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President Bush Revamps Iraq Team Before Policy Changes

January 5, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Some of the pieces of President Bush’s shifting Iraq policy puzzle fell into place today, with a few critical personnel announcements.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I am pleased to announce that I intend to nominate Ambassador John Negroponte to be our next deputy secretary of state and Vice Admiral Mike McConnell to be America’s next director of national intelligence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president will move National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, a veteran diplomat, back to the State Department to serve as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s deputy, a spot vacant since July.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I have asked John Negroponte to serve in this vital position at this crucial moment. John Negroponte’s broad experience, sound judgment, and expertise on Iraq and in the war on terror make him to — make him a superb choice as deputy secretary of state. And I look forward to working with him in this new post.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Negroponte has filled central posts in the president’s foreign policy apparatus. He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the contentious run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion and later was ambassador to Baghdad.

The man the president has nominated to be the new national intelligence director, Navy Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, has more than 25 years experience as an intelligence, operations and security officer.

GEORGE W. BUSH: He served as director of the National Security Agency during the 1990s. He was the intelligence officer for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the liberation of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.

Admiral McConnell has decades of experience, ensuring that our military forces had the intelligence they need to fight and win wars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were also important changes announced across the Potomac River at the Pentagon. In a written statement, the defense secretary, Robert Gates, announced his intention to shift the top two military commanders of the Iraq war.

Gates is recommending Navy Admiral William Fallon, currently the head of the Pacific Command, to replace Army General John Abizaid as Centcom commander, in charge of U.S. troops in the Middle East and South Asia.

And Army three-star General David Petraeus would earn his fourth star in replacing the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, if Gates’ recommendations are accepted by the president.

Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later oversaw efforts to train Iraqi security forces.

General Casey was recommended to become Army chief of staff. He would replace General Peter Schoomaker, who is retiring. Those changes come just over three weeks after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld, a chief architect of the war in Iraq.

And it has been widely reported that the president will nominate the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to head the U.S. mission to the United Nations. Khalilzad would replace John Bolton, whose recess appointment expired in December.

The Baghdad post would in turn be filled by the current ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker. He recently led U.S. efforts in Pakistan after a deadly earthquake killed more than 73,000 people. During Crocker’s 35-year diplomatic career, he has served as ambassador to Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon.

All of these nominations still require Senate approval. The president is expected to address the nation next week about changes in troop levels and overall strategy in Iraq.

The implications of the shake-up

David Ignatius
Washington Post
And I think he wants a team that will send a message that we're in this to fight and win. What "win" means in this context is very unclear. We'll have to wait for the president's statement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, some assessment of all these changes. For that, we are joined by Aaron Friedberg. He is Vice President Cheney's deputy assistant for national security affairs and director of policy planning, he was, from 2003 to 2005. He's now a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

Retired Colonel W. Patrick Lang, he's a former Special Forces officer and Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the early 1990s. He is now a consultant.

And David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post, he's traveled to Iraq several times since the March 2003 invasion.

Aaron Friedberg, let me begin with you. A lot of changes, what is it, nine people at least, being moved around at a very, very high level. What does it all add up to?

AARON FRIEDBERG, Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University: Well, I think there's always a temptation to over-interpret personnel changes. Probably the simplest explanation for this is the best one: The administration is getting ready, we believe, to announce major changes in policy in Iraq.

I suspect that they realized that this may be their last best chance to achieve something resembling an acceptable outcome there, and they want to have people in all of the top positions in whom they have enormous confidence, whose judgment they trust, who are presumably onboard with the changes that are about to be made.

So I think that's the simplest and most obvious explanation, and probably accounts for most of the changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Lang, do you have an explanation of that?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG (Ret.), U.S. Army: I think, from the military point of view, it's a very normal thing. If you're going to have a major policy change that's driving strategy, and there are people on the ground in command who have expressed some reservations about the change you're going to and haven't done very well with the previous policy, that they should be removed.

That's a very normal thing in military history. And it happens all the time in Army, in combat. So I think this is a natural thing to do. They're setting up a new team for a new policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say reservations, you're talking about General Casey being replaced by General Petraeus, and you're talking about General Abizaid being replaced?

W. PATRICK LANG: That's exactly what I'm talking about, probably as well General Schoomaker, who is going to retire from his post as chief of staff. All of these people, I think, have not been very enthusiastic about the idea of surging additional combat troops into Iraq and taking them out of the carefully constructed queue for rotation into there and sticking them, I think, to fight a decisive battle for control of Baghdad.

