We have a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The question is: What will happen if he says something that the commander-in-chief does not want to hear?
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen yesterday replaced Marine General Peter Pace because Pace became too much a symbol of the Iraq quagmire. In June, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he originally wanted to renominate Pace for another two years. But Gates determined that the nation would not have been served by a "divisive ordeal" of renomination hearings.
"The focus of his confirmation process would have been on the past rather than the future, and further, that there was the very real prospect the process would be quite contentious," Gates conceded.
Almost by default, Mullen was viewed in Washington as fresh air, unafraid to blow back at the hot air that got us into Iraq in the first place. So far, he does not appear to be a senseless cheerleader. In his July Senate confirmation hearing, he was pressed by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham to "assess our likelihood of winning, given what you know now."
Mullen said, "I would be concerned about whether we'd be winning or not."
In a written statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mullen was asked what he considered the most significant mistakes the United States has made in Iraq. Unlike President Bush, who infamously admitted to no mistakes over either Iraq or 9/11 in a 2004 press conference, Mullen listed seven mistakes. They were, as he wrote them:
"1) Did not fully integrate all elements of US national power in Iraq.
"2) Focused most attention on the Iraqi national power structures with limited, engagement of the tribal and local power structures.
"3) Did not establish an early and significant dialogue with neighboring countries, adding to the complex security environment a problematic border situation.
"4) Disbanded the entire Iraqi Army, a potentially valuable asset for security, reconstruction, and provision of services to the Iraqi people, providing a recruiting pool for extremist groups.
"5) Pursued a de-Ba'athification process that proved more divisive than helpful, created a lingering vacuum in governmental capability that still lingers, and exacerbated sectarian tensions.
"6) Attempted to transition to stability operations with an insufficient force.
"7) Unsuccessful in communicating and convincing Iraqis and regional audience of our intended goals."
To be sure, Mullen supports the current troop increase, which has resulted in record carnage to both the US soldiers and Iraqis. But contrast this to Vice President Dick Cheney. On the same day of Mullen's confirmation hearing, CNN's Larry King asked Cheney about the administration's Iraq policy, which several Republican senators have come to question.
King said to Cheney, "Do you, as an intelligent person, look in the mirror and say, maybe I'm wrong?"
Cheney hemmed and hawed. King pressed him, "Don't you ever say, maybe I'm wrong?"
Cheney said, "No. I think what we do at it in terms of trying to decide what's the right thing to do. And weigh the evidence."
One piece of "evidence" Cheney could not run away from was his 2005 statement that Iraq was in the last "throes" of the insurgency. King asked him about that and finally, Cheney admitted, "It was wrong; it turned out to be incorrect."
Two weeks ago, Cheney boasted in a speech, "We serve a cause that is right, a cause that gives hope to the oppressed in every corner of the earth. The only way for us to lose is to quit. But that's not an option. We will complete the mission and we will prevail."
But Mullen warned in his hearings that the US military, while the strongest in the world, "is not unbreakable." He said that unless security is restored to Iraq, "no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference."
Again to be sure, Mullen is no threat to tell Bush to pull completely out of Iraq.
He wrote to the Senate that a "sustained force presence" in Iraq "will be measured in years, not months." But he admits that "There is strain. We are stretched. . . . I worry about the toll this pace of operations is taking." In the actual hearing, Mullen repeated, "I'm very concerned about the stress that is placed on our people."
Perhaps in his caring about the strain, Mullen will lend some sanity to an insane war.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com.
© 2007 The New York Times Company