The command for Iraq

Greg Richards
Wednesday, President Bush led off his press conference with a comment which, to my ear, was very significant - very significant.  He began by saying that he had just completed a conversation with General Petraeus in Baghdad, his first since General Petraeus' arrival in-country. 

Why is this important?  Because I think it represents a return to the war command structure that has historically been successful for the United States.  From the information available, not least being Thomas Ricks' excellent book Fiasco, we can put together a mosaic of how this war has been run to date.  It seems very likely that the forceful figure of Donald Rumsfeld, combined with President Bush's, to me, mistaken understanding of the alleged mistakes of the command of the Vietnam War, led to excessive delegation by Bush in running the war.

It seems this "delegation strategy" for command - if that is what it was - resulted in the Iraq War falling between two stools.  One stool was the primary goal of the members of the command structure - transformation of the Armed Forces in the case of Rumsfeld; the niceties of career promotion in the case of the professional soldiers - the other being the political/strategic objective of the war itself - i.e., a tension between the processes of fighting the war and the purpose of doing so.  Which meant that winning the war became the de facto second objective of the command participants.

President Bush's statement of direct conversation with General Petraeus signals, to me at least, that he has reestablished the command structure that has resulted in victory for the United States in the past - whether between Lincoln and Grant, or between Wilson and Pershing or between Roosevelt and Marshall: the president, who in the American system is both in name and in fact the Commander-in-Chief, acts directly with his military leader in the field (or in Washington in the case of General Marshall). 

The Secretary of Defense is in the command structure, as he should be.  But as Clausewitz observed, there is a significant difference between preparation for war and war-fighting.  The primacy of the Secretary of Defense works well in peacetime - in preparation for war.  But in war-fighting, historically, the Secretary of Defense (or Secretary of War in past times) has to be an administrative rather than a command position.  Because otherwise, the military leaders report to the Secretary of Defense and the president loses the intimate, tactile feel for the war's progress, and the generals fighting it are not refreshed by direct reinforcement of the political objectives of the war.

Bush appears now to have reestablished that direct and intimate contact between himself as political leader and Commander-in-Chief and his lieutenant in the field.  One hopes that this will result in continual, intimate, interactive, candid conversations between the president and his principal field commander so that issues, successes, failures and inevitable adjustments can be discussed candidly, thoroughly, and in real time, rather than be attenuated by being relayed through a third party - the Secretary of Defense - and/or in the stilted and limited environment of a formal briefing.  This has been the American system of command when we have been victorious in the past.  It should stand us in good stead again.
Wednesday, President Bush led off his press conference with a comment which, to my ear, was very significant - very significant.  He began by saying that he had just completed a conversation with General Petraeus in Baghdad, his first since General Petraeus' arrival in-country. 

Why is this important?  Because I think it represents a return to the war command structure that has historically been successful for the United States.  From the information available, not least being Thomas Ricks' excellent book Fiasco, we can put together a mosaic of how this war has been run to date.  It seems very likely that the forceful figure of Donald Rumsfeld, combined with President Bush's, to me, mistaken understanding of the alleged mistakes of the command of the Vietnam War, led to excessive delegation by Bush in running the war.

It seems this "delegation strategy" for command - if that is what it was - resulted in the Iraq War falling between two stools.  One stool was the primary goal of the members of the command structure - transformation of the Armed Forces in the case of Rumsfeld; the niceties of career promotion in the case of the professional soldiers - the other being the political/strategic objective of the war itself - i.e., a tension between the processes of fighting the war and the purpose of doing so.  Which meant that winning the war became the de facto second objective of the command participants.

President Bush's statement of direct conversation with General Petraeus signals, to me at least, that he has reestablished the command structure that has resulted in victory for the United States in the past - whether between Lincoln and Grant, or between Wilson and Pershing or between Roosevelt and Marshall: the president, who in the American system is both in name and in fact the Commander-in-Chief, acts directly with his military leader in the field (or in Washington in the case of General Marshall). 

The Secretary of Defense is in the command structure, as he should be.  But as Clausewitz observed, there is a significant difference between preparation for war and war-fighting.  The primacy of the Secretary of Defense works well in peacetime - in preparation for war.  But in war-fighting, historically, the Secretary of Defense (or Secretary of War in past times) has to be an administrative rather than a command position.  Because otherwise, the military leaders report to the Secretary of Defense and the president loses the intimate, tactile feel for the war's progress, and the generals fighting it are not refreshed by direct reinforcement of the political objectives of the war.

Bush appears now to have reestablished that direct and intimate contact between himself as political leader and Commander-in-Chief and his lieutenant in the field.  One hopes that this will result in continual, intimate, interactive, candid conversations between the president and his principal field commander so that issues, successes, failures and inevitable adjustments can be discussed candidly, thoroughly, and in real time, rather than be attenuated by being relayed through a third party - the Secretary of Defense - and/or in the stilted and limited environment of a formal briefing.  This has been the American system of command when we have been victorious in the past.  It should stand us in good stead again.