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"Army, U.S. - 'Gates Way Forward', By Mark Perry, Asia Times, 19 June 2007"
By Mark Perry, Asia Times, 19 and 20 June 2007

Mark Perry is co-director of Conflicts Forum and the author of the recently
released Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War
and Peace (Penguin Press, 2007).
(Copyright 2007 Mark Perry.)

(Links to the original two part article in the Asia Times are found in the copy of the article itself.)


After Rumsfeld, a new dawn?

By Mark Perry, Asia Times, 19 June 2007

In the American movie Cool Hand Luke - a cult classic in the US - a drunken Paul Newman faces his jailer. "What we have here," intones the captain of Road Prison 36, "is a failure to communicate." The movie has provided fodder for a gaggle of bloggers, who now refer to US Lieutenant General Douglas E Lute, President George W Bush's new "war czar", as "Cool Hand Lute".

Lute recently made the rounds of official Washington, telling everyone that aside from the advisability of invading Iraq in the first place (something with which, in private, he had real problems), the US national security establishment's failure to coordinate policy, its failure to communicate, is leading the nation into a foreign-policy debacle.

Lute's appointment in May as "war czar" is a talisman of this disaster. Lute's job, as he sees it, is to help reverse this potential disaster and shape a national security establishment that actually works. His colleagues say he's terribly worried that he's fated to fail.

Lute's most powerful ally in his lone battle to rebuild what he sees as the shattered American national security establishment is Robert Gates, the unassuming, seemingly soft-as-a-pillow new secretary of defense. Gates is Donald Rumsfeld-in-reverse. Gates is a man who has spent a career being underestimated. "Gates is soft-spoken, courteous, a very good listener, workmanlike, treats people well, has a good sense of humor - and is completely and absolutely ruthless," a colleague who has worked with him for three decades notes.

"It took a lot for Bob Gates to take that job," former US Marine Corps commandant Joe Hoar says. "Let me be blunt. He was president of Texas A&M [University] and he had the job for life. Why would he take on a major headache like the Pentagon? He told Bush he wanted the right to run the Pentagon his way and he didn't want what he said vetted by the White House. And Bush was in trouble and he knew it. So he agreed. And Gates might look like a soft guy, but he's a realist and he's a patriot and he knows Washington and he knows what he wants. And he got it."

What Gates got when he took over last December was the right to do things his way. "When Gates showed up at the Pentagon, he was just stunned," a senior civilian official at the Defense Department says. "No one knew what was going on. There were no plans. Nothing worked. The policy establishment was broken."

In his first meeting with the major heads of departments, Gates said they would not be replaced ("We don't have time for that," he said) and announced that he would spend the next weeks traveling. In his first two months as Defense Secretary, Gates might have spent four days at the Pentagon, if that. "We just didn't see him," an official said. "He was elsewhere."

Gates was in the Middle East - talking with coalition commander General George Casey and CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid. Gates talked to the troops, held press conferences, smiled for the cameras, shook hands - and decided that America was losing.

"I think it's pretty clear that Bob spent long nights, alone, thinking about all of this by himself," a friend says, "and he just decided to throw out all of this neo-con stuff and all this bunk about democracy and Islam and the clash of civilizations and he decided the country needed to get back to the basics. What is the mission? Are we accomplishing it? What do we need to get it done? Can we do it? How long will it take? How much will it cost? And he just decided that everything else is just so much talk. And really it was a breath of fresh air.

"He just stopped people talking about that stuff. So he went in and started to clean it up. And he was quiet about it, but he made it clear: there are rules, and if you don't obey the rules you're out. And there's a chain of command, and if you don't follow it, you're gone. There's a chain of command at the Department of Defense, and there's only one man at the top of it. And he's [Gates] at the top of it. Maybe at the end he won't fix all of it, but he's sure going to try."

Starting at the top
After just six weeks on the job, and after hours of discussions with Casey, Abizaid and their key combat subordinates, Gates was convinced that the US senior military leadership in Iraq and in the Middle East needed to be replaced. Casey and Abizaid were nearly exhausted from years of fighting both the Iraqi insurgency and Rumsfeld. Gates feared both had lost their edge as well as the confidence of their subordinate commanders.

