Analysing the Military Leadership

When you read the article just posted recounting numerous horrid memories of soldiers in Iraq, reading this analysis of the leadership is vaguely challenging.

After Rumsfeld, a new dawn?
By Mark Perry

In the American movie Cool Hand Luke – a cult classic in the US – a drunken Paul Newman faces his jailer. “What we have here,” intones the captain of Road Prison 36, “is a failure to communicate.” The movie has provided fodder for a gaggle of bloggers, who now refer to US Lieutenant General Douglas E Lute, President George W Bush’s new “war czar”, as “Cool Hand Lute”.

Lute recently made the rounds of official Washington, telling everyone that aside from the advisability of invading Iraq in the first place (something with which, in private, he had real problems), the US national security establishment’s failure to coordinate policy, its failure to communicate, is leading the nation into a foreign-policy debacle.

Lute’s appointment in May as “war czar” is a talisman of this disaster. Lute’s job, as he sees it, is to help reverse this potential disaster and shape a national security establishment that actually works. His colleagues say he’s terribly worried that he’s fated to fail.

Lute’s most powerful ally in his lone battle to rebuild what he sees as the shattered American national security establishment is Robert Gates, the unassuming, seemingly soft-as-a-pillow new secretary of defense. Gates is Donald Rumsfeld-in-reverse. Gates is a man who has spent a career being underestimated. “Gates is soft-spoken, courteous, a very good listener, workmanlike, treats people well, has a good sense of humor – and is completely and absolutely ruthless,” a colleague who has worked with him for three decades notes.

“It took a lot for Bob Gates to take that job,” former US Marine Corps commandant Joe Hoar says. “Let me be blunt. He was president of Texas A&M [University] and he had the job for life. Why would he take on a major headache like the Pentagon? He told Bush he wanted the right to run the Pentagon his way and he didn’t want what he said vetted by the White House. And Bush was in trouble and he knew it. So he agreed. And Gates might look like a soft guy, but he’s a realist and he’s a patriot and he knows Washington and he knows what he wants. And he got it.”

What Gates got when he took over last December was the right to do things his way. “When Gates showed up at the Pentagon, he was just stunned,” a senior civilian official at the Defense Department says. “No one knew what was going on. There were no plans. Nothing worked. The policy establishment was broken.”

In his first meeting with the major heads of departments, Gates said they would not be replaced (“We don’t have time for that,” he said) and announced that he would spend the next weeks traveling. In his first two months as Defense Secretary, Gates might have spent four days at the Pentagon, if that. “We just didn’t see him,” an official said. “He was elsewhere.”

Gates was in the Middle East – talking with coalition commander General George Casey and CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid. Gates talked to the troops, held press conferences, smiled for the cameras, shook hands – and decided that America was losing.

“I think it’s pretty clear that Bob spent long nights, alone, thinking about all of this by himself,” a friend says, “and he just decided to throw out all of this neo-con stuff and all this bunk about democracy and Islam and the clash of civilizations and he decided the country needed to get back to the basics. What is the mission? Are we accomplishing it? What do we need to get it done? Can we do it? How long will it take? How much will it cost? And he just decided that everything else is just so much talk. And really it was a breath of fresh air.

“He just stopped people talking about that stuff. So he went in and started to clean it up. And he was quiet about it, but he made it clear: there are rules, and if you don’t obey the rules you’re out. And there’s a chain of command, and if you don’t follow it, you’re gone. There’s a chain of command at the Department of Defense, and there’s only one man at the top of it. And he’s [Gates] at the top of it. Maybe at the end he won’t fix all of it, but he’s sure going to try.”

Starting at the top

After just six weeks on the job, and after hours of discussions with Casey, Abizaid and their key combat subordinates, Gates was convinced that the US senior military leadership in Iraq and in the Middle East needed to be replaced. Casey and Abizaid were nearly exhausted from years of fighting both the Iraqi insurgency and Rumsfeld. Gates feared both had lost their edge as well as the confidence of their subordinate commanders.

In one sense, Gates was lucky. With Casey due to rotate back to Washington as the new army chief of staff and Abizaid up for retirement, the change in command could be seen as nothing out of the ordinary. The change would be swift and painless. Neither Casey nor Abizaid need be embarrassed. Both men would be given parades, medals and handshakes. “There would be no blood on the floor,” a Pentagon civilian official said of the command change. But no one was fooled: Casey and Abizaid had been sidelined.

“Gates was particularly disturbed with Abizaid,” a Pentagon official says. “His [Central Command Regional military] staff had ballooned, it was way out of wack. There were 3,800 officers in the region, sitting at their computers in their little cubby holes. That was more than [president Dwight D Eisenhower had in Europe in World War II. Gates came back to Washington and said, ‘What the hell are these people doing? Why aren’t they in the front lines’?”

Abizaid had always had problems with staffing. One of his jobs at the Pentagon prior to his Gulf deployment was to organize former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz’s staff – “and he actually made it worse, if you can believe that”.

The rap on Casey was different: “He was simply indecisive, like [former president] Jimmy Carter. His commanders would come to him with options and he would look around the table and say, ‘Well gentlemen, what should we do?’ Damn, why was he asking them? He was the one who was supposed to be in charge,” the Pentagon official says.

Gates was not the only one who had decided there needed to be a command shift in Iraq. Retired Army four-star General Jack Keane, arguably the most influential military thinker in Washington – and author of the Bush administration’s “surge” strategy from his aerie position at the American Enterprise Institute – had come to the same conclusion as Gates.

Read the rest here.

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