Crisis Building in White House Over Iraq War
Published on Tuesday, April 25, 2006 by the Toronto Star
Crisis Building in White House Over Iraq War
by Richard Gwyn

A week ago, it was the generals. Now it's the colonels and majors and captains. Moreover, these officers are in uniform and have none of the security from retribution of the generals who had all already retired.

In a front-page story Sunday, The New York Times described an "extraordinary debate" now going on among younger American officers "in military academies, in the armed services staff colleges, and even in command posts and mess halls in Iraq."

This debate is about the war in Iraq, about the tactics and prospects of the American forces there, and, most particularly, about Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, already the target of stinging criticism by a half dozen recently-retired senior generals, most of whom had served in Iraq.

The names of these junior officers have all been withheld by the Times. If ever identified, they would be court-martialed. So readers have to take it on faith that the paper has described their opinions accurately.

But it's hard to doubt that the report is close to the truth. To heighten its credibility, by no means all of its findings are predictable.

Thus, while the younger officers overwhelmingly fault Rumsfeld, they are less critical of President George W. Bush.

Several thought their own generals were as much to blame as Rumsfeld, for having gone along silently with his bad planning.

The sense of malaise, though, is widespread.

Time and again these officers questioned the "strategic and political mistakes" that left the American troops unprepared to deal with the kind of insurgency that is now tearing apart Iraq. Nor could any see any way out. One Special Forces major pointed out that the Americans couldn't now pull out: "We have to restore it (security in Iraq) ... otherwise we'll just return later, which is even more terrible."

In terms of political reality, Rumsfeld isn't going anywhere. Bush has just declared his complete confidence in him.

To make that circumstance even more politically real, Bush can't now afford to let Rumsfeld go: Without Rumsfeld around, Bush himself would become the target for all the criticism.

It's also a political reality, though, that the criticism of a defence secretary by his own officers is without precedent.

The military occupies an iconic role in American public life. It's widely admired and is seen as a protector of the nation in a way that is rarely equalled internationally.

The effect of this criticism of Rumsfeld will therefore be to multiply the credibility of all those criticizing the war itself. The latest of these is former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has called for a withdrawal of American troops, arguing that the costs of staying will be even higher than the undoubted costs of quitting.

The key political question is how all this will play out in November's mid-term Congressional elections. The issue here is whether the Democrats can capitalize on Bush's plummeting popularity and win back control of at least the House of Representatives.

If this happens an uncertain prospect given that the Democrats still lack a coherent policy on Iraq, or indeed on anything much Bush's room to manoeuvre on foreign policy will be severely constricted.

More significant, a Republican defeat in the November elections will ensure that the next presidential election, in 2008, will become a single-issue election about Iraq.

It will be won by whichever of the Republican and Democrat nominees can convince voters that their way will get the U.S. out of Iraq with a minimum loss of blood and face.

Bush needs Rumsfeld to protect himself. The Democrats need Rumsfeld to attack Bush. Politically, it can still go either way. But a crisis is building that's going to force a decision, about the U.S. and Iraq, one way or another.

Richard Gwyn's column appears Tuesdays and Fridays.

© 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited