Sunday, April 23, 2006

Blaming the messenger

Those retired military generals who have risen up against the Bush administration (see my newspaper column today) find themselves under fresh attack this afternoon. It's getting nastier.

The brass-knuckled punch comes courtesy of a conservative website, which today is running a cartoon that depicts the dissident generals as puppets of the terrorists, thereby implying that, by speaking out against Donald Rumsfeld's prosecution of the war, they are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. (This charge used to be leveled mostly at liberals and antiwar activists. Now, apparently, it has been extended to include certifiably macho guys who have risked their lives and the lives of their troops on the ground in Iraq.)

The loftier attack today comes from Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen, a prominent neoconservative and member of one of the Washington think tanks that prepared the early rationales for going to war in Iraq. He writes on the Wall Street Journal website that military generals, as a group, are prone to "vanity and pique, institutional parochialism and thwarted ambition, limited introspection and all the other foibles of proud men." Having thus sought to dispel any impression that the dissidents might be admirable people, he moves to his core argument:

The dissidents' behavior is "destructive of good order and discipline in the armed forces, and prejudicial to functional civil-military relations...The retired generals have, in effect and perhaps unwittingly, made a case for disloyalty. Indeed, their most troubling belief is that an officer's civilian superiors--and the secretary of defense stands in the chain of command just below the president--do not merit the loyalty that they, as military superiors, would deserve and expect."

And Cohen says that the dissidents have invited these attacks on their motivations and character: "A general is equally a fool if he thinks he can engage in partisan polemic without becoming a political target, with all the miseries for himself, and degradation to his honor and profession, that that entails....Accustom the American people to the public sniping and bickering of generals, and generals will soon find that the respect on which they now count has evaporated."

These kinds of attacks (my story today cites many others) help explain why one of the dissidents, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, seemed a tad defensive this morning on CBS' Face the Nation. It seemed like he spent almost as much time establishing his bona fides to speak out, as he did actually speaking out.

He quickly volunteered that he fought on the ground in Iraq not once, but in two tours of duty. He said that his dad had fought in Korea and Vietnam. He said that his decision to go public against Rumsfeld was "gut-wrenching," and that he couldn't have gone public prior to retirement because he would have had to resign on the spot and thus abandon his troops. He also felt compelled to volunteer that he had no personal agenda, that he's not mad at Rumsfeld for trying to overhaul the Army. (Some attackers have charged that the dissidents are really alarmed at Rumsfeld's "transformation" reforms, not at the war itself.)

My point: If the administration and its supporters can succeed in focusing the discussion on the generals' right to speak out, rather than on the substance of what they are saying, the better it is for Rumsfeld and the President.

But I question whether they will ultimately succeed. The fact is, the dissident generals have surfaced at a time when most Americans are already seriously questioning the war. As retired Lt. Col Andrew Bacevich told me the other day, "Nearly two-thirds of the country already believes that the war is stupid and poorly run. These generals will only confirm and underscore the majority's preexisting viewpoint." (The latest Gallup: 65 percent dislike Bush's handling of the war, and 57 percent say the war was a mistake.)

And, regarding the substance of what Batiste and others are alleging -- that the war effort has been marred by a slew of strategic and tactical errors -- there are plenty of experts out of uniform, experts with strong national security credentials, who are saying the same thing.

I'm not talking here about the Democrats, of course. (They still seem to feel that speaking in unison against either the rationale or execution of the war will cost them votes.) I'm talking, rather, about people like Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon aide, John McCain national security aide, and winner of the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
Cordesman has just written a report, released a few days ago, entitled "American Strategic, Tactical, and Other Mistakes in Iraq: A Litany of Errors." The litany goes on for 10 pages.
It's available as a PDF. I suppose that he too belongs in that aforementioned cartoon.