January 1, 2006  

An open letter to President Bush

D ear Mr. President:

I served in the Pentagon as a political appointee in your first administration and support your policy in Iraq. I believe, as you do, that victory there is important for the Middle East and essential for success in the war on terrorism. You have often said that failure in Iraq is not an option, but, sadly, it has become a distinct possibility. Ironically, while the political and military situation in Iraq is improving, your Iraq policy is rapidly losing popular support at home, the center of gravity of our effort. This is a dangerous situation, one that parallels what took place in Vietnam.

There have always been skeptics about your policy in Iraq, but today, many former supporters in the general public and the Congress have joined their ranks. When combat veterans like Rep. John Murtha — a real friend of the armed forces — call in frustration for a “cut and walk away” policy in Iraq, it is time for a more vigorous approach to both the strategy and how your administration presents that strategy to the nation. Your Annapolis speech and the simultaneous publication of the Victory in Iraq strategy was a good start, but we will have to work harder on strategic communications if we want to win.

There are three sets of problems that have to be dealt with: First, the public presentation of coalition strategy in Iraq has been spotty and inadequate. Your exhortations to “stay the course” and “we will stand down our forces as the Iraqis stand up theirs” are parts of a correct policy, but as a core message, they have become stale. Watching footage of suicide bombings and hearing the voice-over that we must stay the course leaves people unsettled if they don’t understand what the course is or they aren’t sure that we are making progress toward the ultimate destination.

At the same time, interesting developments on the ground often go unheralded. For example, the great work being done by our soldiers and Marines in destroying insurgent strongholds along the Syrian border is part of a larger strategy to seal the border and help to secure territory from the insurgents, our ultimate goal. Why aren’t we bragging about that and putting those successful tactical engagements into their larger strategic context? The administration’s spokesmen do not have the breadth of knowledge to talk about Iraq issues in detail. They can’t or won’t articulate military developments and know little of the detail on background issues, such as what is going on in the 14 relatively secure provinces of Iraq. Except for scandals, the press generally ignores Iraq reconstruction, but so does the administration. Your speech on Dec. 7 at the Council on Foreign Relations was a pleasant exception to that rule, as is the great work being done in-country by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a tireless communicator and a career strategic thinker.

Second, the detainee issue has hurt our credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of many people at home and abroad. You very clearly told our soldiers that torture would not be tolerated and that prisoners of all stripes everywhere were to be treated humanely. You also set up a decent operation at Guantanamo Bay with sensible rules for tough interrogations, far short of torture. This issue, however, has blown up in your face. With the Abu Ghraib scandal, a few war crimes, allegations about the CIA’s secret prisons and reports from survivors of “rendition” to “friendly” (but authoritarian) countries, many at home and abroad see U.S. policy as synonymous with torture and antithetical to the ideals of our nation. Much of the success associated with the administration’s detainee policy remains hidden by faulty execution, poor strategic communications and bad publicity.

Finally, the media does not cover the whole war; it only adequately records acts of terrorism in Iraqi cities. Pursuing ever-higher ratings and the philosophy of “if it bleeds, it leads,” reporters regurgitate a steady stream of mostly bad news that feeds popular frustration, erodes patience and works against what must be a long-term policy for a protracted conflict. There is very little in our normal briefings in Washington or Baghdad to distract them from their typical coverage of urban carnage and mayhem.

While it is hard to compete with explosions and beheadings, the Iraqis and the coalition must do a better job of accentuating positive developments. Reporters are hungry for stories with strategic vision or highly original material. The only consistent bright spot in all of the administration’s efforts are the Defense Department briefings that usually feature intrepid colonels reporting from their front-line units. To hear them, however, you have to be a C-SPAN or a DefenseLink (www.dod.mil) junkie.

The consequences of these three problems are familiar. The administration is rapidly losing popular and congressional support for the war. Our coalition partners are, in the main, wobbly. Many Americans wonder about other unresolved issues, such as pre-war intelligence and the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) quandary, both of which are magnified by the administration’s general reluctance to admit mistakes.

Americans are also concerned about the vitality of our hard-pressed armed forces, the recovery of our 15,000 wounded and the future of the families of the nearly 2,150 soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who have died in Iraq. Cynical politicians have already begun to magnify all of these negative effects as we begin the run-up to the 2006 elections.

In the middle of World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall worried about losing the support of the people. He concluded that democracies cannot fight a seven-year war and that the United States must be careful to achieve victory as soon as possible. Americans generally don’t deal well with protracted conflicts, and insurgencies are, by definition, protracted. To combat this traditional weakness, we may not need a wholly new strategy, but we will need a vigorous, refocused and repackaged effort to “sell” your strategic plan — not just what we are attempting to do, but how we will accelerate our efforts to do it, with periodic progress reports along the way.

