Monday, June 18, 2007

Judging the Generals

Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace is the last of Donald Rumsfeld's hand-picked four-stars to be shown the door. Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided not to put him before another confirmation hearing, saying it would be "a backward-looking and very contentious process." Having served as vice chairman (under then chairman General Richard B. Myers) from 2001-2005, Pace makes for a very convenient Iraq/Afghanistan whipping boy, and no one in the White House likely wants him to face hard questions under oath about the pre-Iraq war intelligence, or on how we could have gone to war with no post-war plan.

But to what extent is Pace really responsible for our problems in the Middle East?

I have heard from numerous sources that General Pace is a sterling officer and a person of irrefutable character. I feel safe in assuming this is the case.

Strictly speaking, Pace was not in the chain of command of U.S. forces in the Middle East. Combatant and command runs from the president to the Secretary of Defense to the four-star unified commanders. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, that unified commander is the head of Central Command (CENTCOM). Tommy Franks was CENTCOM at the starts of the Iraq and Afghan wars, followed by John Abizaid. It's probably fairer to lay blame for the quagmire on these two. Franks dropped the ball in the end zone and Abizaid spent about three years failing to recover it.

As chairman, Pace served as the senior military adviser to the president. We can't know what Pace said to Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and others behind closed doors, and he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who will write a book that tells us all about it. But we can see what has happened with our wars, and can reasonably deduce that over the past two years, Pace gave Mr. Bush no advice or bad advice, or was unable to make him listen to good advice. Whatever the case, he didn't do a very good job of advising.

But we have, perhaps, a more pertinent bone to pick with Pace. At a recent news conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said of Pace, "I talked to him in my conference room, just him and I, and I told him how I felt, that he had not done a very good job in speaking out for some obvious things that weren't going right in Iraq."

That comment brought Reid no small amount of flak from the right, but I frankly thought Reid's word choice was kind. There were times that I thought Pace sounded more like the Minister of Truth than the nation's senior military officer. One of Pace's former assistants argues that Reid seems to forget "it was not General Pace's job to publicly disagree with President Bush's policy."

But Pace's assistant seems to confuse not disagreeing with policy and not quite telling the truth. Does anyone else remember the Sunday in March 2006 when, on the heels of the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra, Pace told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that the Iraq war was "going very, very well."

Sergeant Rock and a Hard Place

In today's military, once you accept 0-6 (Bird Colonel or Navy Captain), you become a company man. When you pin on a fourth star, you become the company. Yeah, the Peter Paces of the Bush administration have been in a tough spot. If their level, if you disagree with policy, you can always vote with your feet--but walking away from troops in the field who don't have the option of walking away too can make for a tough choice. If you decide to stay and do whatever you can to change things for the better from within the system, you're going to have to walk a fine line between following your conscience and following orders.

A large part of me wants to give Pace a pass, to say, "he was the wrong guy, in the wrong war, in the wrong place, with the wrong boss, etc."

Pace was onboard with the Bush and Rumsfeld policies for six years, and if you're going to support policies for that long in a senior advisory, you have to take responsibility for them. All one can do is the best one can do, and I'm certain Pace gave everything he had to both the vice chair and chairman job. It may well be that given the circumstances he faced, no one could have done any better.

But, America in essence lost two wars on his watch, and he'll have to claim a large slice of the guilt pie for that.

General Factotums

Senator Reid also said he was disturbed to in USA Today that General David Petraeus claimed to see "astonishing signs of normalcy" in most of Baghdad.

"I was a little disappointed," Reid said. "I am waiting to see if Gen. Petraeus can be a little more candid with us." When asked if he thought Petraeus is competent, Reid answered, "Not as far as I am concerned."

I'm not ready to pass judgment on Petraeus's competence, but like Reid, I'm disturbed by some of what I've seen and heard so far. From appearances, Petraeus's greatest contributions to the security plan in Baghdad have been a pair of publicity stunts. First was him walking around an outdoor market in Baghdad buying a donut from a local merchant. Then came the all singing, all dancing shopping spree starring John McCain and Lindsey Graham with 100 of their best heavily armed friends lurking just off camera. I hate to judge anyone on the basis of what may have simply been a pair of miscues early in his job, but when you add public comments like "astonishing signs of normalcy," you start to get the idea that Petraeus is just another standard issue Bush administration four-star who knows more about spinning wars than winning them.

