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thomas ricks

Can you give me a kind of snapshot of the military, the Pentagon, the Defense Department, right as Bush takes office?

Bush takes office January 2001. Boy! It seems like reaching back a century. January 2001, Bush takes office, and the Pentagon is kind of looking forward to him and to the Bush administration. A large number of retired generals, including Anthony Zinni, had endorsed Bush and Cheney in the election, and there's a lot of buy into phrases like, "We'll have adults running the place again," and so on. ... The U.S. military was feeling pretty strained by the Clinton years. They had a series of operations -- Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo and continuing no-fly zones in Iraq for 10 years -- and they were feeling kind of strained, frayed by this. And Bush campaigned saying: "We're going to basically not go gallivanting all over the world. We're going to be more careful about military operations, and we are really going to restore the strength and integrity and trust of the U.S. military and the bond that the president should have with the military."

Donald Rumsfeld is picked as the secretary of defense. What did you think?

I was a bit surprised, as I think Rumsfeld himself was. Rumsfeld probably would have been a more natural choice for the CIA, as director of intelligence. The commissions work he'd done in the 1990s focused on things like, "What is the threat that might require a ballistic missile defense?" Hadn't really been involved in military thinking very much at all. On top of that, when he had been secretary of defense briefly in the 1970s, it was a very different military. Really had undergone an information and a technological revolution since he had been secretary of defense. Not a lot of people in the U.S. military knew him. I think probably no one on active duty knew Rumsfeld very well.

And between when he was secretary the first time and this time, there was Goldwater-Nichols, which effectively changed the relationship of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary. How did that work?

photo of ricks

Thomas Ricks, the Post's Pentagon correspondent, has long covered the Pentagon and U.S. military. Since the war's official end in spring 2003 he has visited Iraq several times. In this interview, he discusses Rumsfeld's personality and leadership at the Pentagon and his push to transform the way the military thinks and fights. Ricks also talks about the many ways it went wrong for the U.S. in the aftermath of the Iraq war. "I think in one way or another, we, the United States, are stuck in the Middle East in a way that few of us anticipated," he says. "… We are the dog that caught the car. ... We may just be there for decades." This interview was conducted on June 29 and Sept. 28, 2004.

The Goldwater-Nichols law was passed while Adm. [William J.] Crowe was chairman of the Joint Chiefs, so the first person to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs with that law in place was Colin Powell. Powell promptly seized on these new provisions in the law to become the most powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs ever -- not just in memory, but ever. And it really reorganized the Pentagon. The Joint Staff before the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols law had been in a kind of backwater, a place where people went to have their careers die. ... The law said, "You can't become a general unless you've had time in a Joint billet," and the Joint Staff was the best place to do that. So suddenly the military started sending their best and the brightest, the guys they want to be the generals and admirals, to the Joint Staff. So Powell goes from having basically a bunch of discards as his staff to having some of the best and the brightest, most powerful, most ambitious, senior people in the U.S. military working for him. And he harnesses that.

Rumsfeld starts interviewing personally anybody who is going to   become a full general or a lieutenant general in the US military. A lot of resentment of that in the military.

Now, I think that some of the civilians saw this and said, "The military is getting a little big for its britches." ... And Rumsfeld has never discussed this publicly, but I've been told by friends of his that he came in kind of determined to reassert civilian control over the Joint Staff and the rest of the military and that it was a pretty tough process, a lot of friction in those first months, with Rumsfeld saying, "No, I don't think you heard me clearly: I'm the boss; I want to do it this way," even to the point of reaching in and taking for himself things that had been thought to be the prerogative of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. ... Remember, at the outset of the Bush administration, people are saying: "Wow! Colin Powell is going to be huge in this administration. Here's a guy who has been a four-star general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, national security adviser, knows all the players, and now he is secretary of state." It's more his polling recognition, and his approval rating is higher than the president's. This is a guy Americans know and think they love. Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, who is he?

Rumsfeld comes in and really establishes himself as a presence. ... His relationship with the military is interesting in all his press conferences. It used to be secretaries of defense would talk about policy overall, but when the question turned to military operations, they would say, "Well, that's a question for the general," and the general would answer it. With Rumsfeld, if you look at the transcripts, it is astonishing. Basically, he answers all the questions, and the role of the three-star, four-star general standing next to him, whether it's the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or somebody else, is basically to echo him and say, "That's right; I totally agree." It sounds very much like a subordinate saying, "Yes, the boss is right."

Before we move on, articulate for me the age-old and by now well-known Powell Doctrine. Where did it come from?

It may be a misnomer; it's also been referred to as the Weinberger Doctrine. But it comes out of the mid-1980s. ... The speech is given by [former Secretary of Defense, Caspar] Weinberger, but Powell had kind of written out several of these points, as I recall, that said the American military should never be used without the clear support and understanding of the American people, and also a clear understanding of how we are going to get out, what came to be known as an exit strategy. ...

The key thing to remember about the Powell Doctrine is its place in time. All policies are rooted in time. They come out of their circumstance. What I think the Powell Doctrine is really about is finding a way to use U.S. military power again after the Vietnam War. Remember, the mid-'80s is really just about 10 years out of the Vietnam War. The question is not "Is Powell somehow asserting the military will do this but won't do that?" He, I think, is trying to find a way to use [the] U.S. military to say, "Are there circumstances under which we can use the U.S. military again to assert a superpower strength?" ... I think it should be taken as an assertion that "Yeah, we recognize that there were some problems with the way force was used in Vietnam." So he had a couple of answers to that: "We at least will promise to think about those issues before we do it next time."

So Rumsfeld comes in. How is it going with the Defense Department just before 9/11?

Rumsfeld has a very rough first eight months in the Pentagon. It's not the Pentagon he knows. He doesn't know very many people there. He brings in some of his old buddies, but these guys are getting pretty long in the tooth. ... He finds a very different military, not a military that he's very comfortable with, a lot of friction. He constantly seems to be stepping on their toes. ... They learned that Donald Rumsfeld, though, is somebody to be contended with. He slugs back. He doesn't simply get back in his little box where they are trying to put him. He fights back ferociously, most notably with the U.S. Army.

But by the summer of '01, Rumsfeld did look like he was on the ropes to a lot of people: "Man, this secretary of defense is really having some real problems there." I remember I told the Pentagon, "I'm doing a profile of Rumsfeld." This must have been about June of that year. And not long after, the phone rings, and this guy on the other end says: "This is Dick Cheney. I'd like to talk to you about Donald Rumsfeld." It's extremely unusual for the vice president to call a defense reporter and want to talk about it, and I was struck that Cheney, as a smart guy, does things for several reasons. I think he was asserting his support for Rumsfeld. But what he had to say, also, was interesting. He said, "I think Don will start taking care of what needs to be taken care of over there." And I think it was a clear message: "Hey, Don, you need to smack these guys around and shut them up."

We all think of it as "Once there was a world, and then there was a post-9/11 world." Is that true at the Pentagon?

I think it is truer at the Pentagon than at anywhere else in the world. Really, the entire U.S. military posture changed; the expectations of what you will spend your days doing, and the rest of your days in the military doing, have changed. It really does feel like a totally different place now. Not just the Pentagon, but the entire U.S. military feels very different. ...

Iraq is the first sustained combat the U.S. military has had since the Vietnam War. But even more significantly, to my mind, it's the first sustained ground combat the U.S. military has fought with a volunteer force in well over 100 years. It's a volunteer force. It's a professional force. It's a very small force. And it's the same guys doing it again and again and again. ... There's a lot of 23-year-olds wearing combat patches who have Purple Hearts around these days. They are very good; they are very seasoned. The big question for all of us is at what point do they say: "Okay. I've done my part. That's enough"?

When do you hear about Afghanistan?

I knew Afghanistan well; I had lived there as a kid. It took me four days to get back to the U.S. after 9/11, and I immediately started getting ready for the Afghan war. It was an inevitability. That's where Al Qaeda was. The president said, "We're going to go after him."

Now the question in September '01 is, "How do you do Afghanistan better than the Russians did it?" The Russians went in, took the country very quickly, and found themselves mired in it, and eventually, 10 years later, retreat really, utterly defeated. And the question was, "How would the United States do it differently? Would the U.S. be innovative and different enough to do it?" Now, jumping ahead a little bit, unfortunately, I think we did Afghanistan right, but then did Iraq wrong. We did Iraq like the Russians did Afghanistan.

We did Afghanistan right. The question I hear still inside the Pentagon is, "Did we do it right enough?" We did it with air power and special forces. ... The problem in Afghanistan, for the success of the air strikes and the special forces operations, was they didn't have enough troops on hand for Tora Bora, which is the border operation to get bin Laden. And that is probably the biggest regret I hear out of the military about Afghanistan, is right when we needed some troops, we just didn't have them on hand for a variety of reasons. A couple of thousand more troops, two battalions might have changed the history of that situation. We might have gotten bin Laden then.

Does the Powell Doctrine actually come into play?

Oh, in spades -- overwhelming force. But people tended to think of overwhelming force as lots of Army boots on the ground. What Rumsfeld, I think, grasped very quickly -- because he does have a technological orientation in many ways on military operations -- is overwhelming force might be two guys on the ground with a radio and a B-52 overhead. And that really becomes emblematic of the Afghanistan war: a special operations or a CIA guy on a horse with a global positioning signal that says, "We need to put these bombs on those guys right now." And the bombs, almost from invisible powers in the air, almost in a God-like manner, are brought to bear in a way that the Afghans couldn't conceive.

Is there still at that moment, during Afghanistan, antipathy between Rumsfeld and the uniformed services?

One thing about the U.S. military is it gets very serious when it goes to war, and it stops a lot of the bellyaching, griping and whining about leadership. In October 2002, when it was very clear that we were going to war in Iraq, suddenly all of the griping about Rumsfeld in the Pentagon was shut down. It was like somebody just flipped a switch. And I remember one guy saying to me, a three-star general saying: "Hey, we're going to war. We know what the policy is. We used to argue against it. We are not going to argue anymore. We know what our orders are, and that's what a professional military does."

So on September 15, after Bush goes up and talks to the firemen, he goes to Camp David, and in that meeting [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld are making an argument that Iraq ought to at least be on the table. And I gather Bush takes that on board in some way.

I think it's significant that for the first year that the Bush administration was in office, its policy toward Iraq was extremely similar to the Clinton administration policy. It was containment. And they were mucking around, talking about changes at the margins. But remember, Powell had the upper hand in policy. Powell was a container. ... Underneath this you do have a somewhat more interventionalist, idealist group, now known as the neoconservatives. The most prominent member of that group is Paul Wolfowitz, and Wolfowitz has very clearly laid out for years that he thinks [the] United States should somehow find a way to get rid of Saddam Hussein. 9/11 literally does change everything, because now he can make the argument: "This is a clear and present danger. Here's a guy who wants to hurt us, and there are other people who want to hurt us. And if they get together, they will really hurt us." ...

Planning for Iraq began, I was told, the day after Kabul fell in November 2001. It really was clear. Afghanistan is job one, but we also are going to deal with Iraq. And they kind of turned conceptually to the question of Iraq in November '01.

Planning doesn't really ramp up at Central Command [CENTCOM], the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, until about February, because Afghanistan is really keeping them busy in the interim. But then intense planning begins in February '02, and by late August '02, they really have a pretty complete plan that they are then able to put in front of President Bush down in Texas.

That summer, the president seems to be getting the American people psychologically ready for war.

In retrospect, it's amazing how closely the events are together: September 11, 2001, [and] Kabul, Afghanistan, the capital, falls two months later. Two months after that you have the president's State of the Union address in which he lays out, in January of 2002, the "axis of evil": Iraq, Iran, North Korea. Ike Skelton, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, tells me that after he listened to that State of the Union speech, he walked back across Capitol Hill into his office, turned to his staff and says, "That was a declaration of war."

Now, the administration at the time said it wasn't. In retrospect, I think in some ways it was. But from there, you get a clear ramping up. January 2002 drops one shoe on war with Iraq. ... The administration drops the other shoe in June 2002 at West Point with the doctrine of preemption: "We will not stand by until we have a clear and present threat. We will get you before you can even really make it clear that you can get us. If we think you want to get us, we will get you first, because we can't afford to sit around anymore and wait for people to punch us in the nose. It is just too dangerous. Americans are dying." ...

I don't think it is any accident that the preemption speech was, for example, not given at the Council on Foreign Relations, not given to, say, the Aspen Institute. It was given at West Point, the most recognizably Army institution in America. And I think it was a message in part to the U.S. Army, the most reluctant of the services to do Iraq for the very clear reason, even at that point, [that] they knew they were going to be left holding the bag. ... And that's why the Army starts talking about that, and I think that is one reason why the Bush administration went to West Point and said: "Fellas, the train is leaving the station. You need to get on board."...

There are two phases here: September 2001 to August 26, 2002, when it's not clear that we're going to war with Iraq, and then August 2002 to March 2003, when it's quite clear inside the U.S. government we are going to war with Iraq. It takes a while for everybody else to realize that really, by September 2002, we are going to war.

So in that first period, a group of people, from the Defense Policy Board to [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi to Wolfowitz and [neoconservative and Weekly Standard editor] Bill Kristol, begins to move Iraq forward as an idea. And they begin to get the press and the president, I gather, on board.

September 11 gave them the opening. They had all their arguments ready. They had all their intellectual energy sort of pent up. There had been frustration that first year with the Bush administration that Iraq policy was not changing. And in fact, there was much more focus on China in those first eight months of Bush administration. ... The neoconservatives are crying: "No. No. No. Focus more on Iraq." September 11 gives them the opening. ... And by January, just four months later, the president is out there saying, "Iraq." In an [alternate] universe he might have said: "There is a civil war going on in the Islamic world, and we want the good side to prevail. But the bad side is quite powerful at the moment, Islamic extremism, and that is what we need to deal with in a variety of ways." Rather, he says, "Let's go after these three nation-states that are really worrying us," partly maybe out of the belief that no, you can't really fight shadowy terrorist groups, but you can fight nations that arm them, train them or shelter them.

How does Gen. Tommy Franks get connected to Rumsfeld?

There's a term in the Army that is not always used as a form of praise, but frequently is, calling somebody a "muddy boots sojer." And I say the word sojer, s-o-j-e-r. It's kind of, "Yep, he's a good muddy boots sojer." It is typically used as a compliment but not always. Well, everybody always said of Franks, "Yep, he's a muddy boots sojer." Its a loaded term in some ways. It means he's a great battalion commander. Hes a good guy out there in the field. He's a good guy to have on your flank if you're a battalion commander in a tough fight.

It also tends to mean he is not a deep thinker. He's not one of those guys who goes off to the War College to read Clausewitz. He goes off to the War College to play some golf. So the image of Tommy Franks was a rather cunning, but not deep, general. Franks acquits himself well in Afghanistan and then turns to the question of Iraq. The challenge here for Rumsfeld is, he's got a guy who comes really out of the classic Army background who is going to think, yep, let's go in big and heavy. Now, you know you don't have to go in as big in heavy as you did in '91 because Iraq has been under sanctions for 10 years ... but Franks wants still several hundred thousand troops to go in. And Rumsfeld has this process where he kind of chips away and chips away at this belief asking questions: "Why do you need that? Why do you need that?" The Pentagon dubs this "iterative process." Really, I think it is more process of erosion. And after several months into this, Franks is more or less persuaded.

How much of the planning was being influenced by the imperatives, the idealism, of Wolfowitz and the neocons?

I think the idealist view is key in this in shaping the war plan, because it gives you your strategic assumptions. If you think you will be greeted as liberators, then you don't need as big a force to occupy. If you think you really can wipe your hands of this pretty quickly, then you don't plan for a long-term operation; then you don't have to plan for "Geez, what do we have to do if we have to have two or three or four rotations of troops through Iraq?' ... They thought they could win by decapitating the regime, and then they basically would put a new head on the regime and that was it. And what happens is they cut the head off the chicken, and the chicken started running around, and they never really caught it.

What happened to all those rules about exit strategies? I mean, here's Powell, secretary of state, the big shining icon of it all. What happened?

I think two things happened. The Vietnam generation were tired. By the time the United States goes to war in Iraq in the spring of 2003, there are really just a few hundred Vietnam veterans left on active duty in an active-duty force of 1.4 million people. So I think the genuine, hard-fought, bitter knowledge of the Vietnam generation does kind of evaporate out. ... The second thing was, the U.S. Army, the U.S. military, going into Iraq in the spring of 2003 are winners. They've won again and again and again. They're very good and maybe a little bit cocky. They've done Panama. When was Panama? '89. Gulf War, '91; Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan. Now, you do have that Somalia over there, but they've kind of explained that as "We did it well tactically, but the civilians screwed us up." But basically, these are the New York Yankees. ... They knew they could do it. At least they could do 'it' -- that being knock off the regime. But nobody was talking about the hard job, which was replacing the regime.

Why was nobody listening to the people who were saying: "Watch out. Think about holding the streets. Think about infrastructure. Think about the chicken running around without a head on it"?

There were some naysayers. They were just missed, I think. ... And the people who might have been holding those assertions up to question didn't. And by this I mean the U.S. Congress. Through a historical circumstance, both houses of Congress are in the hands of the Republicans as a Republican White House moves towards war. And so the tough questions, the tough hearings that might have been held never really were. ... So you have the Bush administration going in, asserting [that] not only are we going to knock off Iraq; we are going to remake the map of the Middle East. To my knowledge, no one has ever said: "Show us the bill for that. Exactly how might that work, and how do you plan on financing it?" You also get assertions like, "We have to fight a war of ideas here." Well, fellas, tell how you are going to do that. Are you going to have a network with the eye-catching technology and glamour that Al Jazeera brings to the Arab eye? No. I mean, there's a lot of basic priorities and assumptions that have been laid out that have never been examined closely by the Congress. ...

I think the founding fathers had a divine genius to them in the adversarial system they set up. Yet the adversarial system did not work here. The press, for whatever reason, didn't play as skeptical a role as it should have. Congress abdicated its constitutional role to skeptically examine the intentions and plans of the executive branch. And so the system didn't work. Rather than look to the sins of individuals, I would look to the collective failure of the system and all the people involved in it -- not just the Bush administration, not just the U.S. military, but the Congress and the media as well. To have a real tragedy, everybody has to be a tragic actor, a player, like we all were.

Troops are dead in Iraq because of systemic failures. People are dead. The newspapers make mistakes, and you run corrections. In a corporation, you make mistakes, you get fired. You might even get indicted if you made them illegally. But when the U.S. government and the U.S. military make mistakes, American troops die and foreign civilians die. And that's what happened here.

Did you always know the assault, the taking of Baghdad, was going to go really well and fairly easily?

I thought the war as a whole would go really well. ... Baghdad was always a major concern, and I did not think it would go as well as it did. But I don't think it actually went that well. The government fell, but the capital was not taken. I don't think the enemy in Iraq decided he was defeated when we decided on April 9, 2003, that he was defeated. We pulled down the goalpost at halftime, and he kept on playing. So I don't think we won on April 9; I think we prematurely declared the war over. And what we did was fought for three weeks the war we wanted to fight and for the subsequent 60 weeks have fought the war he wanted to fight. That's not a good way to fight a war, to let the enemy determine the nature of the combat.

When did you know that it was all going to go kind of sour?

When I was there embedded with the 1st Armored Division immediately after the war, in May 2003, I think I assumed that yeah, it was going to be tough, tougher than the public line we were getting from the Pentagon, but they would take a year; they would tap it down. There would always be small incidents of violence because this is the Middle East, and there are always going to be people who hate Americans. Basically it would take about a year to get this baby nailed down. ...

I began to think it was really going south in April 2004, partly just because on the ground, the assertions that were being made by the U.S. government were so at odds with the reality on the ground.

At the same time, I began to look at some of the numbers of the U.S. occupation authority, the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], had collected, its polling data, and it became quite clear that between December 2003, which was when Saddam Hussein was captured, and April 2004, that the American occupation, to a surprising degree, had lost the support of the Iraqi people. And these were the CPA's own polls showing that in the fall, as high as 47 percent of Iraqis were saying, "I can kind of see a reason for the occupation," and by the spring it is down to 2 percent. They're just saying, "Get out of here." They lost patience with us.

What about the dissonance between what is happening on the ground and the way the secretary and others are seeing it? Were they telling another story publicly and worrying inside?

No, I don't think they did know. I don't think they were being disingenuous. I think they really did believe it, partly because U.S. commanders on the ground tended to believe it. Not some of the specialists, not the area specialists, not the civil affairs specialists, not the special operations guy[s] who know how a foreign military is supposed to be trained, but your rank-and-file, regular active-duty officer, NCO [noncommissioned officer], they thought, the media is really not telling the whole story here, or even most of the story here; they don't see all the good things we're doing. And they are kind of locked, I think, in their perceptions. I think we all are.

The difference is reporters go out and try to talk to different people to try to correct that and get outside their perceptions. They talk to Iraqis; they talk to foreign diplomats; they talk to allied militaries: "What do you think," you might ask the British officer, "of U.S. military operations?" And he might say to you, "Not the way we do it." And you say, "What do you mean by that?" And he would say, "Well, keep my name out of this, but I don't think sending a patrol through a neighborhood, shooting it up, and then painting the orphanage at the end of the street wins you hearts and minds." The troops come back and say: "Why don't you write about all the good things we're doing? We were out painting an orphanage."

What does the phrase "breaking the Army" mean to you?

"Breaking the Army" means, essentially, losing the people who make it such a good Army. The United States has not always had a great military. It's had a lot of brave men always, a lot of lan and vigor, but a well-trained, professional military is a very different thing. We have that. We haven't had it for very long. We've had it for 20 years. And it's not a given that you keep it. You make a military by going out and getting good people, not screwballs, by training them and by keeping them together in units that have cohesion among their peers and trust of the people that lead them.

You break that by breaking all those pieces, by not giving them adequate training, by giving them tasks they can't do, by moving them around so frequently that they don't know the guy on their right or their left, by deploying them so often that their wife wants them to leave the military, and ultimately they do. ... You put in a bunch of strangers who are maybe not as well trained, who are not as trusted. The sergeants start getting disgusted with this and say: "I don't want to lead this unit. I have better things to do with my life. I gave at the office. I've done Iraq two or three times." They start leaving. That's the backbone of your Army, when the well-trained sergeant who is a good leader says: "I'm sick of this. I've done seven or 12 years. I don't want to stick around for 20 to get my full retirement. I'm leaving now." ... And then a good sergeant looks and says: "Well, my buddy John left, and my buddy Bill left. I'm leaving. I'm not going to stick around." And so the worry I hear among some generals now is that, while they think in the short term that they are okay, the longer this keeps up, the more training degrades, the lower-quality personnel you might get, the more people might decide to leave. It all kind of intensifies, and the decline can be precipitous.

Any sense from people about how far away that is?

One general said to me spring 2005. ... [In] spring 2005, the 3rd Infantry Division will be back for its second tour in Iraq. The 101st Airborne may be looking at redeploying to Iraq at the end of that year. And people are making decisions: "Do I want to stick around for my second tour?" What lies beyond that? A third tour.

There have also been a few signs [lately] that those key guys, the seasoned sergeants at certain parts of the military are leaving. And this is just small numbers. We are not really sure what they mean, but those might be warning signs.

And what does it mean if you break the Army? What happens?

Well, the nightmare is the Army of the late 1970s. I remember looking at some statistics. I just fell off my chair. I was astonished. I think it was the Marine Corps in one year, in the late 1970s, had over 1,000 violent racial incidents, any one of which likely would make a front-page story in The Washington Post. Back then it was routine.

What does it mean when you break an Army? It means you have officers having to wear pistols on their hips to go into barracks at night for fear of being attacked. It means widespread drug use. It means people not joining the Army because they don't want to go into that environment, and [it means] a race to the bottom. It is very hard to turn around. The great achievement of today's colonels and generals is that they are the guys who turned it around in the wake of the Vietnam War. When there was every incentive to leave the Army, they rebuilt the Army. And now the tragedy for some of these guys is, this magnificent Army they spent 25 years rebuilding is now really going through the agony of Iraq, where it's fighting a fight it is not designed for. It's a sprinter, and it's in a marathon. It's a high-intensity war organization fighting a guerrilla war. These guys are sweating and bleeding every day. They are pouring their hearts and souls into it, but it is not really what they are trained to do, and it might not be the best way to do it.

One of the unintended consequences of staying in the country is that there are bad guys that need to be captured and detained, so prisons get devised. What do you make of what has happened?

... My concern strategically is the conflation of Iraq with the war on terrorism may have helped create the situation. The troops believe what they are told by their leaders. They pay attention to what the president says, what the secretary of defense says, much more now than I think in the past. You go into a mess hall in Iraq at the big bases, they have CNN or Fox on. They're watching the news. They go into the Internet cafes and they read newspapers online. They are reading e-mail. They are staying in touch. This is a very connected generation of troops. They listen to what the president says, and they believe it.

The president tells them that Iraq is part of the war on terrorism. Troops are left with the conclusion, "We're fighting terrorists here." Now, many of the people who were picked up were terrorists. There were definitely lots of terrorists in Iraq. Many of the people who were picked up were also just your average Ahmeds off the street, and they also were treated as terrorists, some of them. So I think the conflation of the war on terrorism with the war in Iraq may have helped contribute to the prison situation. ...

Last fall there was this huge effort to improve intelligence every possible way, and as part of that, Gen. [Geoffrey] Miller goes out, shows them, "Here's how we do it at 'Gitmo,' fellas." And I think the word is: "You guys need to get a little more serious, and maybe a few heads need to be cracked. So be it." So I think there was sort of an atmospheric change. I think at the time it was a great success story. When I was out in Iraq in January, I remember a senior intelligence person telling me, "We are doing so much better in intelligence."

There is an obvious effect on the Arab world, on the Islamic world. What's the effect on the American soldier when The New York Times and The Washington Post run that dreadful photograph?

My guess is that the average soldier doesn't feel much affected by it. People tend to compartmentalize themselves off. So if I start barking at you about broadcast media, you say, "Well, that is Fox News; that's not me." Likewise, the average troop, I think, in Iraq says: "That's some bunch of jerk reservists. It's got nothing to do with my rather competent and even elite regular Army unit." So they kind of see it as somebody else.

I've covered the U.S. military for a long time, over a decade. I've spent time around hundreds of units. I have interviewed tens of thousands of soldiers. I have never heard even whispers of a unit as bad as this MP unit. I mean, this is rotten. You've got sergeants drinking alcohol with officers. That violates a whole bunch of different rules. People are sleeping together. People are out of their uniforms. ... Any officer tripping across that unit would have walked in and said, "There are some problems here." And it surprised me it took so long for the Army to get to that, especially since Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez, the senior U.S. commander on the ground in Iraq, has a reputation for being a real micromanager. He's not a guy who would ignore a sign if he heard of it. He's a very correct soldier. I've seen him correct guys in the field. I think this was almost a failure of imagination. You couldn't believe a unit would be this bad in the U.S. Army these days.

So inside the military, it doesn't seem to have the resonance that it does for the rest of us. Does it resonate inside the Pentagon?

I don't think it resonates as much in the military or in the Pentagon because they know that is not what the Army is about. They know that is not what the Army does.

So do you believe there has been a civilian/uniform kind of struggle inside the Pentagon? Are there winners and losers?

I think there has been very much a struggle between many of the senior civilians and some of the senior military. ... The Army doesn't feel like it's won. The Army may feel it has been proven correct, but that is very different from winning. The Army may feel stuck in Iraq. It feels it has this festering wound.

Do they feel like they've been fighting the war on terrorism in Iraq?

Yes, because they were told they were. ... If the senior leadership is saying it, Sgt. Snuffy and his men are going to believe it. And it doesn't matter if the guys in the middle are laughing up their sleeves and saying, "Nah, nah, nah, that is just politically convenient." And that does lead to problems if people are set on the wrong strategic course, if they believe that every Iraqi is somehow part of the war on terrorism.

Anybody other than an old middle-aged reporter say, "Is this Vietnam again?"

No, and honestly, I have not heard reporters say it is Vietnam. I hear a few generals say it occasionally. What I hear from reporters who think about these sort of things is this could be worse than Vietnam; that handled badly enough, Iraq could be the beginning of a wider war in the Middle East. It could be the beginning of a civil war inside Iraq. Third choice, a civil war that spills over into a wider war. Iraq may embolden terrorists.

The prestige of the West has been committed in Iraq without the resources of the West to back it up, and that's a bad combination, because it's made the West look weak. And there are a lot of people in Iraq, Islamic extremists; there are a lot in the region. There are more people in the region who would like to take on a weak West, a weak, divided West. We may look back on this 10 years from now and be surprised: "Man, that was just the beginning. We didn't even know what was coming down the pike."

The Bush Doctrine is sort of a hard thing to use as your map anymore. Any insight as to what the debate is over [and] how one proceeds?

This gets to the whole category of what I would call opportunity cost of Iraq, things that are going to be different or harder to do because of Iraq. My worry about the preemption policy is, I can see situations in which a policy of preemption might be exactly the right course. For example, if you think the Pakistan nuclear arsenal is about to fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or terrorists, taking out that arsenal in some form is probably preemptively the right thing to do. Likewise in North Korea. I could see scenarios of North Korean collapse in which preemptive action might be the right thing to do. It's going to be a lot harder to execute preemptive policies for those scenarios because of Iraq. So yeah, I think a lot of the Bush Doctrine is going to be seen through the prism of Iraq in the future, and it might be harder to execute those policies.

North Korea, I think, is the one that worries the generals the most. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, those are small operations perhaps or, at least initially, might be heavily special operations. Korea, they know [how] to execute the defense of South Korea: You need lots of troops, fast. And it would be nightmarish to be pulling combat units out of Iraq and flying them to Korea or to Japan or Okinawa for the defense of South Korea.

The biggest opportunity cost I hear talked about in Washington is the opportunities to go after Al Qaeda, to stay focused on Al Qaeda, that might have been lost or dissipated because of the focus on Iraq. ... If there is one thing the U.S. military has proven in the last year, it can take a licking and keep on kicking amid a lot of casualties. That said, I worry more that America's image of competence, almost omnipotence, has been severely damaged in Iraq.

… Does Rumsfeld have a tragic flaw?

I heard from associates of Rumsfeld -- from generals, but also from civilians he's worked with for a long time -- that he perhaps had lost a step as he'd aged, and he was not assimilating information as fast as he had in the past. One friend of his said to me that he makes up his mind too early. He loves to jump on information and make the decision. He said, "He didn't do it as well as he did in the past."

This was background chatter at the Pentagon, but it had never been put foursquare in front of the public until the report by former Defense Secretary [under Nixon] James Schlesinger came in on Abu Ghraib. It specifically faulted all levels of the chain of command and included the highest levels -- that is to say, Rumsfeld's office and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, their staff and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. [Richard B.] Myers -- saying they had failed in that crucial period in the summer and the fall of 2003 to respond adequately to events on the ground in Iraq. There were new things that were occurring. They didn't take it on; they didn't act with all the things that Rumsfeld has talked about in transformation were necessary -- with agility, with the ability to quickly assimilate new information. That didn't happen.

Rumsfeld has a very interesting mind. It really struck me looking at some of his internal memos that he would have been a great high school English teacher. There's a muscularity and clarity and simplicity to his prose which is really unusual, not only in the U.S. government but anywhere in American life these days. He is a good writer, and good writing, as [George] Orwell tells us, reflects good thinking.

The first time he's secretary of defense, he inherits a post-Vietnam military that is broken. And then Iraq and Afghanistan take place, and decisions are made by this same secretary which to some extent re-break the military.

It is certainly ironic that the military that Donald Rumsfeld knew in the mid-1970s, when he was first secretary of defense, was probably at its lowest point in modern American history. The military that Rumsfeld comes back to several decades later is at the top of its game. If anything, I think one of my concerns about the U.S. military in Iraq is they come off a string of victories. The term that came out of World War II was victory disease, which was the greatest vulnerability of the Japanese. They overextended themselves.

In the same way, I think the U.S. military in Iraq was slow to respond to Rumsfeld's legitimate criticisms. I think the Army especially really got itself in a stance of opposition to Rumsfeld, almost "We don't care what he's saying. He's wrong. Whether he's right or wrong, our secretary of defense, we just disagree with him." They felt that a lot of the painful lessons of the Vietnam War might have been ignored by him: Always have more troops and supplies than you believe is necessary because you never know when things could go wrong.

I also wonder whether Rumsfeld simply bit off too much. I think Iraq and the rest of the stuff that's going on out there, the war on terrorism, is really taking up enormous amounts of time and energy at the Pentagon. It does make me wonder about the transformation initiatives that they came in talking about.

How hard was Rumsfeld pushing on transformation, on his view of how things should take place?

During that phase of the war plan, Rumsfeld's experience in Afghanistan has really persuaded him of a couple of things. First, the efficacy of special forces: He likes them, and that's why I think actually there was quite an emphasis on using them in Iraq. The second thing is he felt you could be more precise in your use of force even on the ground. You didn't have to have big divisions, even big brigades; that there were ways of minimizing your trigger pullers and then minimizing the logistical tail behind them. I've heard stories again and again of Rumsfeld actually crossing off individual units from deployment plans, saying, "You really don't need this; you don't need this." Rumsfeld, to my knowledge, has not really addressed that directly.

What was the role of [former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric] Shinseki and [former Army Secretary Thomas E.] White, if any, in the creation of the war plans?

By Shinseki and White, we essentially mean the institutional Army, and as the war plans developed, the institutional Army is more important simply in opposition to Rumsfeld and where he's going, both in terms of war-fighting concept of operation and even more broadly in terms of whether it was a good idea. The Army was pretty comfortable with this notion of containing Iraq, as Gen. Zinni, [who] was a Marine and had been Franks' predecessor at Central Command, also was. Containment was working, they thought.

This is partly a lot of policy-thinking experience, but also is simply kind of the conservative inertia of the Army, a very conservative institution that kind of says, "Hey, if something's working, let's stick with it." In their view, [it] was working, and it was not the job of the U.S. Army, in their view also, to go and knock over every nasty dictator of the world. They all agreed Saddam Hussein was a horrible person, but they could see lots of horrible people out there and didn't think it should be their mission to knock off every horrible person that popped up. They made this pretty clear.

Is the Army broken? And if so, what are the implications?

I don't think the Army is broken now. I think the Army is bruised and worried. My impression of troops in Iraq is that the active-duty troops, the young infantry guys, are actually pretty happy with what they're doing. My real worries are the Guard and Reserve, who have been relied on very heavily in Iraq. Forty percent of the troops now in Iraq -- 135,000 U.S. troops -- 40 percent of them are from the National Guard and the Army Reserve. A lot of these guys are happy to do that first deployment, but many of them now are on their second or even their third. While I don't think the Army's broken now, if we have to keep 135,000 troops in Iraq for another couple of years, I think you're going to have some real problems. We do not currently have a military, especially an Army, configured for a long ground war on the other side of the planet.

Is Rumsfeld, deep down, a neocon? Was he won over by them?

Rumsfeld doesn't strike me as an ideological guy. He strikes me as a very pragmatic guy. The division of labor at the Pentagon seems to be that Rumsfeld is the hands-on manager, and the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, is kind of the big thinker, the visionary. What you get is a disconnection between Rumsfeld, the skeptical, pragmatic, corporate type, and the Bush administration's vision of transforming the Middle East, which is the opposite of the pragmatic, realpolitik approach you might get that Rumsfeld would have.

Paul Wolfowitz and some of the more ideologically minded members of the Bush administration are saying, "We need to change the entire Middle East." Now, they present this as a pragmatic approach. Yet that is a hugely ambitious project never really discussed and laid out by the Bush administration as it goes into Iraq: How long is this going to take? How much is it going to cost? Do we have a military establishment adequately sized for that job? What other resources do you plan to bring to that? Those are the type of questions you might expect a Rumsfeld to ask. There wasn't a lot of public discussion. It's only about a year later, when Rumsfeld's "long, hard slog" memo comes out and USA Today gets ahold of it, and Rumsfeld is indeed asking those questions. But it's, I think, October 2003 when those questions are being asked, when the United States has already committed on the ground in Iraq in the middle of kind of an unexpected war.

I think Rumsfeld sees himself very much as a strategic manager, a guy who looks at the military machine and questions it and prods it and moves it along. Yet he finds himself presiding over a profoundly ideological task of occupying Iraq, at least originally, with the intent of making it a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, transforming the entire region. And to have somebody like Rumsfeld assigned that task, I find it extraordinary. The man and the task don't seem to match up.

So how happy is Donald Rumsfeld to find out that he's inherited that task?

Donald Rumsfeld would never tell you he's unhappy with that. He would never say something like that in public. He'd grit his teeth and put his shoulder down. I remember somebody talking about him as a wrestler. His great strength as a wrestler was that he wouldn't give up even when he knew he was beaten. He would just keep on slogging away. Sometimes when I look at Iraq, I kind of feel that that's where we're at, a Rumsfeld wrestling match. And it does worry me, this notion of staying the course, because as Rumsfeld himself says, "When you're at the bottom of a hole, it's not necessarily the smartest thing to keep on digging."

Prewar, is Rumsfeld listening to the Iraqi National Congress as they push for war?

Rumsfeld has probably said to Wolfowitz and [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith and his policy people: "Look, we all know the intelligence community sometimes get things wrong. Make sure that we really have a good handle on this." And there are some people at the Pentagon who really think that Chalabi and his outfit have got good information, and sometimes they do. Despite Chalabi's image now, when I was in Baghdad, you got good information sometimes from the Chalabi people. It wasn't like they were totally wrong about everything. They just happened to be wrong about weapons of mass destruction and the other things that got the United States involved in the war. Now, if you go back and read the Senate Intelligence Committee report, some of the sources that they seem to provide were some of the sources that ultimately were most misleading. But clearly this administration embraced Chalabi. There's a reason he was sitting behind the first lady at the State of the Union address. Nobody wants to talk about it now, but they thought he was the guy. They really did. And I think Wolfowitz especially seemed to.

Rumsfeld comes to this whole issue with a lot of skepticism about the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community. On top of that, remember that you've had this massive failure of U.S. intelligence to detect and help prevent the 9/11 attacks. That's the key fact for Donald Rumsfeld: "Why should I listen to the U.S. intelligence community on this when they were so wrong on that?" And in the months after 9/11, he keeps on being frustrated when he says, "Why can't we do this?," and he's told we don't have actionable intelligence. The phrase really starts to irk him. And so when somebody walks in the door and says, "Hey, boss, we've got these Iraqi exiles, and they've got a whole different account here of x, y and z," I think Rumsfeld naturally is going to be pretty inclined to listen to that, because the U.S. intelligence community has not acquitted itself well in fighting terrorism.

Let's bring Powell into the story here. [Bob] Woodward tells us that it got personal. Did it affect the war planning?

I think it clearly affected the war planning to the point that in Franks' book, he tells of getting a phone call from Colin Powell in September 2002 in which Powell expresses real concern about the war plan, the lack of adequate troops -- really the same things that Shinseki has been saying. Franks tells Powell basically to buzz off. It's quite striking. He knows Powell is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; he knows that Powell knows enormous amounts about war planning and, in fact, heavily participated in the previous plan to invade Kuwait, to take out the Iraqis.

The only conclusion I come to was Franks felt he was being put in an impossible position. Knowing that Rumsfeld and Powell are at odds, he's got to say, "Look, fellas, I can only go with one boss at a time, and I have to go with the boss I work for right now, not the boss that used to be around." I think what he's really saying is: "I work for Donald Rumsfeld. I can't work for Colin Powell, too." I think it gets quite bitter, quite personal.

Did Rumsfeld win the media over during his press conferences?

I don't think Rumsfeld has won the Pentagon press, although that was never his task. That's like asking whether the football coach has won the turf over. The media was simply the turf on which he was playing. He was trying to win, I think, the American people.

So where do we go from here in Iraq? And what about Iran?

I think in one way or another, we, the United States, are stuck in the Middle East in a way that few of us anticipated. I don't think Iran ultimately is going to be a military threat; I don't see the U.S. invading or attacking Iran. But I do see the U.S. military being on the ground in Iraq for a long time. Now, we may get kicked out by a government there even next year, 2005, but even if that happens, I think we'll be back for a third war at some point -- especially if that happens. We are the dog that caught the car. People always talk about the dog catching the car, but the dog never does. But we did. So I think we're in Iraq in some way or another for a long time. We may get kicked out and go back in. We may just be there for decades.

How far off the radar screen were security issues in the postwar planning?

I think they really just mis-assessed what the postwar situation would be, and they ignored the contrary evidence about what the postwar situation would be. But even the account that we've had of the state of the Iraqi army in that period I think is incomplete at best. I remember being in Baghdad and somebody at the CPA assuring me that it was okay to disband the Iraqi army because it had ceased to exist anyway, and this was just ratifying the same situation. I got back in my car and was going across Baghdad, and there were thousands of officers lined up not far from the Green Zone to collect their monthly payments.

So I think it's a bit false to say that the Iraqi army disbanded. It was readily available. In fact, the CPA had a long list of who the officers were and information on them. And the Iraqi army could have been reconstituted extremely quickly. There are dozens of bases where they put the U.S. Army in with Internet cafes and air conditioning and all mod cons. If the U.S. military could do that in just the space of a few months, it seems to me they probably could have found far more austere places in which to put the Iraqi army. So that takes care of the infrastructure. The only other question is people. And look at how eager Iraqis have been to join the Iraqi police. They line up even though they're getting bombed as they do it.

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posted oct. 26, 2004

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