Sen. Reid's crime

It is permissible and often necessary to criticize the competence of military officials. And that should go without saying.

By Glenn Greenwald
June 15, 2007 6:09PM (UTC)
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(updated below - updated again)

Just as Matt Drudge does on an almost daily basis, Tony Snow began his press briefing yesterday by citing an article in Fred Ryan's The Politico which reported that "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 'incompetent' during an interview Tuesday with a group of liberal blogger" and "made similar disparaging remarks about Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq." Without being asked about this, here is what Snow said:

We are a little bit concerned about some reports on the Internet that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a conversation with liberal bloggers, had referred to General Pete Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as incompetent, and apparently, again according to the reports, had said disparaging things also about General David Petraeus.

We certainly hope it's not true, because in a time of war, for a leader of a party that says it supports the military, it seems outrageous to be issuing slanders toward the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and also the man who is responsible for the bulk of military operations in Iraq.

Indeed, Senator Reid has, at some point, declared the war lost, and also has declared the surge a failure, even though it has not yet been fully enacted. I don't know if it's true or not. If it is true, I certainly hope he does apologize.

Is there some rule or custom now that the competence of military officials is not to be questioned? It is not only permissible, but necessary, to criticize the competence of military leaders who are doing an extremely poor job in executing their duties. That just ought to go without saying. And even for Tony Snow, to refer to Reid's criticisms of Pace and Petraeus as "outrageous slander" which compels an apology is just self-evidently ludicrous.

Obviously, the job performance and capabilities of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Senior Commander in a war are necessary topics for discussion. They're not holy religious figures. Their job performance -- which is what Reid addressed -- is just as legitimate a source of criticism as any other government official. And it isn't exactly scandalous to call into question the capabilities of those who have authored the greatest military disaster in our country's history.

But beyond that obvious point, the spectacle of George Bush's press secretary lamenting attacks on military officers is just laughable. The President was re-elected following a political convention where his followers mocked John Kerry's purple hearts by waiving around band-aids. And decorated war veterans from John Murtha to Max Cleland to Wes Clark have seen their character and integrity -- not their mere competence -- publicly mauled by the President's political movement.


And more specifically still, the President's most vocal neoconservative war supporters have spent the last several years trying to shield themselves from blame for the Iraq disaster they unleashed by heaping all the blame on the incompetence of Generals Casey and Abizaid. In fact, the reason we have a General Petraeus is because war supporters blamed the problems in Iraq on the prior military leadership. Indeed, it became an Article of Faith among neoconservative adherents that their Brilliant Iraq Vision was marred by incompetent military leadership. In addition to John McCain, here are but a few examples, beginning with the President's personal "Surge" architect:

"Time for a Heavier Footprint" Weekly Standard, 11/27/06, by Frederick W. Kagan and William Kristol:

Abizaid and Casey haven't rethought these views even as they've been mugged by the reality that lack of security does more damage than a heavy footprint, and that failure is more of a threat to responsible Iraqi behavior than dependency.

But, just as important, they underestimate the changes that have occurred in Iraq since the February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra--changes that threaten to unravel the successes achieved so far. In response to the clear fact that sectarian violence is unhinging the effort to turn responsibility for security over to the Iraqis, Abizaid simply demands an acceleration of that transition. This is a recipe for disaster.

They then added: "In fact, most serious people now concede we need more troops." But Generals Abizaid and Casey opposed such a troop increase, and thus were presumably unserious.

"On Democracy in Iraq; It's starting to take root." Weekly Standard, 4/30/07, by Reuel Marc Gerecht "For the Editors":

But militarily the United States is finally waging a counterinsurgency that makes sense: . . . This distancing was inevitable once the Americans reversed the disastrous tactics of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, which had allowed Sadr and his allies to become the only defenders of Baghdad's Shiites against the Sunni insurgents and holy warriors.

"Promoting Failure," National Review, 2/21/07, by Mackubin Thomas Owens:

Democratic senator Carl Levin, chairman of the committee, disagreed: "It is not fair that General Casey be tagged with failures, massive failures which were caused by the false policies, the wrong policies, the deceptions, the ignorance, the arrogance, the cockiness of civilian leaders in this administration."

But Republican senator John E. Sununu, who is not a member of the SASC, had an answer for Levin. "There are many factors that contributed to the failure to improve the situation [in Iraq], but ultimately our military leadership has to bear some responsibility for its choices. Simply put, we shouldn't reward a lack of success on the field of command with such an important promotion." . . .

So there is a strong case to be made against General Casey's promotion to Army Chief of Staff. Replacing him in Iraq has permits us to shift strategies, but there is a danger that in his new position he will champion doctrines that need to evolve.

And in his National Review article, Owens took Sen. Sununu's criticisms of Gen. Casey a step further -- a large step further -- by urging that military commanders generally be assigned their share of the blame for incompetence in war:

In the past, it was not unusual for states to execute unsuccessful generals. The Romans did it routinely. In 1757, at the outset of the Seven Years War, the British condemned Adm. John Byng to death for failing to "do his utmost" during the Battle of Minorca.

While the United States has not executed failed commanders in the past, it has certainly relieved or cashiered them.

No one denies that General Casey is an honorable man and a noble soldier. But it appears that General Casey is suffering the fate of one of his predecessors, the late Gen. William Westmoreland. Just as Casey is being "kicked upstairs" for his perceived failure in Iraq. General Westmoreland, commander of our forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968, was promoted to Army chief of staff after his poor conduct there.

Students of the Vietnam War, including many who served in the conflict, have traditionally blamed America's defeat on President Lyndon Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. But there is an emerging consensus that General Westmoreland must also be held culpable. During his command in Vietnam, he implemented a flawed operational approach to the war.

Many historians often write as if North Vietnam were always destined to win the war and the United States destined to lose it. In this view, Hanoi pursued a course of action with little regard for United States strategy. But new studies have confirmed that the North Vietnamese strategy was greatly affected by U.S. actions. The lesson here is that victory depends not on fate but on decisions made and strategies implemented.

And in Vietnam under General Westmoreland and Iraq under General Casey, those strategies failed.

Owens then blamed Gen. Casey for the civil war in Iraq:

General Casey had finally settled on a defensive posture, enabling the insurgents to regain the initiative that had been wrested from them during the al Anbar offensive. One result of the insurgents' regained initiative was the bombing of the Grand Mosque in Sammarah, which ignited the sectarian violence that now threatens to destroy the possibility of a united Iraq.

Agree or disagree, whether a General is competent or executing his duties properly are perfectly proper and legitimate topics for discussion. And that is particularly true when the General in question is making it a point to insinuate himself into our most provocative political debates.

It would completely irresponsible to try, as Tony Snow and his fellow media minions are doing, to place those issues off-limits or to suggest that there is something "outrageous" or "slanderous" about critiquing the competence of the leaders responsible for the wars we are fighting. There is really no limit on the sheer childishness of the "scandals" that capture our media stars' attention.

UPDATE: In writing about the previous (and often scathing) criticisms of our war generals by John McCain, Army veteran Kos says:

Of course, you heard nothing in response, and for obvious reasons -- Democrats and progressives understand that it is imperative that in a democracy we criticize our military leaders. They hold the lives of thousands of our finest in their hands. How many generals did Lincoln go through before he found Grant?

If the military brass isn't accomplishing its goals, then it must account for those failures to the people they serve -- Americans and their elected representatives.

Why this is controversial is beyond me.

Indeed. The real question is why Tony Snow believes -- correctly -- that he can feed such blatant idiocy to the press and expect them to then dutifully run and create a "scandal" over it.

UPDATE II: Writing on Hugh Hewitt's blog, Dean Barnett issues a very solemn and moving lecture to Harry Reid:

THE REAL SCANDAL is what this pathetic episode says about Harry Reid and the Democratic Party. Even if Harry Reid truly feels that Peter Pace is incompetent, his comments are still wildly inappropriate. Insulting an authentic American hero who has dedicated his life to serving his country merely for a political applause line is beyond contemptible. In spite of his politically maladroit ways, Reid didnb

Dean Barnett, November 16, 2006:

The Tension's Killing Me -- Dumb-Off Update

In mere moments, the Democrats will announce the results of the Jack Murtha/Steny Hoyer steel cage match. We were nice enough to give them Trent Lott. Will they outdo our kindness and give us Jack Murtha?

The answer will come in momentarily. If Murtha wins, then the Democrats have surged out to a decisive lead in the dumb-off, having outdone our cagey offering of Trent Lott by quite some margin.

Brit Hume, Fox News, February 18, 2007:

That sound bite from John Murtha suggests that it's time a few things be said about him. . . . this guy is long past the day when he had anything but the foggiest awareness of what the heck is going on in the world.

And that sound bite is naivete writ large, and the man is an absolute fountain of such talk, and the fact that he has ascended to the position he has in the eyes of the Democrats in the House and perhaps Democrats around the country tells you a lot about how much they know or care about what's really going on over there.

Michelle Malkin, February 18, 2007:

WaPo spanks John Murtha and Glenn Reynolds notes: "Murtha is the face of today's Democratic Party on the war. This is bad for the country, and likely to prove unwise politically" . . .

Investor's Business Daily takes on Murtha's "unparalleled perfidy" . . .

A Hot Air commenter quips: "Hume was speaking truth to coward."

As Barnett says, there are just certain lines you do not cross, and who can doubt his sincerity -- echoing Tony Snow's outrage -- when he proclaims: "Insulting an authentic American hero who has dedicated his life to serving his country merely for a political applause line is beyond contemptible."

And maybe if Barnett thinks about it a little, he will come to understand the difference between (a) "insulting" a military hero by asserting that he has perfomed "incompetently" in his high-level government job (as Reid did with Pace), and (b) insulting a military hero by calling him a dumb, senile, lying coward (as the above super-warriors did with Murtha).

Glenn Greenwald

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