A Narrow View

U.S. troops secure the scene after an explosion outside the police station in Baghdad's neighborhood of Zafarniyah, Jan. 10, 2005. A suicide car bomb exploded in the courtyard of a police station in southern Baghdad, killing at least four policemen and injuring 10 others. A fake police car packed with explosives was used in the attack. AP

This column from The Nation was written by Jason Vest.
If love means never having to say you're sorry, its epitome was recently expressed by the Project for the New American Century. A glorified letterhead under which neoconservatives and liberal hawks have been affixing their signatures for years (primarily in the service of bringing regime change to Iraq), PNAC's latest communiqué was dispatched to Capitol Hill on January 28. It implores Congressional leaders to add at least 25,000 troops to the Army and Marine Corps each year for the next several years, as "it should be evident that our engagement in the greater Middle East is truly...a 'generational commitment.' "

"Generational commitment?" Quite a shift from PNAC's March 19, 2003, letter, in which it envisioned that U.S. troops would constitute the bulk of military forces in Iraq for not much more than a year. "Should be evident?" It was, in fact, quite evident to scores of civilian and military professionals well before March 2003 that an Iraq war was likely to be a long, costly endeavor, especially in terms of manpower. And it was those people whom many of PNAC's signatories ignored or disparaged at every turn.

Signatory William Kristol's Weekly Standard, for example, gave little consideration to the estimates of then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who held that it would likely take hundreds of thousands of troops over a decade to secure Iraq; one Standard writer tacitly praised Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld for publicly rebuking the general. Indeed, the pages of the Standard in spring 2003 were confident on every front, proudly boasting of copious support from "coalition forces." Signatory Max Boot held, contra Shinseki's estimate, that a mere 65,000-70,000 US troops would be adequate to secure Iraq's future. Signatory Thomas Donnelly declared Iraq a victory with little possibility of a serious insurgency. ("The street-by-street slogging long predicted never materialized... If there ever was an Iraqi plan for bleeding U.S. or British forces in urban combat, it could not cope either with the British care and precision in Basra or with the boldness of the American attack into Baghdad.")

Elsewhere, signatory Eliot Cohen described the war as "clearly won," called experts leery of the endeavor "fools," sneered at those who thought the U.S. military force "too small to win" and bragged about the US military's "relentless technological development." In late 2003 Cohen was confidently predicting an imminent decrease in U.S. troop presence.

In light of past and present circumstances, one might have hoped that PNAC's demand for Congress to rustle up more soldiers would be accompanied by at least a circumspect apology for past misjudgments, and some measure of detail as to where an annual 25,000 new troops might come from (the word "draft" is conspicuously absent in the letter to Congress). But as PNAC letters are notoriously short on humility and long on hazy and disingenuous rhetoric, why should this be any different? Indeed, to the PNAC crew, it's only a matter of numbers.

There's no call for, say, a radical overhaul of the Army's command structure, which active-duty reformers like Col. Douglas Macgregor and Maj. Donald Vandergriff have persuasively argued is bloated and archaic. There's no call for reform of key Army personnel policies, which have put an emphasis on careerism over soldiering. There's no demand that soldiers get the investment of time in the training they need. There's no demand for any changes or reconsiderations of doctrine. While the letter cites Army Reserve chief Lieut. Gen. James Helmly's recent memo about the precarious situation of the Reserves (he said it "was rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force"), it doesn't note Helmly's concern about giving financial incentives for repeat military service. ("We must consider the point at which we confuse 'volunteer to become an American Soldier' with 'mercenary,'" Helmly wrote.)

"This letter," one senior officer told me, "can be summed up as saying, 'Throw more money and bodies at the problem,' period. It addresses nothing that's really causing problems and has to be addressed to be fixed. And I love the line about 'insist[ing] that we act responsibly to create the military we need to fight the war on terror and fulfill our other responsibilities around the world.' These are the last people I'd look to to do that. I seem to recall these were the folks talking about the future of war being high-tech planes and weapons. Nice that they finally remembered the importance of the soldier, but too late."

Beyond the letter's lack of attention to detail, others in military policy circles note that it stands as something of a monument to the notion that Democrats as well as Republicans should effectively reward the Bush Administration for poor planning on Iraq and poor stewardship of the military. "John Kerry should be proud," quipped veteran Senate Armed Services Committee staffer Winslow Wheeler, now a fellow at the Center for Defense Information, as he surveyed the names of such Democratic luminaries as Peter Beinart, Will Marshall and James Steinberg gracing PNAC's latest epistle. "The expanse of the political spectrum of Washington's elite think-tankery has endorsed his campaign Iraq policy: that George Bush's policy is strategically good but needs to be implemented more effectively." Wheeler adds that the issue of troop strength may be resolved in a different way. "We'll have an excess of ground manpower soon enough," he says. "After the newly elected Iraqi government decides to establish its domestic credibility by telling the US to go home."


Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.


By Jason Vest
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation

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