There is no one on the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has visited Iraq more often than Gen. Mike Hagee, whose term as Commandant of the United States Marine Corps ends Monday.
Hagee took over the Marine Corps just two months before the invasion of Iraq — and throughout his years as Commandant, he made a point of going there every two months to do a firsthand assessment of the battlefield.
I spoke exclusively with the general about conditions in Iraq. You can listen to an extended portion of that
As Commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force during the lead-up to the war, Hagee was in charge of planning for the Marines' original push to Baghdad. So I asked him about one of the enduring mysteries of the invasion — why there was no real plan for running the country once Saddam Hussein fell from power.
Unfortunately, Hagee's comments only deepen the mystery. He says he was deeply concerned about who would take charge of major Iraqi cities, like Najaf, as the Marines pushed through them on their way to Baghdad.
Hagee says he asked his boss again and again who would take charge of those cities. He wanted to know what the plan was for Phase IV — military terminology for the phase that follows the end of major combat operations. Phase IV is, in other words, what comes after "mission accomplished." Hagee says that he sent his questions up the chain of command, as they say in the military — and never heard back.
Hagee is being succeeded by Gen. James Conway, who has his own history in Iraq. By now, virtually every senior combat arms officer in the Army and the Marines has a history in Iraq. Conway led the Marines into Baghdad and later commanded the first, ill-fated attempt to retake Fallujah from the insurgents.
The way the military is organized, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, as well as all the other service chiefs, does not command any of the troops in the field. That is the job of the so-called "combatant commanders," people like Gen. George Casey in Iraq.
Conway is responsible for recruiting, training and equipping the Marines who go to Iraq or any other battlefield. If the Marines don't have proper body armor or are missing their recruiting goals, that's Conway's problem. If the Marines are unable to suppress the insurgency in al Anbar province, that's Casey's problem. In a war like the one in Iraq, there are more than enough problems to go around.