Your presentations at Annapolis and before the Council on Foreign Relations were powerful steps in the right direction. You, the Cabinet and selected sub-Cabinet officials must now take a retooled Iraq policy to all of the American people, not just safe audiences on military bases. Your personal objective should be one Iraq speech every two weeks. Your central message should be that this war of choice has become a war of necessity. Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said Iraq is al-Qaida’s central front, and they are counting on us to ultimately cut and run. Our national failures in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia are their inspiration, but your strategy in Iraq must be their downfall.

The issue is not the past planning efforts, where the administration made some significant mistakes, but the future; not about WMD in Iraq, but about putting Iraq on its feet and winning a key campaign in the war on terrorism. Failure in Iraq would be a significant setback to the war on terrorism and a development that would aid al-Qaida and the dangerous autocracies in Iran and Syria.

We have done a good job of fighting the insurgents and forming a new Iraqi Army and police force. The coalition must now emphasize the advanced levels of organization, training, and equipment that will turn these fledgling outfits into a real force. The state of equipment in the Iraqi Army is still pathetic. Our goal should be within two years to have Iraqi units with equipment comparable to corresponding American units. As American units stand down, they should give their serviceable vehicles and heavy weapons to Iraqi forces.

Advisory efforts should also be beefed up. U.S. units should be habitually associated with Iraqi units until those units can stand on their own. Our efforts in Iraq should end with the beginning of dedicated security assistance and military education efforts like the ones we have with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf countries. By the end of this decade, a decent Iraqi government should have the best Army in the Middle East, capable of defending its borders, maintaining order and deterring Iranian or Syrian adventurism.

The focal point of our operational effort should be the security of the Iraqi people. Population security and not the number of Iraq battalions should become our central management metric. Every month, a coalition general officer with operational responsibilities, a senior diplomat and an Iraqi official should brief the status of population security in Iraq by using simple “stop light” charts: green for secure, yellow for partly secure and red for contested. Each category should be tied empirically to incident and casualty statistics. Ideally, over time, the yellow and red areas should disappear, but we should admit up front that as insurgents move around, some districts or even provinces may slide backwards from month-to-month. This briefing will show progress or identify areas where corrective measures must be taken. The same three officials should do a monthly reconstruction update. In time, better security will aid reconstruction efforts, which in turn will decrease the need for extraordinary efforts in the field of security.

To combat the detainee/prisoner-of-war problem, you need top cover and international help. Rather than resisting congressional guidance, your team should work closely with Congress to fashion a new law that tells our military police and intelligence personnel what can and cannot be done to balance tough interrogations with humane treatment. You need to do your best to continue to keep detainee issues out of the courts. There is no reason why illegal combatants should have rights that legal combatants are not afforded. Your administration should continue to repatriate detainees and to hold fair status reviews and tribunal proceedings. Helping Iraq and Afghanistan develop and run fair penal institutions will also be a key part of the rule-of-law programs in both countries, as well as a way to take pressure off us to do their work.

Two transparency measures might also help us. The CIA prison system could be consolidated with the open military system or the agency’s facilities should be open — as the military system is — to the presence of monitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The presence of the ICRC is the international standard for oversight, and there is no reason — if we are telling the truth about CIA detainee treatment — why we cannot meet it. The practice of rendition should also be forbidden, except in the rare circumstances where we can guarantee humane treatment. In the eyes of many Americans and foreign observers, to hide detainees is to admit to torture. If we lose our image as a decent, law-abiding nation, the damage to our cause will outweigh the value of the additional intelligence we receive.

To entice cooperation and demonstrate our humanity, cooperative detainees at Guantanamo should also be given access to classes, sports and other activities. Rewards for good behavior, including parole, should be part of our program at Guantanamo. The detainee facility should never become “Club Gitmo,” but detainees should have incentives for good behavior, as well as sanctions for bad behavior. The administration should also begin to let more international jurists and journalists visit Guantanamo. The few observers who have gone there are almost always impressed by the careful treatment of detainees.

The administration will get little help from the press, but two minor improvements can be made. First, we can encourage more reporters to embed with military units. I work everyday with colonels just back from Iraq or Afghanistan. They are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the fight and hopeful for the future. In part, this is because they are seeing the progress to which many reporters are not privy.

Second, your administration needs expert spokespersons on Iraq. As busy as they are, you should charge selected sub-Cabinet officials to report to the press frequently and in depth on the war. R. Nicholas Burns and John Hillen at the State Department, Eric Edelman and Peter Rodman at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Lt. Gens. Gene Renuart or Skip Sharp from the Joint Staff should be periodically briefing the press to add their stature and expertise to the communications effort. Most of your executive talent is in policy development; it is time to put more of it into strategic communications, which must be coordinated from the White House.

In all, Mr. President, to salvage an important operation that has already entailed great sacrifice on the part of our men and women in uniform, you will need both a vigorous strategy and a planned, dedicated effort to communicate it to the Congress and the American people. If you do that, we can avoid the repetition of what happened in Vietnam and secure a key objective in the war on terrorism — a free and stable Iraq. If our strategic communications on Iraq don’t improve, the strategy for victory will fail and disastrous consequences will follow.