In one sense, Gates was lucky. With Casey due to rotate back to Washington as the new army chief of staff and Abizaid up for retirement, the change in command could be seen as nothing out of the ordinary. The change would be swift and painless. Neither Casey nor Abizaid need be embarrassed. Both men would be given parades, medals and handshakes. "There would be no blood on the floor," a Pentagon civilian official said of the command change. But no one was fooled: Casey and Abizaid had been sidelined.

"Gates was particularly disturbed with Abizaid," a Pentagon official says. "His [Central Command Regional military] staff had ballooned, it was way out of wack. There were 3,800 officers in the region, sitting at their computers in their little cubby holes. That was more than [president Dwight D Eisenhower had in Europe in World War II. Gates came back to Washington and said, 'What the hell are these people doing? Why aren't they in the front lines'?"

Abizaid had always had problems with staffing. One of his jobs at the Pentagon prior to his Gulf deployment was to organize former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz's staff - "and he actually made it worse, if you can believe that".

The rap on Casey was different: "He was simply indecisive, like [former president] Jimmy Carter. His commanders would come to him with options and he would look around the table and say, 'Well gentlemen, what should we do?' Damn, why was he asking them? He was the one who was supposed to be in charge," the Pentagon official says.

Gates was not the only one who had decided there needed to be a command shift in Iraq. Retired Army four-star General Jack Keane, arguably the most influential military thinker in Washington - and author of the Bush administration's "surge" strategy from his aerie position at the American Enterprise Institute - had come to the same conclusion as Gates.

Keane has direct access to Bush and had been telling the president he needed a new Iraq commander. In December, at the same time that Gates was talking to Casey and Abizaid in Iraq, Keane told Bush that Casey should be brought back to Washington and replaced by General David Petraeus, the former commander of the 101st Airborne and the author of "Field Manuel 3-24", the bible of US counter-insurgency doctrine.

Keane was a Petraeus partisan, having served with the tough-as-nails Petraeus when Keane was a brigadier general in the early 1990s. Bush hesitated over appointing Petraeus because he knew that he had a habit of speaking his mind. But Bush finally conceded and, after consulting with Gates, he agreed to Petraeus' appointment.

By the time Petraeus had been appointed as the new coalition command in Baghdad, Abizaid had been sent into retirement and replaced by Admiral William Fallon, a 40-year navy veteran. Fallon's appointment as CENTCOM commander was a surprise, as the billet is usually reserved for the army. But Gates was impressed by Fallon's credentials. "He's probably got more service and more experience than any man in the navy," Joe Hoar says, "and he's more respected. There's no more refined bullshit sniffer than Fallon."

Gates had come to the same conclusion, and was also intent to make CENTCOM a workable regional command headed by someone who would not interfere with Petraeus. Gates was impressed with Fallon's background as a diplomat in the Pacific. When a Japanese fishing ship was accidentally sunk by an American navy vessel off Hawaii, Fallon volunteered to offer apologies to the Japanese families of the dead.

But Fallon's appointment to head CENTCOM immediately sparked fears that he would prepare the navy for an attack on Iran, speculation fueled by the deployment of two carrier groups to the Persian Gulf. Fallon did little to dispel this notion, and when asked by senators whether he believed Iran would acquire nuclear weapons he answer decisively: "Absolutely," he said. "Probably some time in the next decade."

Fallon has further dispelled fears that he favors such an attack when rumors circulated that he recently received a call from the White House that he consider providing air cover to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur. He was aghast: "With what," he reportedly said. Fallon's influence at CENTCOM is also much in evidence. "Historically that place has been run by infantry and armor," Hoar says. "Well, he's turned that place upside down." Among the changes: upwards of 2,000 staffers have been sent to other assignments.

The fight over the czar
While Gates was running around the Middle East, Republican gadfly and presidential wannabe Newt Gingrich was circulating one of his inimitable 18-point leadership papers inside the White House. In a memo first floated there in January, Gingrich wrote to Bush that what was needed to right the listing Iraq military ship was a "war czar" - a supreme military commander who could coordinate war planning.

The appointment of a "war czar" was point number three on Gingrich's list of recommendations. "The slowness and ineffectiveness of the American bureaucracy is a major hindrance to our winning, and they've got to cut through it," Gingrich later explained to Washington Post reporters Peter Baker and Thomas Ricks.

Gingrich, who styles himself an expert on wartime leadership (he once told his staff to write an extensive research paper on the leadership qualities of one of his heroes - Napoleon, whom he emulates), believed that an eminent four-star retired officer would be perfect for the job: reporting only to Bush and able to stand above the Joint Chiefs.

Gingrich's idea was classically conservative. Like George Will, John McCain and others of their ilk ("conservatives without the neo," as Will has called them), Gingrich had only hesitantly backed the Iraq War, and then stood aghast as it was catastrophically managed. While they criticized the younger Bush's father for going soft on the conservative social agenda, they much preferred his management style - and competence.

They had grown to mistrust the neo-conservatives around Vice President Dick Cheney and increasingly viewed them as mindless ideologues. This slipped by the younger Bush, who was as attracted to the idea of a war czar as a mindless puppy to a new squeaky-toy. Bush passed the memo on to his national security staff, where it gained the approval of National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who was intent to gain some relief from the daily battering he was taking over Iraq.

But Gates and the US military were less than enthusiastic about the proposal and when Gingrich's idea became public the chiefs registered their disapproval in public. The disapproval came in the form of public condemnations of the idea from retired officers close to Pace and new Army Chief of Staff Casey.

"Standing up a war czar is just throwing in another layer of bureaucracy," retired Major General John Batiste, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, told reporters on April 12. "Excuse me - we have a chain of command already and it's time for our leaders to step up and take charge." Retired Lieutenant General Robert Gard, who served as secretary of defense Robert McNamara's military assistant during the Vietnam War, was even more outspoken. "I thought the president was the commander-in-chief. Isn't he supposed to be his own war czar?"

Gates was asking the same question. But the more that Gates thought about the idea, the more it appealed to him - that is, if he could convince the White House to appoint a serving officer to the position. Pace was coming to the same conclusion. In mid-April, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman set to work, accessing his well-worn network of retired officers to recommend to Bush that he rely on the chiefs to recommend a current serving Joint Chiefs of Staff officer as his primary military advisor on the war.

While it is not certain exactly what influence Pace and the other officers of the American high command had on the retired community, we now know that when Hadley offered the "war czar" position to five retired officers, they not only turned him down, they did so publicly - and sometimes embarrassingly.

The betting in Washington is that that kind of denunciation is simply too unanimous to be an accident. The first to be offered the job was Jack Keane, the former vice chief of staff and the author of the "surge" plan who, considering his access to Bush, might have been expected to take the job. He politely declined. The second was retired US Marine Corps General Jack Sheehan, a former North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander who is a well-known critic of the administration's Middle East policies. Sheehan was shocked when he received Hadley's telephone call. "He didn't say 'no', he said 'hell no'," one retired Marine colonel says.

Sheehan was even more outspoken with the press. When asked why he turned down the position, he grunted his response: "The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," he responded. "So rather than go over there [to the White House], develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No, thanks'."

The third retired commander that Hadley called was former air force General Joseph Ralston, who also declined. Ralston was surprised by the offer. Ralston had served as the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman from 1996 to 2000 and was expected to succeed John Shalikashvili when Shalikashvili retired. But the talented Ralston withdrew from consideration when it was discovered he had had an extramarital affair with a Central Intelligence Agency officer while separated from his wife.

When official Washington learned that Hadley had offered Ralston the job they wondered whether Hadley had remembered the incident - did he think that the Senate, which would have to confirm the appointment, had forgotten it? Did they think Ralston wouldn't be asked.

Two other commanders also turned down Hadley's offer: air force General John P Jumper (who had retired as air force chief of staff in 2005) and marine General Charles Wilhelm as blunt as Sheehan, with more combat ribbons. Wilhelm had apparently seen too many failed operations (in Vietnam, Somalia and Haiti to name just three) to undertaken another.

