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Is the U.S. military faced with impossible missions?

A critique of the U.S. military establishment written by journalist James Fallows has made waves in defense circles and beyond. Who is responsible for how America applies its military might? Judy Woodruff gets reaction from former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and John Ullyot, a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, as we mentioned earlier, there's been a passionate reaction to Jim Fallows' piece.

    And joining me now to discuss it is former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey. You heard Margaret mention him. He's a former Army infantry officer. He is now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And former Marine intelligence officer and former spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee John Ullyot. He's now a managing director at the High Lantern Group. That's a business consulting firm.

    And we welcome you both.

  • JOHN ULLYOT, Former U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Officer:

    Thank you.

    JAMES JEFFREY, Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: Thank you, Judy.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There's a lot to talk about there, but let's focus on a few points.

    Ambassador Jeffrey, to you first.

    Is Jim Fallows right when he says, essentially, this has been an era of military defeat in this country, rather than victory, since 9/11?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    It has been an era of lack of success in carrying out our strategic objectives in Iraq and in certainly Afghanistan, and, going back, Vietnam as well.

    When we get engaged in these long-term conflicts, we have not done well as a nation. The military, as Jim Fallows pointed out, do win the battles. That's what they are hired for, but they and all of us together under the leadership of the president have not come up with strategies that have led to the achievement of our objectives.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, John Ullyot, that and the biggest point that the country has lost more than it's gained.

  • JOHN ULLYOT:

    Well, the ambassador is absolutely right that if you look battle by battle, that we never suffered a single tactical defeat on the battlefield.

    So, while Jim Fallows himself is right that they have not been successful, it has not been because of military shortcomings. What it has been is, it's been the policy-makers have committed our military to wars and conflicts both in Iraq and Afghanistan that are essentially not solvable on a military level.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So what is happening here, Ambassador Jeffrey? The point he made I thought very powerfully is that such a tiny percentage of the American people are in the military, that it's just a fraction of 1 percent.

    The American people are disconnected from these decisions.

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    That's true to some degree.

    But, I mean, all decisions are taken by the president and by Congress, and it's by a democratic system. The military is small because militaries in all advanced countries are small. We have well over two million people in — under uniform in the Reserves, National Guard and active services, but that's still a very tiny percent of the very large country we are.

    So, there is no real solution to that. The military, I don't want to let them off the hook. They have a voice in determining these strategic objectives. General Powell gave us a way forward with the Powell doctrine. General Petraeus, as a division commander in Iraq in '03, asked the relevant question: Tell me how this is all going to end.

    We need more of that. We need more people to say, without a strategic goal and without the resources, we shouldn't be winning these battles at great loss.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    John Ullyot — is that what has happened, John Ullyot?

  • JOHN ULLYOT:

    That's somewhat what happened.

    I certainly saw, we saw in the Senate that the Senate was a lot more likely to vote to commit forces when there's not a direct impact on them themselves. And I know the ambassador and I may disagree on this, because you can point to Vietnam.

    But if you just look at the Iraq war and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, we were too willing to commit troops because we didn't know what the actual costs would have been and what the downsides would be if the mission didn't go the way it did when we first sent them in, in 2003.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So who or what is responsible? In a way, we hear Jim Fallows, John Ullyot, coming back to the American people and saying the American people themselves have got to be more engaged.

  • JOHN ULLYOT:

    I think he's absolutely right on that point. And I think it's a really good thing that you're seeing — I think there are 20 new members of Congress who have served in the military who are younger generation, in many cases Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

    And by them being in there, that's more than we have had in recent years, and that is a really good step forward. To Fallows' point, we need more of that; we need more people with military experience who are willing to go into Congress and participate in these decisions about when we use force.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, Ambassador Jeffrey, it's still disturbing, I think, this larger point he's making that so much blood and treasure have been in effect spent in Iraq and Afghanistan and that entire region over the last decade-plus, and he makes the point that America's — American — the American image, values have all taken a big hit despite that.

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    They certainly have taken a hit, Judy.

    But, again, that isn't because the military didn't take down Saddam in a few weeks. It did. It isn't because the military, with help from the CIA, didn't drive the Taliban and al-Qaida out of Afghanistan very, very quickly. It's because they were not capable of doing a mission that is almost impossible, as we had seen two generations ago in Vietnam.

    You cannot go in and clear out an entire country with an insurgency that is supported by much of the population by any of the standards that we're willing to apply in war.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, how does the U.S. prevent something like that from happening again and again and again?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Don't get involved in any more large counterinsurgencies, where the foot soldiers on the ground are American troops. We have played this game three times. We have not done well in any of them. Let's just stop doing it.

  • JOHN ULLYOT:

    And, once again, don't look for — I agree with the ambassador 100 percent on that.

    The key thing is, do not see geopolitical problems as always having a military solution. We have been very — very fortunate that we have a military that is the world's best, hands down, but there are a lot of times — for example, we can't provide stability to a country that doesn't politically have the will to do so, like in Iraq.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, so often, the decision to go to war is equated with, is the U.S. prepared to stand up for what it believes in? And if we're not, then the argument is, well, we're weak, so we don't have any choice.

  • JOHN ULLYOT:

    Correct.

    But, once again, it has to be a holistic solution. And if you say that, look, just by committing U.S. forces in Iraq, that that's going to be a clear card to victory, we know that that's not the case.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What else should the American people be thinking about as they think about the military today?

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    It's very important to realize that the military has gone through an extraordinarily difficult period, with multiple deployments, great stress on families. That's the first thing.

    The second thing is, they're ready to go out and do this again tomorrow if the country needs them, and that is a resource that no other country in the Western world has. And it's a precious resource and we have to ensure that it's not wasted on a conflict that they're not given the resources to win.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we thank you both, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and John Ullyot. Thank you.

  • JOHN ULLYOT:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • JAMES JEFFREY:

    Thank you, Judy.

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