January 9, 2007 [LINK / comment]

Changing of the Pentagon brass

As President Bush prepares to deliver another major policy address on Iraq, it is worth taking a look at the reshuffling of the military command structure in the past week, and what may have led up to it. In a press conference last June, he replied to a question on the possible withdrawal of two U.S. brigades by saying, "But in terms of our troop presence there, that decision will be made by General [George] Casey, as well as the sovereign government of Iraq, based upon conditions on the ground."

Last week, however, we learned that Gen. Casey is stepping down as commander of the multinational forces in Iraq. Is that because he resisted the "surge" in troop strength? He will be replaced by Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has experience leading the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. Meanwhile, Navy Adm. William J. Fallon will replace Gen. John P. Abizaid as head the U.S. Central Command, which overseas all U.S. forces in the Middle East. Abizaid had likewise expressed caution about the utility of additional U.S. troops in Iraq. The Washington Post reports that "deep divisions remain between the White House on one side and the Joint Chiefs and congressional leaders on the other about whether a surge of up to 20,000 troops will turn around the deteriorating situation..."

I share the skepticism that a marginal (15%) increase in troop strength will have much impact on the "battlefield," but it all depends upon how the extra troops are used. If Bush really is serious about inflicting a decisive defeat against the Sunni militias and their al Qaeda allies, he will have to lift restrictions on the use of firepower. He will also have to confront Iran, one way or another. I heard on C-SPAN that the U.S. Navy is sending additional ships into the Persian Gulf, including minesweepers. Are we preparing to impose a naval blockade on Iran, or perhaps even seize the Kharg Island oil terminal? That would certainly put pressure on President Ahmadinejad to back down on his nuclear bluster, but it might also unleash a regional war with potentially catastrophic consequences.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Sen. Ted Kennedy is threatening to submit a resolution that would bar funding for any increased troop levels. Is he nostalgic for the early 1970s? Even though the planned troop surge seems to be very unpopular, hardly anyone favors the drastic measure of a funding cutoff. This situation illustrates, once again, the bizarre circumstances in which the executive and legsilative functions related to war have been reversed in modern U.S. history. Whereas the legislative branch is constitutionally empowered with the discretion to go to war or not, in recent decades Congress has passed the buck to the president. On the other hand, tactical decisions about deployments and such are coming under increasing scrutiny by the Congress, even though the president is the commander in chief. I believe this messy, confusing situation would not have come to pass if Congress had passed a declaration of war against Iraq in 2003, rather than leaving it up to President Bush.

U.S. bombs terrorists in Somalia

American AC-130 gunships have launched air strikes against a secret al Qaeda base in Somalia, thanks to intelligence tips from Ethiopia. It is impossible to say, however, whether they killed the leader who was complicit in the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam in 1998. Special Forces units are also involved. See BBC. While this is certainly good news in the fight against terrorism, this raises the awkward question of whether the United States encouraged Ethiopia to take control of Somalia last month. There would be ample justification for such a move, but it would still put at risk our diplomatic relations with other countries in that region. Proceeding in a unilateral fashion undercuts any multilateral effort to save the people of Darfur against the marauding militias in Sudan.