This is a big gamble; I don't think they were happy with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what's going on here, David Ignatius? You've been to Iraq a number of times. These are people being moved out who don't particularly like what it is that the president may do.

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: I think that what Pat Lang said is basically right. I think that the president and the White House advisers have come to think that the military strategy that General Abizaid and General Casey have advanced, which really focuses on reducing the American footprint -- again and again, you'll hear from these generals, This is not our war. This is the Iraqis' war, that I think the president has come to fear that this was a strategy for withdrawal of American troops, not for victory.

And I think he wants a team that will send a message that we're in this to fight and win. What "win" means in this context is very unclear. We'll have to wait for the president's statement.

I think this characterization is a little bit unfair to these generals, because I think they've done their best in a very difficult situation. But I do think the White House wants a new team as a symbol of a new strategy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the extent you're familiar with what the White House is thinking, Aaron Friedberg, is that what's going on here, the White House wants a different group of players in place to implement a different strategy?

AARON FRIEDBERG: I suspect that's true; I don't have any inside information on what people are thinking.

One point I'd like to make, in particular about General Petraeus, is that he is, I think, widely regarded as one of the most successful military commanders in both the initial stage of the coalition military action in Iraq and then subsequently in the early stages of the insurgency.

And he spent a lot of time thinking about counterinsurgency warfare, trying to train Iraqi troops, so he's someone who seems to be ideally suited for the kind of mission that he's now about to be given.

The chances for success

Aaron Friedberg
Woodrow Wilson School
Well, I do think it's true that ultimately there has to be a political solution to the problem in Iraq. The United States is not going to win militarily, unilaterally and then withdraw.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Given that, Colonel Lang, is there any reason to believe that this isn't going to be a more successful group of military leaders?

W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think there's a lot of reason to think they're not going to be more successful, and it doesn't have anything to do with the relative virtues or merits...

JUDY WOODRUFF: That they're not going to be?

W. PATRICK LANG: They're not going to be. It doesn't have anything to do with the relative virtues or merits of the two groups.

What it has to do with the fact is that the idea, evidently, is, from everything that we can understand around Washington, is that they're going to bring a lot more troops in, and they're going to give up the emphasis on training Iraqi security forces in favor of using American and additional Iraqi combat forces to clear the city of insurgents and some of the Shia militias, like the Mahdi Army, to make a political resolution possible.

But the number of troops that are actually available to do this is really quite small, given the size of our forces. And in a city of that size, the idea that this is actually going to be possible to clear and then hold block by block, district by district, I think is not really realistic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, there was a report tonight out of Baghdad, advisers to the prime minister, Prime Minister Maliki, saying that there will be Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops beginning this neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep.

David Ignatius, is it the situation, that we're bringing in new leaders with different views, can change the military picture on the ground?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I don't think we can change the fundamentals. This remains, as our generals have said, and as wise political leaders here have said, that this remains fundamentally a political conflict.

Military victory, if that's the president's goal, is really not the way to think about this.

I'd just note one thing on this question of surging troops into Baghdad to secure the city. I was with General Abizaid in August, in Baghdad, during the last surge. We sent units from elsewhere in Iraq into Baghdad to try to retake some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. And we did.

I mean, there's no question the U.S. is the biggest, toughest militia in Iraq, and we can beat up anybody we want. And we toured these very dangerous neighborhoods, and they'd been pacified by U.S. Army troops.

As soon as those troops pulled back to go to other neighborhoods, after we were there in August, you began to see the same situation return, the same insecurity and violence.

And I think that's the worry, is that this new surge will surge people in. And as long as they're there -- U.S. soldiers are good soldiers, they'll calm things down -- but what happens when they pull back?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aaron Friedberg, is there a reason to believe that what David Ignatius just described may not happen, that something different is going to happen this go-round?

AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, I do think it's true that ultimately there has to be a political solution to the problem in Iraq. The United States is not going to win militarily, unilaterally and then withdraw.

But I think it's also true that there can't be a political solution at this point, unless there's a higher degree of security. If things continue to spiral out of control and we have tit-for-tat killings by Sunnis and Shia and the opposite, the political situation is going to only get worse.

So I think the thinking has to be that an attempt should be made to restore some degree of order and create some space in which political accommodation may yet be possible. We don't know if that's going to work, but I think that has to be the theory underlying any increase in forces.

