By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007
Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Bush administration's nominee to be the Army chief of staff, got an unusually harsh reception yesterday from some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee for his performance as the top U.S. commander in Iraq over the past 30 months, but he still appears likely to be confirmed to lead the Army.
"You'll need to explain why your assessment of the situation in Iraq has differed so radically from that of most observers and why your predictions of future success have been so unrealistically rosy," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "I question seriously the judgment that was employed in your execution of your responsibilities in Iraq. And we have paid a very, very heavy price in American blood and treasure because of what is now agreed to by literally everyone as a failed policy."
It is rare for a nomination for a military service chief to be even mildly controversial, but Casey is leaving a job as top U.S. commander in Iraq just as Congress is debating the war effort more intensely than it has since before the invasion of the country in March 2003. Democratic members of the committee left the argument largely in the hands of the panel's Republicans, who are deeply split over Iraq policy.
McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) expressed skepticism about Casey, but several other GOP members -- James M. Inhofe (Okla.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and John W. Warner (Va.) -- showed support for him. Sessions argued that Casey's time in command in Iraq would make him a "more effective, sensitive, knowledgeable chief of staff for the Army."
Casey pushed back hard, disputing gloomy assessments of the situation in Iraq and standing by his own relatively optimistic view. "I do not agree that we have a failed policy," he said. He also said he still expects Iraqi security forces to assume responsibility for keeping order across the country by the end of this year. McCain sharply reminded him that in 2004 he made a similar prediction about the end of 2005.
When Graham used the term "last chance" to characterize the Bush administration's plan to bring security to Baghdad by doubling the number of U.S. troops there and having some of them live in outposts across the city, Casey objected. "I don't think it is the absolute last chance, but it certainly is the best chance right now that we have," he said.
He also told skeptical committee members that "the situation in Iraq is winnable. It's very winnable."
He disagreed with some senators' assessment of the strained state of the Army. "From what I see in Iraq . . . the Army is far from broken," he said.
Despite their dissatisfaction with Casey's handling of Iraq, most committee members appear inclined to vote for him, mainly out of the belief that he inherited a difficult and deteriorating situation when he became the top officer in Iraq in July 2004. "The consequences of what I believe has been a failed strategy should be shared at far higher level," said Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam War veteran who was Navy secretary during the Reagan administration.
Summarizing the day's proceedings, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) , chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters after the hearing that he thought the majority of its members would vote to confirm Casey. "He should not be held responsible for the key mistakes which were made going into the Iraq war, and the way policy was set by civilian leaders," Levin said in explaining the views of the majority.
Casey also expressed a careful opinion about a previous Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who ran afoul of the Bush administration in the spring of 2003 for saying that the Pentagon's plan to occupy Iraq lacked sufficient troops. Shinseki was publicly rebuked by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, and a year later retired still angry. "I don't think he was treated well," Casey said.
"I think he was treated miserably," responded Levin, who had asked Shinseki at a February 2003 hearing how many troops would be needed to occupy Iraq.