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On Iraq, General Discontent

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
April 19, 2006


The word "quagmire" has often been used to describe the war in Iraq, but lately it also provides an apt description of the political terrain around the war's architect, Donald Rumsfeld. The secretary of defense is facing a chorus of criticism, led by a group of retired generals who say Rumsfeld's mismanagement of Iraq makes him an unfit leader and who are calling for his resignation (TIME). The White House, however, is steadfast in his defense. At an April 18 press conference, President Bush explained, "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain" (Salon).

Confidence in Rumsfeld outside the administration appears less solid, according to CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb. In an interview with's Bernard Gwertzman, Gelb says, "You can't have a secretary of defense under so much fire [still] being able to do his job at the same time." Nonetheless, a counterattack of sorts against these dissenters is underway, led by the secretary himself (NYT). Columnists and bloggers sympathetic to Rumsfeld are asking where these generals were in 2003. Melvin Laird, a Vietnam-era defense secretary, co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed saying of the generals that "while their advice and the weight of their experience should be taken into account, the important time for them to weigh in was while they were on active duty." CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot also thinks Rumsfeld should go, but is nevertheless "troubled by the Revolt of the Generals." Others are more disturbed by the efforts to question the dissenting generals' motives. As the influential blog "Belgravia Dispatch" puts it: "Let the Swift-Boating of the Generals Begin."

While the fracas over Rumsfeld focuses on decisions before and early on in the war, more questions are being raised about current tactics. As this CFR Background Q&A explains, there are signs that U.S. military operations are changing again in the face of Iraqi realities. One example: a "clear, hold, and build" strategy, which has shown some success in places like the northwestern city of Tal Afar. George Packer of the New Yorker notes this approach requires large numbers of U.S. troops and an ability to engage with local leaders, factors that may not be possible with current force rotations. Another promising strategy, embedding U.S. soldiers with Iraqi forces, exposes U.S. soldiers to a greater number of attacks in the short term, but is important for stabilizing Iraq down the road.

Persistent calls for the United States to name a withdrawal date also continue. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski says in the Financial Times that it's time to plan a withdrawal. Joel Rayburn, writing in Foreign Affairs, finds parallels with Britain's occupation of Iraq more than seventy years ago. He says U.S. lawmakers would be wise to study the pitfalls of the British military departure from Iraq to avoid the mayhem that ensued. In Boston Review, national security expert Barry Posen suggests an eighteen-month exit strategy that would provide leverage to force the feuding parties in Iraq to forge a compromise, while CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle writes in the International Herald Tribune that the U.S. military should "threaten to throw American military power behind either side in today's civil war as needed to compel the other to compromise." A CFR Background Q&A examines the prospects for a long-term U.S. presence in the region.

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