The Neocon Crackup

The Weekly Standard finally recognizes our manpower shortage in Iraq.

The smoothly oiled neoconservative message machine is showing signs of breakdown. Having argued for five months that things were basically fine in Iraq—and that any suggestion otherwise was liberal cant—the Weekly Standard last week broke with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about whether additional troops were needed to restore order in Iraq. Rumsfeld says no; the Standard said yes in a lead editorial by publisher William Kristol and contributing editor Robert Kagan. In the Sept. 15 issue, Kristol and Kagan say yes again—a little more emphatically this time:

[W]hen Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the United States has enough forces on the ground in Iraq, what he means is that we have enough so long as nothing untoward happens. But even that may be inaccurate.

In a second piece, titled “Secretary of Stubbornness” and penned by Tom Donnelly, Rumsfeld takes a more direct hit. The Pentagon chief, Donnelly writes, risks going down in history “as the architect of defeat in the larger war for Iraq.” Kristol was even blunter about Rumsfeld to Dana Milbank and Thomas E. Ricks in the Sept. 4 Washington Post:

For five months they let Rumsfeld have his way, and for five months Rumsfeld said everything’s fine. He wanted to do the postwar with fewer troops than a lot of people advised, and it turned out to be a mistake.

But this new party line appeared too late for Midge Decter, mother of Standard contributing editor John Podhoretz, to call back from the printer an admiring portrait of Rumsfeld due to be published Oct. 14 by HarperCollins (which, like the Standard, is a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.). Chatterbox hasn’t yet read the Decter book, but the publisher’s promotional copy says Decter “has enjoyed over two decades of personal friendship with Rumsfeld,” and that Rumsfeld is “the biggest star (apart from the president himself) of the Bush administration.” And then there’s the book’s title: Rummy, Rummy, Rummy, I’ve Got Love in My Tummy. OK, that isn’t the book’s title. It’s Rumsfeld: A Personal Portrait. But that doesn’t sound like a book about any “architect of defeat in the larger war for Iraq.”

Also caught out arguing the old neoconservative party line is Max Boot, recently returned from Iraq, who assures us in the Sept. 7 Los Angeles Times that “U.S. troops in Iraq are slowly winning the war on the ground, even as they’re losing the public relations battle back home.” At one point, Boot reports, “[a] corporal asked me to cover [a handcuffed Iraqi suspected of bombing a Marine transport] with a 9-millimeter pistol. I was happy to comply.” No offense to Boot, but if a Marine corporal needs to recruit a neocon scribbler to be prison guard, that suggests to Chatterbox that U.S. troops in Iraq are in need of reinforcements. But our man in Baghdad will have none of it: “Every U.S. officer I talked to said that the 150,000 soldiers we have in Iraq now are sufficient.”

In time, Chatterbox presumes, Decter and Boot will catch up with the new Standard line, which acknowledges a manpower shortage that, inside the Pentagon, only Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and their yes-men refuse to see. (By asking Congress to double the amount spent on the Iraq occupation, President Bush seems to be acknowledging reality, too.) But Chatterbox can well understand why the neocons resisted for so long. If we’re short on the number of troops needed to get the job in Iraq done, we need to ask where the added troops will come from. That’s the central question addressed by Kristol and Kagan’s latest editorial. Their answer comes in three parts.

Part one is the assertion that the United Nations will never provide sufficient troops to address the crisis:

[T]he bad news for the U.S. military, and for all those out there who would like to see us shift some of the burden of the Iraqi occupation to the U.N. over the next few months, is that we aren’t likely to get more troops from the international community.

Part two is the rejection of Rumsfeld’s idea that we should accelerate turning Iraqi security over to the Iraqis (a strategy also favored by neocon Richard Perle):

In the interest of finding capable Iraqis, the administration has apparently been turning increasingly to former employees of Saddam Hussein’s elite military and security forces. According to the Washington Post’s Daniel Williams, “The need to quickly find skilled fighters and intelligence agents … has forced the Americans to dip into the ranks of units closely associated with Hussein.” … [I]t only takes one or two mistakes in the vetting process to cause a catastrophe.

Part three is the unilateral solution: Fill the gap with U.S. troops. The White House, Kristol and Kagan write, must

make the hard decision to put in the U.S. troops necessary to do the job. Though it is true that our military is smaller than it should be, there are troops available for Iraq, if we are willing to call on combat elements from the Marines, the National Guard, and Special Forces.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Part 1 is an extrapolation based on the current difficulty the United States is having in getting other nations to contribute. But Kristol and Kagan fail to mention the principal stumbling block in these negotiations. The other nations want the United Nations, and not the United States, to control peacekeeping in Iraq. Kristol and Kagan (and President Bush) do not. They are therefore unwilling to recognize any practical benefit that might arise if the Bush administration were to yield more fully on this point.

Secondarily, it should be pointed out that military forces aren’t the only thing of value that other nations have to offer. They can offer police. The United States does not have a national police force, whereas many other countries do. Police forces from other nations could relieve our troops from routine guarding duties, freeing them up to hunt down Baathist remnants, Islamist agitators, and others currently waging guerrilla warfare against us.

Part 2 is quite obviously true. The need to meet immediate security needs will only be undermined if the process of screening Iraqi security forces is accelerated. Yes, let’s start building an Iraqi security force. But having gone to the trouble of overthrowing Saddam’s regime, we should take care it doesn’t reconstitute itself under our own supervision.

Part 3 is, you may have noticed, extremely vague. Quite a lot has been written lately about the overstretched military. In the Aug. 24 Time, Mark Thompson and Michael Duffy, two experienced defense reporters, point out that we now have “140,000 U.S. troops tied down stabilizing Iraq, 34,000 in Kuwait, 10,000 in Afghanistan and 5,000 in the Balkans. … Even without new missions, the armed services are straining to handle the ones they have.”

These commitments have been undertaken at a time when the military employs 1.4 million people (down from 3.5 million in 1968). The Army, which is the service most frequently used for peacekeeping missions, employs 480,000 (down from 1.6 million in 1968). About 165,000 of these people are currently in Iraq and Kuwait. But according to a new RAND study, the number of troops needed to stabilize Iraq as successfully as Kosovo has been stabilized is roughly 500,000. In other words, the ideal number of troops to keep the peace in Iraq exceeds the size of the entire U.S. Army.

A recent Congressional Budget Office study concluded that the Army will be unable to sustain the present size of its occupation force in Iraq and still maintain its current policy of not keeping troops deployed in Iraq for more than a year. (Kristol and Kagan, with not one day of military service between them, have the nerve to denounce the burnout concern as “a kind of veiled McGovernism.”) The shortfall will exist even if the Marine Corps, Army special forces units, and National Guard units pitch in.

Is Chatterbox saying that sustaining or increasing the United States military presence in Iraq is impossible? He is not. Troop commitments elsewhere can be reduced; soldiers with desk jobs can be deployed to the field. But doing this will be at least as difficult as—and probably more difficult than—recruiting large numbers of troops from abroad.

Let’s assume the RAND estimate is twice as large as it needs to be. That is, let’s assume Iraq really needs somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 troops to keep the peace. Even then, the only logical way even to approach filling this need is to pull in troops wherever we can find them—from the U.S. military, from foreign militaries, and from Iraq. (Chatterbox’s only specific reservation concerns Turkish troops, who could create serious mischief in Kurdistan.) This is the reality that even the Standard, in its new let’s-face-reality mode, refuses to consider.