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Another Explanation for Powell’s Endorsement of President Obama

Another Explanation for Powell’s Endorsement of President Obama

Our senior military officers well remember the price our troops paid for the outrageous blunders of neoconservatives now dominating security policy in the Romney campaign.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell meets with President Barack Obama, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. Powell, a longtime Republican said on the
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell meets with President Barack Obama, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. Powell, a longtime Republican said on the "CBS This Morning" program that he is sticking with President Barack Obama in this year's election. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Shortly after the “shock and awe” campaign in the spring of 2003 had driven Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein from his palaces in Baghdad, I traveled with a colleague from the staff of the House Appropriations Committee to visit the U.S. Army Forces Command, or FORSCOM, at Fort McPherson, Georgia. When we entered the briefing room and saw a half dozen general officers sitting around the table sharing more stars than we could count, we knew we were in for an earful.

We had expected that this would be a relatively routine visit. We were curious as to how FORSCOM was proceeding in its mission of supplying and supporting the Army expeditionary force that had entered Iraq only a month or so earlier. Did they have adequate equipment, spare parts, fuel? What was happening to morale? What were the logistical issues with respect to sustaining the operation through the long, hot and dusty Iraqi summer?

The officers addressed those questions but they had a lot more to get off their chest. Iraq was a mess. There was absolute chaos on the ground and the prospect for a peaceful and orderly transition had been lost.

Further, they felt our troops would pay the price for this mayhem. We had failed from the outset to demonstrate that we were in control, that we could and would punish lawlessness. As a result the criminal and sectarian violence already becoming apparent would almost certainly accelerate and our soldiers were likely targets of opportunity.

Worst of all, they felt this unfolding horror story could have been avoided. The fact that we did not have the manpower or equipment to accomplish the mission wasn’t simply a matter of oversight. The civilian leadership at the Pentagon had specifically ordered the Army and FORSCOM to not engage in post invasion planning. We knew that Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki’s warning several months earlier had not only gone unheeded but had been flatly and publically dismissed by the department’s senior political appointees. Several months before the invasion Shinseki had told the Senate Armed Services Committee that maintaining order in post invasion Iraq would require “several hundred thousand soldiers.” He explained “We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems.”

But Defense Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had almost immediately countered,

Some of the higher-end predictions that we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. First, it’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself…

What we did not realize until we sat down at the briefing table at Fort McPherson is that Wolfowitz and his neoconservative allies in the Department of Defense and in the White House and elsewhere had not only rejected the judgment of the senior army commander, they had forbidden his subordinates to develop contingency plans on the possibility that his judgments might be accurate.

Wolfowitz and the other political appointees at the Pentagon did not need to rely on the uniformed services for information or judgment. They had their own sources such as fellow neocon Ken Adelman, at the premier neocon think tank, Project for a New American Century. Adelman assured Wolfowitz and others at the Defense Department that Iraq would be a “cakewalk.” His words were echoed by Vice President Richard Cheney who said that we would be “greeted as liberators.”

And while there was a brief period of euphoria after Saddam’s flight from Baghdad the realities of regime change and inadequate preparation soon became apparent. There was no means of stopping rampant lawlessness. A system for protecting ordinary Iraqi citizens from thuggery and street violence did not exist. There was no plan for guarding the nation’s infrastructure or historical treasures, for providing essential services such as sanitation, clean water, or electricity.

Long before the Central Intelligence Agency revealed Saddam had none of the weapons that the Bush administration used as a pretext for going to war, before the catastrophic decision to disband the Iraqi army, before the Anbar rebellion, before 5 percent of the 4,800 soldiers that would die there had perished, these men knew that we were headed for disaster. They were absolutely furious and they were focused like a laser beam on convincing the congressional committee that allocated their resources to understand that the monumental screw-up that was about to unfold was not of their making.

Later that day several officers confided further that to their knowledge no civilian leadership in the history of the country had ever shown such contempt for the military or its expertise in developing and executing strategy even on strictly military matters. One can only imagine how much those feelings hardened as the death toll in Iraq continued to climb not only from the poor strategy and planning instituted at the outset, but also from the civilian leadership’s continuing failure to cut through the red tape in order to secure the body armor, explosive detection equipment, and armored vehicles so desperately needed throughout 2003 and 2004 to save the lives of those we had sent into what can only be described as a quagmire.

My conversations that day at Fort McPherson came back to me last week when I heard former Gov. John Sununu (R-NH) who is now the national co-chair of the Romney for President Campaign, allege that race was the principal reason that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of FORSCOM, Colin Powell, had endorsed the president.

Powell himself served in the George W. Bush administration and would not reject Gov. Romney for president simply because of mistakes made by others in that administration. But as he explained to Joe Scarborough following his endorsement he is concerned not only by foreign policy pronouncements made by the candidate, (“the Russian Federation is our number 1 geostrategic threat”) but also by the national security team that Gov. Romney has assembled—specifically the reliance on neocons.

Over the years we as a nation have been blessed by generations of military leaders like Powell who will do everything required to accomplish the mission to which they are assigned but who will be no less vigorous in doing everything possible to protect the lives and the well-being of those who are sent into harm’s way under their command.

The most notable neocons of the Bush administration fail that standard on two counts. Wolfowitz, along with the under secretary of defense for policy at that time, Douglas Feith, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Peter Rodman, their allies in the White House, Vice President Richard Cheney and his staff, led by Lewis “Scooter” Libby and David Addington, National Security Council staffer Elliott Abrams, as well as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Strategy John Bolton were all known for their inordinate reliance on the use of military force as the favored solution to almost any international problem—including ones that might have been resolved without the use of force.

But they were also known for their unwillingness to personally carry that burden. None of the individuals mentioned above ever wore a uniform. Most petitioned for numerous deferments—in Cheney’s case five times. But the most disturbing aspect of these men was the apparent disregard they exhibited for the life and limb of those who did serve. That was exhibited not just by the reckless pretense under which they launched the war in Iraq but by the absence of planning for the post invasion phase of the operation (the phase in which more than 96 percent of the lives were lost and 98 percent of the nonfatal casualties were suffered) and the slowness with which they supplied the troops with lifesaving equipment for many months after it became apparent that we were locked into a long-term occupation.

So when Colin Powell or other military leaders look at the Romney campaign and find that more than a third of the national security advisors come from a single conservative think tank, Project for a New American Century, the think tank generally considered the heartbeat of neoconservative movement, and when they read complaints by members of the Romney national security team that the candidate only listens to John Bolton, widely considered the most extreme and ideological of the neocons surrounding the candidate, maybe they fear a disastrous replay of the past decade, in which thousands of young soldiers went to an early grave in the name of bad planning, misinformation, inept management, and all of the other things that are the legacy of the Romney national security team.

Maybe they have a reaction to this cast of characters that is similar to mine. They are not simply dangerous but in the shadow of those who have sacrificed so much for the well-being of their country and their fellow war fighters they are also profoundly repugnant.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.


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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow