EVEN IF WAR in Iraq were to end today, President George W. Bush would have delivered a huge issue to US Senator John F. Kerry, who is a leading Democratic presidential candidate for 2004: the Bush administration’s failure to place enough soldiers in Iraq.
Just two weeks into the war, it’s almost universally recognized that US-led forces went into Iraq understaffed. Not only did Saddam Hussein’s regime fail to crumble the moment the Third Infantry Division crossed the Kuwaiti border, but the much-vaunted " Shock and Awe " bombing campaign failed to prompt Iraqi military officers to defect. Toward the end of last week, American troops found themselves down to one meal per day, beset by ambushes, and short of sleep. Supply lines are stretched thin.
The decision, reportedly made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to keep troop numbers as low as possible, has become the main topic of the war — at least here at home. " More than a dozen officers interviewed, including a senior officer in Iraq, said Rumsfeld took significant risks by leaving key units in the United States and Germany at the start of the war, " the Washington Post reported on March 30. In the April 7 issue of the New Yorker, a Pentagon senior planner told Seymour Hersh, " This is tragic, " and went on to liken Rumsfeld to former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, who engineered plans for the Vietnam War that he knew were deeply flawed. (McNamara later acknowledged these failings in his 1995 memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam [Times Books], but public reaction to his mea culpa can be summarized in one phrase: too little, too late.)
It’s important to remember, though, that while Rumsfeld is taking the heat now, the man ultimately responsible for the prosecution of the war in Iraq is President Bush. Bush is Rumsfeld’s boss, and if he had wanted to, he could have paid greater heed to Secretary of State Colin Powell’s views on how — or even whether — to fight a war with Iraq. Bush also bears responsibility for the freakish cult of loyalty that rules the White House, where it is verboten for underlings to go over their bosses’ heads to pass on information. In other words, in another White House, it might have been possible for members of the uniformed Pentagon brass to get their opinions to the president; or, if truly concerned, they could have leaked those apprehensions to the press. But in the world of Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, even internal dissent is discouraged.
After all, it was Bush who seemed so impatient to go to war that, during a January exchange with White House reporters, he flippantly likened the UN weapons-inspection process to a " bad movie " he wasn’t " interested in watching. " And during his prime-time March 6 national press conference on the situation in Iraq, the president dodged any discussion of the probable costs of war — in either lives or dollars. He did acknowledge that he had " thought long and hard about the use of force, " but did not warn the public of any dangers ahead. Bush said that he had " calculated the cost of inaction versus the cost of action, " but he didn’t elaborate.
None of this is to say the war won’t still be won, and even won relatively quickly — we are, after all, only two weeks into it. But, as everybody now knows, this is not the war the Bush administration expected. And eventually, when the dust clears, somebody is going to have to pay. Rumsfeld will likely be gone relatively soon after the war ends, if not before. The Wall Street Journal editorial page already weighed in with a pro-Rumsfeld piece on Tuesday titled rumsfeld’s second front — a blatantly desperate attempt to save the increasingly unpopular defense secretary’s job. But more important, come 2004, the public may be persuaded to replace the man singularly responsible for the difficult position we’re now in: George W. Bush.
Kerry, a Navy veteran who earned a Silver Star for his service in Vietnam, is probably best situated among the current crop of Democratic presidential contenders to take on Bush. He’s the only one to have served in Vietnam. After he left the Navy, and as the US’s flawed policy in Vietnam became clearer and clearer, Kerry took a leadership role in criticizing the war, famously asking the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971: " How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? " During that testimony, he also directly challenged the architects of Vietnam: " We’re here to ask where are McNamara, [presidential adviser Walt] Rostow, [former national-security adviser McGeorge] Bundy, [former deputy secretary of defense Roswell] Gilpatrick, and so many others? These are the commanders who have deserted their troops. And there is no more serious crime in the laws of war. The Army says they never leave their wounded. The Marines say they never even leave their dead. These men have left all the casualties and retreated behind a pious shield of public rectitude. They’ve left the real stuff of their reputations bleaching behind them in the sun in this country. "