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Reviving the Generals' Revolt

By Jed Babbin

There was a time not long ago when a general would resign rather than follow an order he could not, in good conscience, obey. A conscience is an essential part of the character we expect our officers to possess. But it is an inconvenience to a politician. Some generals who become politicians - such as Dwight Eisenhower - overcome the inconvenience by remaining faithful to their conscience. Lesser men overcome conscience by letting it fall prey to the fatal flaws of political character: ambition and the desire to take revenge.

Last April, six retired generals, each of whom had been promoted to significant rank under the Clinton administration, publicly criticized the president's handling of the Iraq war and - some clearly and some in muddled terms - demanded the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. On April 16, in the midst of what he labeled a "military revolt," former Clinton UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke wrote a Washington Post op-ed that characterized the generals' mini-revolt as, "the most serious public confrontation between the military and an administration since President Harry S. Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur."

Asked if the generals were coordinating their campaign, one participant, retired MGen. John Batiste, denied that they were. But to some of us who comment on national security matters there was an unmistakable similarity among the generals' remarks. Holbrooke's article casually attributed the similarity to the fact that recently-retired generals stay in close touch. But there was obviously more going on. Holbrooke, who is said to be a likely Secretary of State in a future Democratic administration but who lacks any military credentials, wasn't a likely candidate to organize and urge the generals to rebel against civilian authority. But his column hinted darkly at more to come:

"If more angry generals emerge - and they will - if some of them are on active duty, as seems probable; if the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan does not turn around...then this storm will continue until finally it consumes not only Donald Rumsfeld. The only question is: Will it come so late that there is no longer any hope of salvaging something in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

Holbrooke's startling reference to active duty officers participating in such a political revolt spurred the Washington Times's Tony Blankley to write an incisive column saying that such action by active officers could be a courts-martial offense. Apparently afraid that he'd spilled the beans on a big political secret, Holbrooke is rumored to have called Blankley in an effort to explain.

The revolt against Rumsfeld failed. The president restated his confidence in Rumsfeld and the story faded away just as the previous rounds of Rumsfeld-bashing had. Holbrooke's coverup of what is apparently a carefully-managed Democratic Party operation succeeded.

But now the next chapter of the generals' revolt is about to be published. Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks's new book, "Fiasco: The American Adventure in Iraq" will be released in less than three weeks. From the publicity surrounding it we can conclude that Holbrooke did leak a big Dem political op, and that Blankley may have been prescient in thinking to apply the Uniform Code of Military Justice to any active duty officers involved.
The publisher's ad page for Ricks's book says it is,

"a searing judgment on the strategic blindness with which America has conducted [the Iraq war], drawing on the accounts of senior military officers giving voice to their anger for the first time...The American military is a tightly sealed community, and few outsiders have reason to know that a great many senior officers view the Iraq war with incredulity and dismay. But many officers have shared their anger with renowned military reporter Thomas E. Ricks...As many in the military publicly acknowledge here for the first time, the guerrilla insurgency that exploded several months after Saddam's fall was not foreordained. In fact, to a shocking degree, it was created by the folly of the war's architects. But the officers who did raise their voices against the miscalculations, shortsightedness, and general failure of the war effort were generally crushed, their careers often ended. A willful blindness gripped political and military leaders, and dissent was not tolerated."

Like the New York Times did for James Risen's book and his articles that exposed the NSA terrorist surveillance program, we can expect these words to appear over and over again on the Washington Post's front page to attack the president and promote Ricks's book. But why is "anger" the prevailing theme? Why has Ricks apparently focused on men whose opinions were allegedly ignored and their careers ended?

In the April episode of the generals' revolt, statements by Iraq campaign commander Gen. Tommy Franks and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers seemed to put to rest all the claims of crushed dissent and willful blindness. Ricks now revives them - quoting whom we yet don't know - to recreate the April controversy. Who he quotes, and what conclusions he draws, will determine his and the book's credibility.

Unlike the New York Times's Risen, Ricks isn't an ideologue. But he, and the generals he's bound to quote, were comfortable in the Clintons' Pentagon. And like those same generals, Ricks may have lost the personal access he once had. Ricks's theme of anger-based analysis may be rooted in little more than loyalty to those who once befriended him. But - like Risen and the rest of Keller & Co. - Ricks will no longer be able to claim to be an unbiased reporter. Those reporters bound by their ideological or personal biases, once exposed, can no longer claim to be otherwise. If Ricks's book appears in the form advertised, the Post will have to choose between keeping him on the defense beat and maintaining any pretense of unbiased Pentagon coverage

Ricks - wittingly or not, and Holbrooke intentionally - may be fomenting a confrontation between the administration and the military that would not otherwise exist. Politics and the military are combined at our risk. Like church and state, they cannot be combined without conflicting with our system of government - which is something the Clintons worked hard to change as I wrote about three years ago.

The Clintons - and the plural is more accurate than the singular - picked generals for their political fealty rather than military prowess. The worst public examples were Wesley Clark (a Friend of Bill from their Oxford Rhodes scholar days), and Anthony Zinni. Having spent too much time in the company of Arab leaders, Zinni became addicted to stability in the Middle East and opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. But in the middle of the April "revolt", Zinni - echoing Congressman Jack Murtha - once accused Rumsfeld of, "disbanding the Army."

The least public and most political general is former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. When Rumsfeld took over the Pentagon, his orders were to shake the military out of its Cold War mindset and strategies. According to one source (who was an active duty army officer when he told me this) Shinseki tried to make Rumsfeld an offer he couldn't refuse: Shinseki would make Rumsfeld look good on Capitol Hill if Rumsfeld would leave the Army alone and not force it out of its Cold War garrison-force mentality. Rumsfeld didn't take the bait, and instead treated Shinseki gently, allowing him to retire with dignity instead of firing him. And then Rumsfeld went about building a better team made up of war-fighting generals who could transform the force under fire. Could Rumsfeld have treated some people more gently? Certainly. Were careers ended? Yes, and deservedly so.

Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have certainly made mistakes in the Iraq war. And, unless the only histories are written by people such as the angry Ricks, they will be judged fairly. One mistake they didn't make is turning the military into a political arm of the White House. Which brings us back to the conscience of a general.

How many of the generals now cooperating with Ricks and Holbrooke and the Democratic Party resigned rather than obey orders that conflicted with their conscience? None. That is the best measure of the credibility of these men and the writers who rely on them.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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