By the third week of April, it was clear that the White House would have to turn to Gates, Pace and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their recommendation. Pressure was building inside the National Security Council for a solution: Hadley was under increasing strain, and two key assistants - J D Crouch, the deputy national security advisor and one of the most outspoken proponents of the "surge" strategy inside the White House and Meghan O'Sullivan, the administration's top national security council official for Iraq and Afghanistan - had announced they would be leaving.

More critically, at a time when Bush was being pressed to defend the "surge", new CENTCOM chief Fallon was expressing troubling public doubts that the war in Iraq could actually worsen - despite the "surge". His views were buttressed by an entire host of retired military officers, who said that the solution to the Iraq crisis was more political than military.

Even more surprising, those views were echoed by Gates and Petraeus. At the same time that Bush and Hadley were searching vainly for a war czar, Gates was on yet another trip through the Middle East, and blithely punched holes in White House claims that the "surge" would provide a military solution to the Iraq debacle. The US commitment to Iraq was "not open-ended", Gates said on April 18 in Baghdad.

The next day, Petraeus echoed the sentiment, saying the security situation in Baghdad "has lost a little traction". To Hadley and the rest of the national security staff the message from Gates seemed hardly subtle: there would be a "war czar" all right - but he would come from the military.

Abandon ship
Gates returned to Washington from his mid-April trip to the Middle East more convinced than ever that the administration's new "war czar" needed to be a currently serving high ranking commander. His first days at the Pentagon did nothing to dissuade him from that view.

The national security establishment was more chaotic than ever - with few hands-on officials actually running the Iraq War. While Hadley's most outspoken critics have had a field day excoriating the former lawyer and assistant secretary of defense (he served under Cheney at the Pentagon during the first Bush administration), as one of the nation's weakest National Security Council chiefs, Gates knew that Hadley was working 18 hour days.

The reason for the additional pressure came from the resignation of Hadley's assistant, Crouch, Bush's deputy national security adviser and a key architect of the administration's "surge" strategy, who announced his resignation May 4. Not many senior military officers were unhappy to see Crouch go. The former Missouri deputy sheriff was known for his impractical military suggestions, derived in part from his time on the board of advisors of Frank Gaffney's ideologically driven Center for Security Policy.

Hadley's headaches had also worsened when earlier O'Sullivan said she would be leaving the White House. That was bad news for Hadley, though officials at the Pentagon shrugged. One Pentagon official says that O'Sullivan's loss was hardly felt. As he relates: just prior to Iraqi politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's visit to Washington in March, O'Sullivan was told the Shi'ite leader had strong ties to Iran. "She was shocked," this official remembered. "She just didn't have a clue."

O'Sullivan, a former aide to State Department official Richard Haass with a PhD from Oxford, has all the credentials of a Middle East expert - monographs on terrorism, appearances as the Brookings Institution, a stint with Jay Garner in Baghdad. Yet in all that time she never met a real Islamist. At one point during her final weeks on the job, she apparently took it on herself to invite Lebanese leader Samir Geagea to Washington, believing a photo-op of Bush and the Lebanese militiaman would strengthen the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

It was only when Geagea was in the air, on his way to France, that O'Sullivan was told that Geagea's visit would spark controversy. Blamed for the deaths of thousands during the Lebanese civil war, Geagea's invitation was embarrassingly rescinded.

Hadley's difficulties meant that Gates still had problems to solve - but he had made some headway. He was satisfied with his Baghdad trip and his meetings with Petraeus. Changes were on the way, including a very sensitive one that, according to high-ranking military officers in the Pentagon, had been on the minds of a number of senior officers.

While Major General William Caldwell had served well as spokesman for the multi-national forces in Iraq, there were growing concerns that he had leaked information to the press that should have been reported through US security channels - including a February report that Iran had been supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents. The weapons, and their serial numbers, had been given to a number of reporters and then aired. The information came from a "high-ranking US commander", the reports said. Some military officers in the Pentagon identified the leakers as Caldwell - and were enraged.

The officers thought it was inappropriate for a senior officer to give out that kind of information, whether true or not. Pace, in particular, was privately angered by Caldwell's leak and implied as much in a number of press interviews. The heads of press organizations were also beginning to question Caldwell's intentions. Was it appropriate for a high-ranking military officer to be playing politics with sensitive information of the kind that was so inflammatory that it might be used for political purpose to start a war?

It is not known whether Gates talked to Petraeus about Caldwell, or to anyone. But Petraeus wanted his own man in Caldwell's job, and believed strongly that the US military needed to be more open, and blunt, about its operations. In May, Caldwell was replaced. There was no blood on the floor.

There were only a few steps left before Gates completed his clean sweep of the upper reaches of the American high command. But before moving any further, the secretary of defense decided that he would check in with the network of retired military four-star generals that comprise a powerful, if unofficial, lobbying force in Washington.

Through May and into early June, Gates had lunch with a large number of some of the most eminent of these former commanders. Among the most prominent was General George Joulwan - as respected a former commander as any. Gates called Joulwan into the secretary's dining room in mid-May, just prior to the naming of a "war czar" to seek his advice on what to do about Iraq.

"They would clear out everyone and George would come in and the secretary and George would sit for an hour or two and Gates and Joulwan would sit and have a discussion," a senior officer says. "And Gates would listen and smile and nod. And mostly he agreed." Joulwan is a decorated Vietnam veteran (he was even called "general" by his classmates at West Point) and a former commander in Bosnia. Even in retirement, Joulwan spends time shuttling back and forth to eastern Europe, where he has maintained ties to senior commanders in the new NATO states of Poland and Romania. He is a constant presence on American television. He is most comfortable at an easel, telling audiences about how he designed strategies that brought down the Cali cartel in South America and integrated Eastern European militaries into NATO. "He does go on," a colleague says.

Joulwan may well be the most connected retired military man in Washington. With his shock of black hair, he falls forward on his feet and buttonholes anyone who will listen to his liturgy about the "proper way to get things done". He stabs the air with his finger: "There are only two things that matter when it comes to running operations like Bosnia or Iraq or I don't care where it is," Joulwan says. "And that is absolute unity of command and absolute clarity of instructions. These commanders have got to demand of the civilians that the mission be laid out. That's what I did in Bosnia. I said, 'Well you write it right down here and you say what you want and then we can get it done'. Otherwise it is never clear.

According to Pentagon officials, Joulwan focused on that - rather than personnel - in his talks with Gates. "George could see the chaos, because he lived through it in Bosnia and in Vietnam," a colleague says, "and it just scared the bejesus out of him. And so he insisted on that with Gates. And he told him, 'No matter what you do with the White House, you insist that they make it clear to you what they want'."

For the US military, unity of command is nearly liturgical - a commandment that dates from George Washington. The principle is so deeply rooted that a leading military think-tank recently conducted a day-long simulation that stipulated two teams (a "red" enemy team and a "blue" US team), in which the military US team was saddled with a number of nearly insurmountable premises: a weak president, an unengaged secretary of state, and a broken national security establishment. The task of the blue military team was to find ways to compensate for the broken national security establishment. One of the ways to do that is to make certain that the top-down command structure of the US military remains intact - that orders are obeyed exactly, and "by-the-book" - a command structure that many senior officers now believe was nearly catastrophically missing during the Rumsfeld years.

With major shifts underway in Iraq and in the region, and with the network of retired officers now firmly behind him in advocating that the "war czar" be picked from among the crop of currently serving officers, Gates recommended to the president that he appoint the Joint Chief of Staff's director of operations as the assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush checked Lute's record and noted that he had opposed the "surge", so he had his doubts, but after he and Hadley had interviewed him he agreed with Gates' assessment and Lute's appointment was announced on May 15. As always, the soft-spoken Gates explained the appointment in terms that were far more blunt than perhaps Bush would have liked: "One of the arguments that we hear frequently - and frankly are very sympathetic with - is that we and the State Department are about the only parts of the government that are at war," Gates said. "This kind of position is intended to ensure that where other parts of the government can play a contributing role, that in fact they understand what the president's priorities are and make sure that the commanders in the field, the ambassador in the field, gets what he needs."

For his part, Lute was unapologetic for opposing the "surge", saying simply that he agreed with the president's policy. Even so, like Petraeus and Fallon, Lute is convinced that a military victory in Iraq is impossible without political reconciliation. He has broad support in this from all parts of the high command.

"He's not afraid to get tough with the bureaucracy," a uniformed colleague says. "He will run the war. He won't be a supreme commander, of course, but he'll be a supreme coordinator - and we desperately need one." Lute is also one of the ablest political generals in the Pentagon, having served ably with both Abizaid and Petraeus and was apparently blunt with Bush and Hadley, telling them about his doubts about their policies. "He told them he didn't agree with a lot of what they were doing," a colleague related, "and said, 'so take it or leave it', and they were shook by that. But they took it."





A clean sweep

By Mark Perry, June 20, 2007
(For the first part of this two-part article, see After Rumsfeld, a new dawn?, June 19.)

With David Petraeus, top US commander in Iraq; Admiral William Fallon, head of CENTCOM (US Central Command); and "war czar" Douglas Lute in place, Defense Secretary Robert Gates believed he had finished his job in refashioning the US national-security establishment. He was comfortable with Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman Peter Pace and with his civilian staff - and ready to take on his next battle.

"I think that the secretary had his sights set on straightening out the national-security mess," a Pentagon official said. "You know - we have the Pentagon, State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], and no one talks to each other. The Deputies Committee [the major deputy secretaries of each foreign-policy cabinet department, where the major implementing decisions are made] is simply not functioning. He wanted to go in there and fix it. And then the Pace thing happened."

On Wednesday, June 6, just as the controversy over the naming of Lute as the White House "war czar" had finally abated, President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were told by Senate Armed Service Committee chairman Carl Levin that Pace would have difficulty getting reconfirmed for a traditional second two-year term as JCS chairman. "Bush and Cheney were told that Pace would just be shredded," this official says.

Gates had seen it coming. The Pentagon's congressional staff had told Gates that Pace was going to have trouble and that Pace's renomination would not sail through as expected. The Democrats in the Senate were expected to ask some embarrassing questions about the war in Iraq. Bush and Cheney told Levin that they would pull the Pace nomination. Immediately, the recriminations set in, particularly among Pace partisans in the Marine Corps.

"Pace is taking the fall for these assholes," a retired marine general said. "If you know how the war started, if you know anything about [Ahmad] Chalabi or Cheney or anything like that, you're gone. Peter Pace is being sacrificed to the White House failure in Iraq." The neo-conservative press has also weighed in, calling the Bush administration's decision "cowardly".

The Wall Street Journal lit into Gates: "There's a rumor going around that Robert Gates is the secretary of defense," the newspaper's lead editorial noted. "We'd like to request official confirmation, because based on recent evidence the man running the Pentagon is Democratic Senator (and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman) Carl Levin of Michigan."

Gates was nonplussed and quickly announced that Pace's replacement would be the current chief of naval operations, Admiral Michael Mullen - a riposte that was a mini-declaration of war against the pro-war press.

Mullen, a tough-minded and hard-nosed conservative, is known for his scoffing (if private) dismissal of Washington's neo-conservatives, though sometimes he can barely keep it under wraps. During a recent Washington reception, he was asked by a reporter whether he would oppose an attack on Iran: "It's your job to convince the politicians just how stupid that would be," he said, "not mine."

Accompanying Pace out the door will be Admiral Edmund Giambastiani (predictably, "St John the Baptist" to his friends), a former protege of Paul Wolfowitz - one of the last of the senior uniformed neo-conservatives.

The retirement of Pace and Giambastiani completes the "clean sweep" of the senior military leadership that marked the tenure of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. Since the swearing in of Gates as Rumsfeld's successor, nearly every major senior military officer responsible for the war in Iraq has been replaced.

Petraeus has taken over in-country (for the discredited George Casey), Fallon was named to replace the forcibly retired General John Abizaid (the former head of CENTCOM), and Pace and Giambastiani have now been replaced by Mullen and marine General James Cartwright. Lute is in the White House.

Since the retirement of Colin Powell, four generals have served as JCS chairman. All have been weak.

"This has been a purposeful policy," a former senior army commander said. "Bill Clinton quietly advised George Bush that the last thing he wanted was to have a strong chairman, as Colin Powell was able to dictate military policy to Clinton because of his prestige. He really stood him up.

"After Powell retired, Rumsfeld and Bush made certain that they never had a man of Powell's caliber in the chair. That's how we eventually ended up with Pace. He was a good man, no doubt about it, but Mullen is a real shift. He's Gates' choice. He's a real leader. He can say 'no'. and he intends to."

There are other changes. In Iraq, General Rick Lynch has taken control of the 3rd Infantry Division, which has started to move into the insurgency area south of Baghdad. The Americans have been there before, but this time Lynch has privately vowed that things will be different and more low-key. The Americans will take on al-Qaeda and leave the people alone.

"This hearts-and-minds stuff is bullshit," an Iraq commander recently rotated back to the US said. "Every time an American soldier meets an Iraqi there's trouble, friction. Our job is to stay out of their homes and lives, not interfere in them."

In al-Anbar and now in Diyala province, American soldiers and some CIA officers have been quietly arming Sunni insurgents.

"They don't even like us a little bit," a Pentagon official admitted, "but if they'll kill the real radicals, that's fine with us."

The strategy has caused some consternation at the higher reaches of the Pentagon, but it is part and parcel of Gates' view that there is no military solution in Iraq without political accommodation. He knows that the guns given to the Sunnis today could be pointed at the Americans tomorrow. "We're petrified," a Pentagon official admitted. But changes are being made - if slowly.

The lessons of Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath are starting to be felt. Deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, where the future of the US military is decided, mid-level officers are crunching mobilization numbers and facing some stark realizations.

"Some marines are on their third tours in Iraq," one marine colonel said. "It is just untenable. We're facing a Marine Corps that is damned near eviscerated. We can't ask these guys to do much more."

When the Bush administration floated the idea several weeks ago that there might be a surge beyond the "surge", with US troops peaking to 180,000 or more by the middle of 2008, Pentagon planners nearly rebelled. The numbers simply weren't there and the equipment is falling apart.

"What are we going to fight them with, spitwads?" a Pentagon major recently asked.

Then too, war planners on the military's Joint Staff have been diligently passing around Colonel Gregory Fontenot's assessment of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a 500-page tome on the US military's performance in the Iraq war. Its flat tone belies the underlying sense that things did not go as well in "OIF" as the Bush administration would have us believe. In many ways, that failure led to the current crisis, leading many in the Pentagon to conclude that no amount of military might can ever reverse a disastrous political decision.

"Individual Americans fought well and with courage," said US Military Academy graduate Ed Deagle, a military analyst who has studied Fontenot's work, "but in key situations, the military failed to anticipate, failed to plan, failed to estimate, failed to perform."

You have to read between the lines of the Fontenot report to understand what US military commanders now know: "At any other time, and against any other army, we might have been defeated. So we're starting to learn those lessons and apply them." Robert Gates is leading that effort.

This is not to say that the United States is about to win the Iraq war. It's not. And it won't. But a shift, small and perceptible - away from escalation and confrontation - has begun. There are people, powerful people, in Washington who are still committed to confronting Islam, whose default position is the deployment of another division, another aircraft carrier. But there are others now, also powerful, who oppose them.

As General Joseph Hoar has put it, "Perhaps we are finally, finally learning that this idea that Americans can walk down the street and be safe in Iraq is ludicrous. And perhaps we are also learning that we cannot drag a Muslim man out of his house in front of his family, in front of his wife and children, and humiliate him and expect to be considered a great power and a great people. Maybe, just maybe, we are starting to learn that too. And it's about time."


Mark Perry is co-director of Conflicts Forum and the author of the recently released "Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace" (Penguin Press, 2007).

(Copyright 2007 Mark Perry.)