War at the Pentagon
The most intense arguments over U.S. involvement in Iraq do not flare at this point on Capitol Hill or on the campaign trail. Those rhetorical battles pale in comparison to the high-stakes struggle being waged behind closed doors at the Pentagon.
On one side are the "fight-win guys," as some describe themselves. They are led by Gen. David Petraeus and other commanders who argue that the counterinsurgency struggle in Iraq must be pursued as the military's top priority and ultimately resolved on U.S. terms.
In this view, the Middle East is the most likely arena for future conflicts, and Iraq is the prototype of the war that U.S. forces must be trained and equipped to win.
Arrayed against them are the uniformed chiefs of the military services who foresee a "broken army" emerging from an all-out commitment to Iraq that neglects other needs and potential conflicts. It is time to rebuild Army tank battalions, Marine amphibious forces and other traditional instruments of big-nation warfare -- while muddling through in Iraq.
I unavoidably compress what is a serious and respectful struggle about resources, military strategy and political ideology. The weapons in this discreet conflict include budget requests, deployment schedules and, increasingly, speeches and public presentations that veil the true nature of the internal struggle but reveal how the military's top commanders line up.
This struggle shaped last week's careful, largely anticlimactic testimony to Congress by Petraeus. It was also behind President Bush's nationally spotlighted announcement of a reduction in Army combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to 12 months. And it contributed to the sudden ousting last month of Adm. William Fallon as head of U.S. Central Command.
Since then, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, has become the public point man for "full-spectrum warfare" advocates, warning in his speeches that "our readiness is being consumed as fast as we build it."
The Marines are also undergoing intense soul-searching, with some officers warning that the Corps is becoming "a second land army" by deploying with heavy armor for long combat tours in Iraq. These officers would like to return to light, amphibious-centered missions more suitable for the Pacific than for the Middle East or Central Asia. "Regionalization" is becoming a buzzword in this future-force debate.
The Navy and the Air Force -- which have been only marginally involved in the counterinsurgency strategy developed by Petraeus for Iraq -- join in emphasizing the need to prepare now for future conventional warfare elsewhere.
Fallon was squeezed out as overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan not because of differences with Defense Secretary Robert Gates over attacking Iran or because of his advocacy of full-spectrum conventional warfare. Fallon's rigid, overbearing style and a refusal to listen to others gradually cost him Gates's confidence, according to military and civilian officials who worked with Fallon.
On his first trip to Iraq as Centcom head, Fallon insisted on lecturing Marine officers about what was going on in their area of responsibility rather than considering their views, according to contemporaneous accounts from military sources present at the briefing. U.S. officials here tell similar stories of Fallon's dismissive attitude toward CIA and other briefers.
Gates has in fact encouraged the spirited debate between the Petraeus and Fallon-Cody camps without tipping his own hand. But Gates's view will emerge as future budget requests choose between costly weapons systems for the future or urgently needed manpower and equipment for counterinsurgency missions today.
And, as Petraeus is fond of saying, the enemy gets a vote in U.S. strategy. Will al-Qaeda, the Taliban or Iraqi insurgents see it in their interest to go on the attack against Americans to try to influence the campaign and November's elections? If so, in what direction?
Would Iran welcome a newly elected President Obama with a nuclear enrichment freeze or -- more likely -- by testing him by moving identifiable Iranian militia units into Basra province on a large scale, as some Persian Gulf Arab states may fear? Or if it is President McCain, will the ayatollahs show something like the Reagan reflex? After all, they greeted the election of a conservative hard-liner in 1980 by releasing U.S. hostages.
These are immediate questions that the nation needs to consider as we move toward an epoch-shaping election. They are among the questions that convince me that Petraeus has reshaped the Iraqi battlefield sufficiently to be given a chance to continue his strategy. The "now" war has to trump the "maybe" wars, at least for the year ahead.