The various moves

Col. W. Patrick Lang
(Ret.), U.S. Army
This is really tribal warfare dressed up in political clothing, makes it extremely difficult to settle it on a political basis, because they see it as a zero-sum game.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A specific question about bringing in Navy Admiral William Fallon to be the head of Central Command. This has been an Army position. What's the thinking there? This is...

W. PATRICK LANG: Well, if I could say a word about politics first, I think one of the basic misapprehensions about politics in Iraq is that this is not really politics as we understand it. This is really tribal warfare dressed up in political clothing, makes it extremely difficult to settle it on a political basis, because they see it as a zero-sum game.

That's where Admiral Fallon -- I'm sure he's a very distinguished fellow. He's a man who spent his whole life in carrier aviation or in very high-level joint staff jobs...

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what does this say to you?

W. PATRICK LANG: Well, it's very odd to me. It seems very odd, because here you have a theater of war in which two major ground wars are taking place. There are lots of distinguished officers, both active and retired, in the Army and Marine Corps.

And to bring in a Navy man to do this, it would seem to indicate to me, in fact, that they're thinking down the line that they may have another sort of campaign in the future which will not essentially be a land campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning, David Ignatius -- you're smiling?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I'm smiling, because I think Pat Lang is referring to Iran. I mean, one reason to have a Centcom commander who is a Navy pilot, who understands air power, who understands projection of power, which is what the Navy is all about, is if you think that down the road the issue is not the two ground wars that we have in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the confrontation with Iran, where airpower would be decisive.

Fallon is described to me, Judy, as a very serious strategic thinker. And although it may seem odd to have a non-Army or Marine Corps person there, I think he'll be seen as doing a good job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's move to the changes at the National Intelligence Directorate. Aaron Friedberg, moving John Negroponte from a position he had held less than two years to the State Department, does it make sense to you?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, because Negroponte is a person who has enormous experience, most of his career as a foreign service officer, a lot of management experience, someone who's relied on by the top leaders in government, I think it does make sense.

The secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has had a position missing or empty for the last couple of months. She needs a deputy, particularly moving into a period where there's likely to be a lot of diplomatic activity, not only surrounding the situation in Iraq, but also in the Middle East and in North Korea and so on. She needs to have someone she can rely on in that position.

The man who's been selected to replace Admiral Negroponte is an intelligence professional. Presumably the big changes have been made in the structure of the intelligence community. There's a lot of work yet to be done to make it work. And the kind of person to do that may be someone who's had a lot of experience doing this kind of job in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Colonel Lang, you know the work of Vice Admiral McConnell?

W. PATRICK LANG: Personally. I worked alongside him during the Desert Storm, first Gulf War period. I think he's a very efficient administrator and manager. I think that he also now, of course, under the Reorganization Act, runs the national estimating process to decide what the truth is for the American government.

I am less pleased with the fact that they made him director of national intelligence in the context of the fact that they're going to have to be some hard judgments made about questions like the confrontation with Iran. And I hope he does well.

A 'stronger' position?

David Ignatius
Washington Post
We talked about the change of General Abizaid and General Casey. I think the surge in the new policy will be more about, you know, using military strength, fighting a counterinsurgency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Ignatius, it's hard to pull all this together because you've got so many things going on, but does this put the United Nations, U.S. policy in a stronger position, as far as this administration is concerned, do you think?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, you know, the people who have been put in these jobs are solid people. I think it does reflect some changes in strategic thinking.

We talked about the change of General Abizaid and General Casey. I think the surge in the new policy will be more about, you know, using military strength, fighting a counterinsurgency.

I think removing Zalmay Khalilzad as our ambassador is clearly a signal that the Sunni outreach that he attempted, reaching out to the Sunnis to draw them in, hasn't worked, and so we will really be in the business of supporting the Shia government.

John Negroponte, a very talented person, but a lifelong diplomat, I think seen in Washington as a little bit miscast as director of national intelligence, a much better fit, you know, at the State Department as the deputy.

And finally, you know, the fact that Mike McConnell is going in as director of national intelligence, the dominant figure in the community will be Mike Hayden, the director of CIA. So we'll see a shift back to the CIA, I think, as the central intelligence agency that it used to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there. David Ignatius, thank you very much. Aaron Friedberg joining us from Princeton. And Colonel Pat Lang, thank you all three.