perfect illustration of Churchill’s mordant remark.   And, although Eric Shinseki has served his country loyally throughout a long career, he should not be lionized for his role in the Iraq war.   He was just one of many who advocated some of the wrong things that were tried before we finally, almost out of desperation, settled on the right thing.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress