The military has been hitting hard lately in Iraq, using overwhelming firepower to kill the enemy in operations with videogame names like Iron Hammer and Ivy Cyclone II. But behind the scenes, some military experts, including high-ranking officers in U.S. Special Forces (Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and the like), are beginning to complain that America's strategy in Iraq is wrongheaded. "This is what Westmoreland was doing in Vietnam," says a top Special Forces commander, referring to the firepower-heavy tactics favored by the military's senior commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, who lost sight of America's essential mission in that lost war: winning the hearts and minds of the people.
One center of private concerns with America's Iraq strategy is the Defense Policy Board, a collection of outside experts--mostly heavyweight conservatives--who regularly consult with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Disquiet in this quarter is particularly significant, since the DPB pushed from the outset for the invasion of Iraq. Last week one of the more colorful and outspoken members of the group, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, went public with his worries and ideas in an interview with NEWSWEEK. He was careful to say that he does not speak about the board's deliberations "on or off the record," but he proceeded to hold forth in his insightful, if mildly bombastic, way about the shortcomings of administration policy in Iraq.
Sitting in his office in downtown Washington, Gingrich searched on his computer for the Web site of the Coalition Provisional Authority, set up in Baghdad to oversee the reconstruction and democratization of Iraq. "I'm told over there that CPA stands for 'Can't Produce Anything'," says Gingrich. "Home page of the New Iraq," he quotes. Then: "The opening quote is, of course, by [CPA chief Paul] Bremer. Next quote is by Bush. Next quote is by U.S. Ambassador Steve Mann." He scrolls down. "Now this is a big breakthrough. They do have the new Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. on the front page. That is a breakthrough," he repeats, adding, sotto voce, "I have been beating the crap out of them for two weeks on this." His basic point: where are the Iraqi faces in the New Iraq? "Americans can't win in Iraq," he says. "Only Iraqis can win in Iraq."
Gingrich argues that the administration has been putting far too much emphasis on a military solution and slighting the political element. "The real key here is not how many enemy do I kill. The real key is how many allies do I grow," he says. "And that is a very important metric that they just don't get." He contends that the civilian-run CPA is fairly isolated and powerless, hunkered down inside its bunker in Baghdad. The military has the money and the daily contact with the locals. But it's using the same tactics in a guerrilla struggle that led to defeat in Vietnam.
"The Army's reaction to Vietnam was not to think about it," he says. Rather than absorb the lessons of counterinsurgency, Gingrich says, the Army adopted "a deliberate strategy of amnesia because people didn't want to ever do it again." The Army rebuilt a superb fighting force for waging a conventional war. "I am very proud of what [Operation Iraqi Freedom commander Gen.] Tommy Franks did--up to the moment of deciding how to transfer power to the Iraqis. Then," said Gingrich, "we go off a cliff."
In essence, the Americans never did transfer power. They disbanded the Iraqi Army and the government, realized that was a mistake, and quickly tried to cobble together an Iraqi police force and military. But the Iraqis in uniform today are seen by too many Iraqi citizens as American collaborators. Gingrich faults the Americans for not quickly establishing some sort of Iraqi government, however imperfect. "The idea that we are going to have a corruption-free, pristine, League of Women Voters government in Iraq on Tuesday is beyond naivete," he scoffs. "It is a self-destructive fantasy." (The White House insists that it is paying close attention to local politics and has speeded up the timetable to turn over power to the Iraqis.)
The rumor mill in the Pentagon suggests that Bush's "exit strategy" is to get American troops coming home in waves by next November's election. Obliquely, Gingrich indicates that would be a huge mistake. The guerrillas cannot be allowed to believe that they only have to outlast the Americans to win. "The only exit strategy is victory," Gingrich says. But not by brute American force. "We are not the enforcers. We are the reinforcers," says Gingrich. "The distinction between these two words is central to the next year in Iraq." Gingrich's voice rang with his customary certainty. Hard to know if Rumsfeld and Bush are listening.