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A Times Editorial

Ignoring the generals

Civilian ideologues in the Bush administration made optimistic assumptions about the war in Iraq that may have endangered our troops on the ground.

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2003


Richard Perle is the guru of the civilian ideologues who are the architects of the Bush administration's Iraqi war plans. In the months leading up to war, Perle and his allies in the administration pressed for military action by painting a vividly optimistic scenario. Vice President Dick Cheney, a longtime associate of Perle, said American soldiers would be "greeted as liberators" by the people of Iraq. And Perle said most of Saddam Hussein's troops would surrender rather than fight, while Iraqi opponents of Hussein would lead an armed uprising to topple his regime with little or no help from U.S. forces.

Perle, who serves as chairman of the Pentagon's advisory Defense Policy Board, envisioned before the war that U.S. forces would make "a much more modest effort" than in the 1991 Gulf War, needed only to "assist Iraqis in freeing their country." At times, Perle predicted that no U.S. ground forces would be required. At most, he said, only about 40,000 U.S. ground troops would be needed.

Our political and military leaders say the early days of the ground war are going according to plan, but events clearly are not playing out as Perle and his civilian proteges predicted. U.S. forces have met stiff resistance in their advance toward Baghdad, and the civilian reaction to our troops' presence has been mixed at best. Meanwhile, the anticipated anti-Saddam insurgency within Iraq has not yet materialized on a significant scale.

As a result, our ground forces have been left more vulnerable than necessary. Several of the military commanders of the first Gulf War say the current U.S. invasion force of a single heavy division is too small. "In my judgment," said retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during the 1991 war, "there should have been a minimum of two heavy divisions and an armored cavalry regiment on the ground."

Other veteran Gulf War commanders agree with McCaffrey, and their views are not mere second-guessing. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded U.S. forces in the 1991 war, said months ago that he was "somewhat nervous at some of the pronouncements (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld has made." Schwarzkopf said he feared that Rumsfeld and his civilian advisers had "disregard(ed) the Army" in establishing their quick-strike plans.

A cornerstone of American democracy is our tradition of civilian control over our armed forces. President Bush and other members of his administration, with the advice and consent of congressional leaders, are ultimately responsible for determining when and how our military forces will be deployed. That is as it should be.

However, the lives of American soldiers are put at risk if our battlefield plans are based on the political assumptions of civilian ideologues instead of the expertise of our military leaders. Some of those ideologues within and outside the White House painted a scenario of an easy military victory in Iraq because it fit their broader political goals. Our military planning needs to be based on more clear-eyed calculations.

All Americans hope that the war in Iraq can be concluded as quickly and successfully as possible, minimizing casualties among American troops and Iraqi civilians. If some of the assumptions on which our military plans were based have turned out to be flawed, our government should waste no time in changing plans accordingly and bolstering our forces in ways that can hasten military victory and serve our long-term security interests.

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