The Magazine

War Is Too Important to Be Left to the Generals

Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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IN THE YEARS AFTER VIETNAM, professional soldiers believed that the mistakes of Vietnam had reduced the American people's regard for the armed services and impaired the military, and they acted to prevent their political superiors from repeating these mistakes. Where Lyndon Johnson had almost entirely refused to call up the National Guard, the Army chief of staff, Creighton Abrams, created the "Total Force" structure that intermingled active duty and reserve units: "They're not taking us to war again without calling up the reserves," Abrams declared. The post-Vietnam officers inspired Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's six rules for military engagement, which required advance knowledge of how American forces could achieve "clearly defined objectives" and "reasonable assurance that we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress." In a similar spirit was the "Powell Doctrine," in which Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insisted that America have "overwhelming force" to reach its objectives and a clear-cut exit strategy.

Conventional wisdom has it that the civilian leadership wisely abstained from controlling the military during the Gulf War. Cohen thinks things went farther. "Powell successfully preempted a good deal of civilian control in the Gulf War through his own highly developed political sense." Inside the Pentagon, Powell opposed going to war in 1990. Did that move pro-Pentagon politicians like Senate Armed Services chairman Sam Nunn to oppose the Gulf War resolution? Defense secretary Dick Cheney did not speak regularly with General Norman Schwarzkopf, who was directly beneath him in the chain of command, but evidently dealt through Powell. Powell stopped the bombing of Baghdad after one sortie hit a command and control center that housed a shelter for families of the Iraqi elite; he also acted to see that American forces targeted Iraqi missile launchers sending Scuds to Israel.

But the greatest arrogation of political decision-making by the military came over when and how to end the war. Powell recommended stopping the bombing after a hundred hours, for fear the so-called "Highway of Death" would, when shown on television, arouse an unfavorable public reaction. This, despite the fact that the continuance of Saddam Hussein in power threatened "the security and stability of the Persian Gulf"--one of President Bush's four stated objectives in the use of force against Iraq. And General Norman Schwarzkopf, seeking a surrender of Iraqi forces without explicit directives from civilian leaders, allowed the Iraqis to continue using helicopters, with which they suppressed Shiite uprisings against Saddam Hussein.

Vietnam veterans regretted that there was never any exit strategy from Vietnam. In the Gulf War, they got their clean and quick exit. But, of course, that exit was not clean, and we are still dealing with the consequences of it today. As Cohen emphasizes, Powell and Schwarzkopf did not usurp strategic control so much as George H. W. Bush and his civilian leaders abdicated it; Bush was delighted that the United States was leaving and that "Vietnam will soon be behind us."

THE PRIMACY of the military in the military-civilian relation continued through the 1990s, Cohen says--all the more so, because President Clinton sought "to avoid casualties which he felt himself peculiarly unable to justify." Secretary of Defense Les Aspin asked few tough questions of military commanders in Somalia and lost his job; Bosnia negotiator Richard Holbrooke met with what Cohen calls "mulish opposition" from his military counterpart, General Leighton Smith; General Wesley Clark, mistrusted by most other military leaders, got little cooperation during the struggle in Kosovo. Indeed, sources on the Joint Chiefs leaked news of military opposition to the Kosovo war. This was, as Cohen notes, "a far cry from the outraged but dutiful muteness with which the chiefs of staff of the Army and Navy accepted President Roosevelt's decision to invade North Africa in 1942, against their explicit and firm advice."

"Supreme Command" appears just as George W. Bush and his administration are making momentous decisions about whether and how we will go after Iraq. Bush does not appear, from what we know, to be Eliot Cohen's kind of supreme commander. He is known for delegating detail work to better informed subordinates. He reportedly speaks to General Tommy Franks, the theater commander, only a couple of times a week. He is not known to have immersed himself in the arcana of military technology as Lincoln and Churchill did, and he does not appear to have the close acquaintance with his military commanders of a Clemenceau or a Ben Gurion.

On the other hand, he evidently does have a capacity to ask intelligent and to-the-point questions which his subordinates may have dodged; the now-famous August 6 intelligence briefing, in which mention was made that al Qaeda might be involved in hijackings, responded to a presidential question about al Qaeda capabilities in the United States--a question it is now apparent that the CIA and the FBI did not think hard enough about.

Bush has also installed--against the reported advice of Colin Powell and others--a secretary of defense who seems to operate very much like Cohen's supreme commanders. Donald Rumsfeld reportedly talks to General Franks and to Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers several times a day; he reportedly peppers them and other subordinates with questions, requests for more information, and suggestions. Rumsfeld's management has been described by Pentagon officials as "hands on," "brutally honest," "abusive"--words that sound very much like Alanbrooke's descriptions of Churchill's. There were stories before September 11 that Rumsfeld was in danger of losing his job because Pentagon military officers and civilians were enraged by his demands for military transformation, and an anti-Republican Washington press corps was licking its chops at the prospect of the first casualty of the Bush cabinet. My own view was that Rumsfeld was never in any danger of losing his job. The anger at him was evidence that he was doing his job as it should be done.

Now the complaints about Rumsfeld come out in different form. On May 24, the Washington Post ran a front-page article by the well-sourced Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks that began: "The uniformed leaders of the U.S. military believe they have persuaded the Pentagon's civilian leadership to put off an invasion of Iraq until next year at the earliest and perhaps not to do it at all, according to senior Pentagon officials." The story may not mean exactly what Ricks's sources say. It makes it clear that Pentagon civilian and military leaders have been planning action against Iraq, and that (as a May 19 story by James Dao in the New York Times said) they are having trouble deciding how to deal with Saddam Hussein's probable use of chemical and biological weapons. That is a difficult problem, and it seems sure that no military plans have been finalized; President Bush assured German chancellor Gerhard Schr der and French president Jacques Chirac, both queasy about a war with Iraq, that he did not have any military plans against Iraq on his desk.

But they will have to get there someday if he is to keep his promise of regime change in Iraq. "Time is not on our side," he said in his State of the Union speech on January 29. And does anyone take seriously the proposal, advanced by opponents of action against Iraq, that things will be just fine if we can get some general to overthrow Saddam in a coup?

To find a workable plan for action against Iraq, Bush is going to have to act more like Cohen's supreme commanders than he has so far, and he is going to have to give full backing to Rumsfeld's efforts as well. War is too important to be left entirely to the generals. It is time for the supreme commander to command.

Michael Barone is senior writer at U.S. News & World Report and author of "The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again."