It’s Time to Review the Civil-Military Dialogue
The U.S. faces a complex strategic environment: ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the global war against al-Qaida and its ilk; a seething war in Syria; unrest in Libya and other parts of Africa; Russia-induced instability in Eastern Europe; a rising China and defiant Iran; an unrepentant North Korea still in control of its nuclear weapons; and worried allies.
The security environment at home is no less complex. A lot is at stake.
The administration might use a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of defense as an opportunity to review the procedures for its civil-military dialogue to ensure it is adequate to the environment the country faces.
Such a review might benefit from a close look at the two very different Iraq-related dialogues that took place during President George W. Bush’s administration. The first governed the period between 2003 and 2006; the second between late 2006 and 2008. The difference between the two highlights the importance of getting the dialogue “right enough,” thus increasing the probability that the final decision authority will use that authority well.
Indicators of Breakage
The 2003–06 dialogue was broken. The first indicator concerned Gen. Eric Shinseki’s comments about the Iraq invasion strategy—the flow of forces, supply lines and the tenuous “northern approach” through Turkey—which he expressed to the president in a closed meeting on Jan. 30, 2003. In Peter Baker’s Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, National Security Council official Kori Schake, who attended this meeting, is quoted as saying, “It’s the only time in my life where I felt like you could hear the hinge of history turn. … The president clearly didn’t know what to do.” “So he thanked Shinseki and moved on,” the book says.
The second involved Shinseki’s doubts about preparedness for what might follow regime change in Iraq. These doubts were expressed during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 25, 2003: “Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably a figure that would be required.”
This assessment upset both Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, who, in his own testimony before the House Budget Committee on Feb. 27, 2003, said Shinseki’s estimate was “wildly off the mark.” Shortly after Shinseki’s testimony, DoD started the discussion about replacing the general.
The third indication happened during the initial invasion. Then-Lt. Gen. William “Scott” Wallace—the commanding general of the Army corps responsible, along with a Marine Expeditionary Force, for the ground campaign that would topple Saddam Hussein’s regime—gave a joint interview to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Wallace said the Iraqi irregular and paramilitary forces were “a bit different from” the enemy they had anticipated. Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, in Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, explain how Wallace’s remark was welcomed by some on the National Security Council but was interpreted by Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks (the commander of the U.S. Central Command and Wallace’s overall boss) as disloyalty and a repudiation of the strategy in Iraq. As James Kitfield put it in his March 2013 National Journal essay, “My Iraq War,” “Wallace was told to shut up around reporters.” The tenor of these three early indicators was clear: Comply. Questions, doubts and deviations are not welcome.
No Serious Adjustments
Execution of the initial invasion and subsequent operations provides more proof of a broken dialogue. Even in the face of mounting evidence that the overall strategy in Iraq—create security by showing progress toward a democracy, transition responsibility to the Iraqis as quickly as possible, and withdraw—was failing, the civil-military dialogue produced no serious adjustments to the approach.
In 2003, violence was rising even as Franks withdrew the three major headquarters that conducted the initial invasion to topple Saddam’s regime and replaced it with one, less capable headquarters. Days of Fire describes how the CIA briefed senior political leaders of a growing insurgency in November 2003, and L. Paul Bremer III, who was in charge of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, reported to Vice President Dick Cheney that “we do not have a military strategy for victory,” yet the approach did not change.
Neither did the approach change in 2004. According to Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez’s Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story, in April 2004, the Marines—at the direction of the White House and against military recommendations—initiated an intense battle in Fallujah against a determined enemy, only to have senior political leaders direct them to stop the battle midstream. In November 2004, Days of Fire reports, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the president, “We’re not winning.” The president asked, “Are we losing?” and Armitage replied, “Not yet.”
According to a discussion described in Cobra II, John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, sent a nine-page memorandum to Bush in December 2004 saying that a quick handover to Iraqis—a key component of the U.S. strategy in Iraq—was not possible. He said efforts to rebuild Iraq were hampered by a resilient insurgency that was hardly defeated. Some senior political and military leaders were talking, but few were listening. The result: little dialogue and less change.
Another year opened and closed without any significant adjustments to aims, strategies, policies or campaigns. Early in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commissioned an assessment of Iraq. The result was depressing. It called Iraq a failed state with an active insurgency and a disaffected Sunni population. According to Bob Woodward’s State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, the assessment concluded that the U.S. did not have a comprehensive, unified policy and not enough attention was being paid to the political side of counterinsurgency.
About the same time, Cobra II recounts, Col. Derek Harvey presented an even starker assessment to DoD’s Defense Policy Board. The conclusions of this study rejected Rumsfeld’s position at the time that the U.S. faced only diehard fanatics and dead-enders, not an organized insurgency.
Rather, Harvey described in detail how the insurgency was well trained; well led; linked by family, tribal and professional ties; and was exploiting remnants of the collapsed Iraqi state. He briefed the staff and select principals of the National Security Council, White House and Joint Chiefs’ staff. His message was not well received, for his description ran counter not only to Rumsfeld’s personal belief, but also to the more positive assessments being reported by senior political and military leaders at the time.
Cobra II also recounts the fact that a senior CIA analyst produced an assessment that was skeptical of the claims of progress. The CIA thought Iraq was slipping toward a civil war, elections would not produce security and stability by themselves, and Iran had already established intelligence and operational networks in Iraq. Both civilian and military bureaucracies were producing adequate information, but the information was not welcomed. In May 2005, for example, Cheney said on CNN that he thought Iraq was “in the last throes … of the insurgency.”