If Petraeus tells Congress come September that the "surge" is showing astonishing signs of progress, I hope Reid and the rest of the Senate tell him he can give one of his stars back and put in for retirement.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.


  1. Nice essay, as always. If having 4 stars rates one as a "company man" (and I have no argument with the statement, exactly where is one's loyalties? With the company or with the troops? The two are not always immutably joined at the hip, as we have seen over the last six years. Like me, you're on public record regarding the effects of careerism on flag officers ad their priorities in the armed forces.

    I will agree the Corps builds a stronger sense of buddy-loyalty than the other services, but GEN Pace walked away from the troops the first time he performed as a talking seal for the admin rather than for the American nation.

  2. Jeff, you know as well as I do, there is a really good reason folks like us didn't climb that ladder any farther than we did, O-4 and O-5 are quite respectable and we were in positions to KNOW a lot more than we probably should have, and I can't speak for YOU, but I would venture a guess that our reasons are the same, I know WHY I was never advanced any further than I was, I wasn't going to use knives in backs to pull ME up...

    My MEN came 1st, and MY career was NOT the primary concern, but sadly, the days when that kind of officer was the man on deck is either dead or rapidly dying...

    Hooray for ME and screw you, that's the M.O. today, and the guys that DO stand up are rapidly shipped out to BFE or forced to retire, and I personally believe Pete Pace told someone the truth, and that's the reason he's gone, they couldn't handle the truth, to turn a phrase...

    I may be wrong and I am anxious to hear what Gen. Pace has to say once he's out of uniform and no longer under orders...

    I worked for a great Marine General once upon a time, he was a LtCol when I went to work for him many years ago and he was a true Mustang, he retired a BrigGen, and should have been a lot higher than that, but he didn't kiss ass either and that was the 1st thing he taught me, "Son, you can disagree with me, respectfully of course, but NEVER kiss my ass for ANYTHING or I'll ship you out so fast... ", you can guess the rest, he WAS a 'salty' old fart...

    Well, I never did kiss ass, never have and never will, and I pray that's not the case with Gen. Pace, I would surely hang my head in shame if he did...

    Semper Fi..

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Like I tried to say, he was in a tough spot, I'm sorry things didn't work out better for him, and for all of us.

  5. Andrew Bacevich had a good piece on the Joint Chiefs a couple of days ago. Worth googling and reading.

    I do think Pace was an automaton, if an honorable one.

    It'll be a shame about Petraeus, as he wasn't.

  6. Trish,

    Yes, that was a good piece by Bacevich. I'm not sure I agree with all of his conclusions, but it addresses vital issues, IMO.


  7. Anonymous7:12 PM

    Speaking of good articles, have you seen this two parter by Mark Perry? He claims that Gates essentially fired Abizaid and Casey for performance, but was perfectly happy to keep Pace on. It was Bush and Cheney who abandoned Pace in the face of Senate opposition:

    On Wednesday, June 6, just as the controversy over the naming of Lute as the White House "war czar" had finally abated, President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were told by Senate Armed Service Committee chairman Carl Levin that Pace would have difficulty getting reconfirmed for a traditional second two-year term as JCS chairman. "Bush and Cheney were told that Pace would just be shredded," this official says...Bush and Cheney told Levin that they would pull the Pace nomination..."Pace is taking the fall for these assholes," a retired marine general said. "If you know how the war started, if you know anything about [Ahmad] Chalabi or Cheney or anything like that, you're gone. Peter Pace is being sacrificed to the White House failure in Iraq."

    Lots more good stuff about the war czar backstory, about why modern JCS chairmen are deliberately chosen to be weak, and about how Fallon is not a crazy person:

    Fallon has further dispelled fears that he favors such an attack [on Iran] when rumors circulated that he recently received a call from the White House that he consider providing air cover to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur. He was aghast: "With what," he reportedly said. Fallon's influence at CENTCOM is also much in evidence. "Historically that place has been run by infantry and armor," Hoar says. "Well, he's turned that place upside down." Among the changes: upwards of 2,000 staffers have been sent to other assignments.

    If Fallon is really downsizing CENTCOM staff, that's a good sign.