President Bush’s meeting last Wednesday with the Joint Chiefs of Staff was held in a secure Pentagon room called “the tank,” so it is almost impossible for outsiders to know what really happened.
But enough came out in official and unofficial accounts to suggest that the military leaders were exceedingly frank with the president about the toll the Iraq war is taking on the military in terms of morale, recruitment, readiness and ability to handle potential conflicts in other parts of the world, most immediately, in Afghanistan.
The public version is that the Joint Chiefs agreed with the president and Iraqi commander Gen. David Petraeus that there should be a “pause” when the current withdrawal of the extra 30,000 troops constituting the “surge” is completed in July.
It seems likely, however, that the agreement that senior commanders in Iraq will make more frequent assessments of security conditions on the ground than the current schedule of every six months arose at the insistence of the Joint Chiefs and was aimed at increasing pressure for more-rapid troop reductions.
It is significant that this particular pressure to reduce the number of troops in Iraq and to reduce the deployment time from 15 months to 12 months is not coming from professional peaceniks or Democratic candidates, but from professional warriors.
Last August, shortly after becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen delivered a sobering assessment of the condition of the military, asserting that while U.S. ground forces are not “broken,” they are decidedly “breakable.”
Several generals have regretted the impact that 15-month deployments have on military morale and readiness. Defense Secretary Gates has said he would like to see the number of troops in Iraq reduced to 10 brigades by the end of the year instead of the 15 brigades, or 140,000 troops, that will be left in July, when the “surge” ends, but that seems unlikely.
Ivan Eland, director of the Independent Institute’s Center for Peace and Liberty, reminded us that the perspectives of President Bush and the Joint Chiefs may not be the same. The Joint Chiefs are concerned about the ongoing health of the armed services as an institution, he said, “while President Bush’s concern is for his own personal legacy, which requires at least the appearance of relative success, or at least determined effort, when he leaves office.”
Over the long haul, once the war in Iraq winds down, it is important to have a wide-ranging national discussion on U.S. policy in the future, which not only considers the option of being more prudent about possible future conflicts, but reconsidering the idea that trouble and instability in the rest of the world automatically require a U.S. response. For the near future, the Joint Chiefs’ concerns should be paramount, especially given that things have taken a turn for the worse in Afghanistan, near where actual central al-Qaida leaders are located, and additional U.S. troops there might soon be a priority.