Jed L. Babbin
Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense; Editor, Human Events
Thursday, April 24, 2008 12:00 PM
Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jed L. Babbin, now the editor of conservative journal Human Events and humanevents.com, was online Thursday, April 24 at noon ET to discuss the reassignment of Gen. David Petraeus to Central Command, the decision to elevate Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno to replace him, and other moves at the top of the military's command chain.
The transcript follows.
Babbin is the author of three books, most recently "In the Words of Our Enemies." He is a military and foreign affairs analyst and appears frequently on the Fox News Channel, CNBC and MSNBC.
Jed L. Babbin: Hello, everyone. I'm Jed Babbin, editor of Human Events and HumanEvents.com, the nation's oldest conservative weekly. Let's get going. I see there are a lot of comments already. I'll dive in.
Peaks Island, Maine: What is your opinion as to whether punches are pulled in discussion of the merits of Gens. Petraeus and Odierno out of concern on the part of those who know best that bringing up uncomplimentary truths will be bad for their careers?
Jed L. Babbin: That's always an issue. The military promotions process is, like those in the civilian world, partly based on interpersonal relationships. But I think this is a small part of promotions at this level. People at the three- and four-star rank are picked at the Defense secretary and presidential level.
Silver Spring, Md.: It's been well-documented recently that most "independent military analysts" appearing in the mainstream media are little more than Pentagon mouthpieces, who often are laden with additional conflicts of interest that render their perspectives worthless to the American news consumer. Would you please at least disclose any fiduciary affiliations you have with defense firms before we hear what you have to say? Thank you very much.
washingtonpost.com: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand (New York Times, April 20)
Jed L. Babbin: Fair question. I have zero affiliations of that type. And I've taken it a step further -- what little money I have is in money market funds and my house. I own no stock in any corporation.
By the way, I'm part of that group and proud of it.
Detroit: Both a few years ago and again a few months ago, Gen. Peter Chiarelli's name was thrown around as a possible commander for Multi-National Forces -- Iraq. While a promotion and a fourth star on paper, does the move of Gen. Chiarelli to the Vice Chief of Staff job indicate a lack of confidence in him from the administration, or is it a possible stepping-stone to Chief of Staff or a theater-level command? Do you have any other thoughts on his future and potential?
Jed L. Babbin: I don't know Chiarelli, but never have heard anything bad about him. The fact that he's going to be vice chief indicates he's George Casey's personal selection. He may become chief of staff after Casey retires, but that will be up to the next president. Again, those appointments and promotions are made and approved at the presidential level.
Washington: With the fighting intensifying in Iraq, it's becoming apparent that news of Gen. Petraeus's recent successes in Iraq was nothing but a scam to fool the American people. But we all know that Gen. Petraeus has the ear and confidence of the most unpopular and incompetent president in American history. Isn't the real reason for this promotion to reward Gen. Petraeus's dedication to Bush? It is a known fact that when a Democrat wins the White House this election (which seems very likely given the circumstances), the calls to dismiss a partisan player like Gen. Petraeus will be loud and clear.
Jed L. Babbin: I'm not here to defend President Bush. If you read my writings -- since about April 2002 -- you'll see that I've been highly critical of the way he's handled the war. But to call Petraeus a partisan player is simply wrong. I've met him many times and there's no politics in what he's been doing. Call the surge whatever you like, but it is a war strategy aimed to support the neocon nation-building strategy. That strategy is -- as I've written again and again -- profoundly wrong.
Nation-building is not America's mission. We are not a colonialist nation and never should be. As George Bush has defined it, our goal in the war is to create an Iraq that can defend, govern and sustain itself and be an ally in the longer war. That's profoundly wrong.
As I explain more fully in the piece we'll post below, our goals must be to end state sponsorship of terrorism and defeat the radical Islamist ideology.
Right now, because President Bush has it so terribly wrong, we're not even on a path to that result. As my old Pentagon boss used to say, "if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."
Right now, we're on a random road, not a road to victory.
washingtonpost.com: Fire the Neocons, Fight the War (Human Events, Aug. 27, 2007)
Fort Bragg, N.C.: Is there any doubt that the President (or perhaps Secretary Gates) would prefer Gen. Petraeus to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs if the position were to become vacant? How much will this new appointment, and the appointment of Gen. Odierno -- especially given that it won't take place until late summer or early fall (i.e. immediately before the election) -- tie the hands of the incoming president and Congress, especially as it would raise the ire of many if the new president wanted someone else to serve at his/her pleasure?
Jed L. Babbin: I think that if the president wanted Petraeus to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, it would have happened. They chose Mike Mullen because they wanted him and because they wanted Petraeus where he was.
The appointment of Odierno ties no one's hands. My question about him is his heavy-handed approach as commander of the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq a couple of years ago. That approach is entirely contrary to Petraeus's.
I asked a very senior White House staffer about that this morning. He told me that Odierno is now Petraeus' nearest disciple, and is fully on board with the counterinsurgency strategy. We'll see how he plays it.
Whomever is elected in November will have to make changes in our approach to Iraq. It makes no sense to continue as we have.
Mons, Belgium: Do you believe that if the coalition troops were to withdraw from Iraq, al-Qaeda would take over the country?
Jed L. Babbin: Actually, the "coalition" is now about 95 percent U.S. troops. The other nations are represented in tiny numbers.
And no, if we withdraw it won't be only al-Qaeda taking over Iraq. As I see it -- and I'm sure my opinion is supported by history -- Iraq will cease to exist.
Iran will come in from the east, taking part of southern Iraq (and the oil wells and ports there). The Saudis, as they have threatened, may come in to defend Sunnis in the so-called Sunni Triangle areas. They may be supported by Syrian forces. The Turks are likely to come into the north a little, to attack PKK forces there and try to keep the Kurds from expanding into Turkey.
In short, it'll be a mess of historic proportions, and wars will go on for years or decades.
And al-Qaeda will have safe havens there, which is not a trivial problem. It will be as bad as Afghanistan under the Taliban as a base for global terrorism.
Fort Bragg, N.C.: To follow-up on what Gen. Petraeus said last month in an interview with CNN's Kyra Phillips in Baghdad, when he acknowledged some "friction" between himself and Fallon in the past year, "actually, over the last six months or so, our relationship was really very, very good. ... There was friction in the beginning. He has a different job than I have. There can be understandable differences of your take, if you will, on a situation. As they say in politics and government 101, where you stand on an issue sometimes depends on where you sit in the organization, and we sit in different chairs."
Isn't it possible that Gen. Petraeus, who will now have more than just Iraq (with interference from Iran), will see things from that different chair and have to change what he's started? Somehow, moving the person many consider the only and last possible person capable of winning would be in line with saying that Ambassador Ryan Crocker should be the replacement for Secretary of State Rice, because he's been so successful at what he's doing in his current role.
Jed L. Babbin: Sure; it's quite possible that Petraeus will see things a little differently. I've met him and spoken with him six or eight times by now. He's brilliant, and a real leader. Leaders evolve as the situation does. His differences with Fallon I can't speak to -- I've only heard they were personal.
And let's not get tangled up in the "winning" debate. As I wrote a little earlier, Bush's definition of "winning" isn't remotely correct.
wlhx1: Has, Gen. Zinni (Ret.) offered his opinion on the true progress in Iraq? His previous comments indicated we would be there for 40-50 years. He has been correct on earlier opinions, including the impending debacle prior to the war. Also, McMaster appears to have disappeared from the face of the earth -- penalties of being politically incorrect?
Jed L. Babbin: Don't know if Zinni has offered anything recently, but he's on the sidelines because he's entirely political. Anything he says is judged in that framework.
H.R. McMaster was "passed over" -- i.e. not selected for promotion -- from colonel to general. I don't know the man, but I've read a lot of his stuff. Passing him by and probably forcing him to retire was a terrible move by the Army. I'd like to know whose decision that was. Whomever it was should be taken to the woodshed.
Peaks Island, Maine: How do you see moves and counter moves playing out following U.S. attacks upon Iran triggered by the Iranians making what the president says are wrong choices?
Jed L. Babbin: First, I think there's zero chance that this president will attack Iran. According to all I hear and see, he's listening only to Condi Rice, and she's channeling the State Department bureaucracy. A disaster.
If we did attack Iran, the nature and scope of our attack would determine their response.
We know -- as of this morning, emphasized to me again -- that the Iranians are sending newly manufactured weapons into Iraq, their Quds Force (which we have labeled a terrorist organization) is operating in Iraq, and that their efforts are taking American lives. If we attacked Quds Force bases inside Iran, they'd probably not do too much in response.
You can take the theory all the way up the scale. If we were unwise enough to try to bomb their nuclear facilities (which a bad idea for a whole host of reasons) they might strike Israel with missiles armed with anything from high explosives to biological weapons to a "dirty bomb" uranium weapon.
This is the biggest threat the next president will have to face -- this one won't deal with it.
And, please, don't bother to suggest negotiations. There has been no successful negotiation with the Iranian kakistocracy since it came to power in 1979. As Casey Stengel woulda said, you can look it up.
Virginia: What'll happened if McCain, Clinton or Obama decided to put their own generals in place?
Jed L. Babbin: Depends on who they are. Every president has that right and option. With Clinton, we'd get another disastrous crop of Wesley Clarks. With Obama, who the heck knows? McCain knows a lot of the generals and may fire a few.
This war is extremely unusual for the lack of firing of general officers. We usually go through quite a few in any war.
Montreal: Thanks for doing this chat, I couldn't agree with you more about your assessment of the underlying flaw of the Iraq war -- the neocons dreamed up a bad mission that is not achievable. One thing I often wonder about is how much America's non-Iraq neocon policies impact America's abilities to succeed in thwarting/neutralizing Islamic radicals, especially in the area of transparency. For instance, today there is reporting -- fairly unconfirmed so far, I find -- of a deal between the administration and Sharon's government re: West Bank settlements.
Regardless of the truth, charges of secret deals very different from public statements are vastly more credible under this administration, because every deal, every decision, even the meaning of the law seems to be kept secret except those deals used politically -- like the "roadmap." I know it's not a direct factor, but do you have any thoughts of the general lack of transparency and its impact on the missions you so accurately identify as necessary?
Jed L. Babbin: Two points on that.
First, secrets -- despite what the New York Times thinks -- are essential to fighting any war. As Churchill said, the truth is so important she sometimes must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.
Having said that, the neocon strategy entirely has thwarted progress on fighting the real war. Iran and Syria are untouched and -- to this administration -- untouchable. So is Saudi Arabia, which is a principal sponsor of terrorism.
We are not -- repeat not -- fighting the ideological war at all. The president is shy of it, and that prevents any action. Unless and until we admit that Radical Islam is not a religion but an ideology, we cannot fight it and cannot win the war. Radical Islam has to be defeated like its predecessors, Nazism and Communism, were.
The administration's total incapacity on this subject is amazing to me. I've spoken with most of the leaders on it, and some -- including Rumsfeld -- understand. But the White House won't fight this part of the war.
Military Wife: I am the wife of an Army officer who served in Iraq in 2003. If our endeavor in Iraq is the great struggle of our generation and the central front in the war on terror, what does it say about the moral underpinnings of a country that is content to send soldiers into that theater for two, three, four or five deployments? What does it say about the morality of country that coerces service members via stop-loss orders and fills the ranks by raising the recruiting age to 42 and lowering standards to admit felons?
My husband is retiring not because he objected to fighting in Iraq but because he no longer recognizes the Army he has been associated with for 21 years. From experience, I can say that military families do not trust the senior leadership to exercise good judgment or deal honestly with those of us down the chain-of-command. Thank you for taking questions -- I hope you will post mine and address them.
Jed L. Babbin: Ma'am, all I can say is God bless you and your family. I don't think we can limit soldiers' tours in a war, but -- and this is the kicker -- we have to assign them tasks that are aimed to win the war. Nation-building is not one of them, and it's a violation of the bond between civilian leaders and the military who serve to ask them to do so.
I saw the story you refer to, and can't explain it. If it's true -- which is always up for grabs with the New York Times -- then we have a moral problem and a problem of leadership.
George Bush never has performed as a war president has to. If he had -- explaining regularly what we're doing and why, telling people who we're fighting, how and what we need to accomplish -- we'd be recruiting all we need, without enlisting former felons.
Recently returned from Afghan Deployment: If, as Secretary of Defense Gates said Wednesday, Gen. Petraeus's role in Afghanistan would be somewhat limited with his new theaterwide responsibilities, why take him away from the operation and specific area he extensively -- and apparently uniquely -- is qualified for? If all he's going to do as CENTCOM commander is give his ideas or suggestions, what's his value as CENTCOM commander other than name recognition?
Jed L. Babbin: Great question. I have no good answer for it. If we're bound to continue the counterinsurgency, Petraeus is the best man to do it. Removing him now would be like removing Patton before the Battle of the Bulge was over.
New York: Do you think we'll ever get any more allies to help us militarily in Iraq? Do we even want that? Thanks for the chat.
Jed L. Babbin: You're entirely welcome. I love doing these chats.
As to more help in Iraq, there's not a prayer. The president doesn't have a policy that provides a properly defined enemy or an idea of what victory should consist of. Who wants to join in that?
Alexandria, Va.: You said "if we withdraw it won't be only al-Qaeda taking over Iraq. As I see it -- and I'm sure my opinion is supported by history -- Iraq will cease to exist." Do you consider this to be a good outcome? Is it the best of the bad options? Should our military withdraw sooner rather than later? Please explain what you think our strategy should be.
Jed L. Babbin: Okay, this is the hottest question anyone could craft. No, I don't think that having Iraq cease to exist is a good outcome, just the most likely. I just don't see expending young American lives to keep it going unless we're also moving toward the only real victory that would matter -- ending state sponsorship of terrorism -- which we cannot accomplish within the four corners of Iraq. Our military and other forces should be directed at that goal, and nothing else.
Withdraw? Perhaps at some point, to tackle the other parts of the fight. Withdrawal is not a strategy -- it's a political sop to those who don't see the rest of the fight -- but staying, and doing only what we're doing now, makes just as little sense to me. Remember what Churchill said after Dunkirk: Wars are not won by evacuations.
Richmond, Va.: Do we know how the NATO brass in Afghanistan will get along with Petraeus yet? Are they welcoming it, or is it just a "whatever" to them? Thanks for the chats.
Jed L. Babbin: I don't know, but I have a lot of confidence that Petraeus will get along with them as well as anyone can. But NATO is almost irrelevant to this war -- in Afghanistan, most of the NATO troops are limited to noncombat roles.
Fort Bragg, N.C.: I appreciate your well-reasoned response to the earlier question, but would suggest that Adm. Mullen was selected at an earlier time, and it would "stink of politics" (I started to write either "reek of" or "look like") if Adm. Mullen were removed "at the pleasure of the president," whereas Adm. Fallon fell on his sword, so to speak.
That said, my concern is that you're taking "the best man for the fighting the war in Iraq" and giving him a theater assignment, but then Secretary Gates says he'll have (relatively) minimal to do with Afghanistan. It appears from my seat, that it's not the up-front posting, and it's not the ultimate advisor to the president -- it's an awkward posting. Again, thanks for your responses here today and on an excellent attached column.
Jed L. Babbin: Thanks. It is an awkward, in-between sort of job, but I think Petraeus has the president's confidence and can deal with most problems except one: the politics of the Pentagon is always a tough environment. Let's hope he is allowed to do his job without having to spend too much time fighting off the ankle-biters.
Bethel, Alaska: Sure, a high-ranking official may have said to you that Gen. Odierno now believes in counterinsurgency -- but how can a person his age and with his background change that completely?
Jed L. Babbin: That's one of the things about the best of grown-ups: They can learn and change. I'm not convinced about Odierno. In my personal meetings with him, all I could determine is that he's no Petraeus. Let's give the guy a fair chance to do a tough job -- he may well have learned a lot in the past year.
Los Angeles: The newly released report by Pentagon think tank National Defense University's National Institute for Strategic Studies appears to provide objective evidence that Bush and his advisors made terribly costly mistakes in invading Iraq and conducting that war. The study's opening line -- "measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle" -- undercuts arguments that the war can be won, and the argument for remaining in Iraq indefinitely.
Given this report -- and the new RAND study indicating that 1 in 5, or 300,000 U.S. troops who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, suffer from depression or post traumatic stress -- isn't the U.S. weaker militarily, economically and in world prestige after seven years of the Bush administration? Why haven't more generals or top military leaders stood up to Bush and resigned rather than leaking to the press anonymously that the U.S. military is under strain or breaking? Would military leaders be as supportive if a Democratic president had ordered the Iraq invasion and achieved similar results?
Jed L. Babbin: Good points, all. There's every reason to say that the mistakes in this war are terribly damaging. And to the other point, I've often wondered about it.
In our history -- and in the military history of most nations -- generals have resigned when told to do something they can't do in good conscience. That goes for civilian officials as well. I can't even remember the last time someone resigned because of a policy dispute (rather than being fired).
The military, from the earliest of times in training is taught about the importance of civilian control.(I heard it almost every day in ROTC in the late 1960s). What that means is that if honor requires, you don't disobey -- you resign. We'd certainly be better off if those who disagreed -- such as former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki -- resigned instead of undercutting their civilian bosses.
Burbank, Calif.: I recall Dana Priest responding to a question about why more drones were not used, especially to patrol routes to keep alert for terrorist actions along the route. I now see the Air Force is under criticism for not having enough drones in service. Will the new leadership be able to better implement what it seems most everyone agrees will save lives and improve our military operations, and which is by placing more eyes in the sky alerting the ground forces as to what is going on around them?
Jed L. Babbin: Really good question. I certainly think we need more unmanned aerial vehicles operations; the issue is crew training and rest. You shouldn't have to be a rated F-16 pilot to fly a Predator, and those who do fly Predators need crew rest like anyone else. They are, I'm told, falling asleep after too many hours in dark rooms.
Portland, Ore.: Isn't it a gross oversimplification to talk about our presence in Iraq as a "war" with the only outcomes victory or defeat (surrender)? If we pulled some or all troops out of the Korean demilitarized zone, would right-wingers say we were surrendering to North Korea or were defeated? If we pulled troops out of Bosnia (if we even still have any there) would we be surrendering? It seems like we really can't have a meaningful national debate on this until we stop calling this a war and start viewing Iraq as a strategic military presence, the value and costs of which have to be weighed against all the other strategic military presences we have around the world.
Jed L. Babbin: No, this is a war. Unless and until we recognize that it is as much an existential conflict as World War II, we won't be on the road to win it.
The mistake you're making is the same one the president is making: This isn't "the Iraq War," this war is one between us and the nations that are state sponsors of terrorism. Unless and until they stop doing so, the war goes on.
It all comes down to the fact that President Bush is entangled in the neocon nation-building, and no one in the administration is able to set him on a better course.
As to Korea, Bosnia, etc., I think we have to go back to 1848 for the answer. Queen Victoria was vexed with her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, for dealing with Germany and Russia. As he said then, Britain had no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests and those he was determined to pursue.
So let it be for the United States.
Jed L. Babbin: Folks, this has been a real treat for me. I hope to visit with you again soon. Signing out.
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