Woodward’s State of Denial also reports that three years after the invasion, on June 28, 2005, Bush reiterated his original strategy in his speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “Our strategy can be summed up this way: As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” Meanwhile, Woodward continues, Stephen Hadley, the national security advisor, did not believe handing off to the Iraqis was a strategy.
In July 2005, Zalmay Khalilzad replaced Negroponte as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Once there, he formed a Red Team to assess the current situation and approach. This team concluded that the current approach was badly off course and had almost no prospect of success. The team determined the timetable for handing power over to the Iraqis simply set them up for failure and the focus was too heavily weighted toward withdrawal rather than success.
The opportunity to actually change the approach in Iraq in 2005 would pass. The successful December 2005 election of a prime minister in Iraq was judged to be sufficient political progress, confirming the original democracy, transition and withdrawal strategy. As Cobra II describes, Rumsfeld wanted to do everything possible to tamp down the critics. Gen. George Casey, the senior general in Iraq, remained convinced that the plan was on track and that handover to Iraqi security forces followed by U.S. force reductions would be possible in 2006.
In early 2006, Cobra II explains, Casey made the decision to off-ramp two brigades. The reduction took place about the same time as the bombing of a major holy site for Shiite Islam, the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, on Feb. 22, 2006. The attack by al-Qaida triggered massive sectarian violence in Iraq.
Both military and civilian leaders at the time held to the original strategy: progress along the milestones set for Iraq’s move toward democracy, hand over responsibility to the Iraqis and withdraw. By the end of 2006, as Casey writes in Strategic Reflections: Operation Iraqi Freedom July 2004–February 2007, he believed additional troops were required, but the strategy was sound.
As casualties mounted and a successful outcome seemed less and less likely, American political support for the war eroded from 2003 to 2006. The legitimacy of the Iraq War was called into question because of the lack of progress and the appearance that the war was unwinnable.
By early 2007, there was open discussion in Congress and across America of forcing a withdrawal from Iraq because many believed the war was a lost cause. No dialogue worthy of the name existed in the 2003–06 period.
Second Dialogue Begins
A second, and markedly different, Iraq dialogue began in the summer of 2006 and came to maturity during Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ tenure. By late summer and early fall of 2006, the situation in Iraq was so bad that no one could claim the strategy was working. Identifying the exact cause or timing of the change in the dialogue is not important. What is important is that a real dialogue did emerge.
One of the major differences was Bush’s perspective. Initially, he mostly followed developments in Iraq, but delegated the conduct of the war to his generals and civilian subordinates. “You fight the war, and I’ll provide you with political cover,” was the way Bush’s approach was described in Days of Fire. The president was to become a much more involved and assertive presence in the second dialogue.
Another difference was an insistence on a ground-reality-based discussion and an inclusion of more disparate views of the realities in Iraq. Besides his own staff, secretaries and military commanders, Bush sought the perspectives of more junior members of his staff, academics, think tanks, the Iraq Study Group and retired generals.
A third difference was the fact that all options were on the table. This would be a well focused, robust, often contentious, even brutal set of discussions that did not occur in the first nondialogue governing the 2003–06 period.
A fourth difference was a new secretary of defense who identified his highest priority in his book as turning the situation around in Iraq.
Multiple accounts of this second dialogue—Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War ; Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama; Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq; Woodward, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006–2008; and Michael J. Mazarr’s Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy—describe the focus on two opposing courses of action: the status quo—i.e., make progress in Iraq’s move to democracy, transition to Iraqi control and reduce forces in Iraq toward ultimate withdrawal—or shift to a counterinsurgency strategy and “surge,” increasing the size of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Bush Chooses Change
Most of Bush’s military and civilian advisers as well as the Iraq Study Group recommended the status quo or some variation of it, but the president chose change. This decision flowed from at least two sources. First, from a very detailed understanding of the political and military situations in Iraq and within the U.S.; second, from an extensive, extended, and often contentious and iterative set of discussions including Bush, his principal national security advisers, active and retired senior military leaders, congressional leaders, think tanks and academics.
Besides the internal review ordered by Bush, there were other, independent reviews by military headquarters, think tanks and governmental departments. All contributed, directly or indirectly, to the final recommendations made to the president. The final decision was Bush’s to make, but the route to that decision was a contentious, ground-reality-based and inclusive one.
The result of the second dialogue was twofold. First, it produced unambiguous strategic, political-military unity of purpose; clear strategic direction, as well as new strategies and policies, and a new military campaign to achieve the aims the president set. Second, it established a set of civil and military leaders who were expected to align not only policies but also the bureaucracies they led to execute the new direction and adapt as the war unfolded.
Between 2007–08, execution of this new direction dramatically reduced violence levels in Iraq; saw acceleration of Iraqi security force growth in size, capability and confidence; permitted nascent Sunni reconciliation to spread and Shiite militia influence to diminish; and created the opportunity for political solutions that were absent in 2005 and 2006.
By mid-2008, U.S. force reductions began, and a status of forces agreement was being negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq. In 2009, U.S. forces withdrew from Iraqi cities, which set the conditions for ultimate withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq. The second dialogue helped contribute to turning potential failure into potential success. That strategic success did not happen, but that is a story for another time.
The point is the importance of a proper civil-military dialogue, the fidelity of the information used, the integrity of its processes, and the responsibilities of its participants. The civil-military dialogue itself does not produce success, but it increases or decreases the probability of success.
Given that so much is at stake in the current strategic environment, the quality of American’s civil-military dialogue rises in importance. Now is the time for a thorough review.