Mr. Gates' Options

With Iraq sliding into civil war, TIME looks at the tough choices facing the Pentagon's new man--and why finding a way out may require him to send more troops in.

Bob Gates is all things to all people in Washington these days. To the hard-liners who want to preserve what's left of George W. Bush's policy in Iraq, Gates is an ardent patriot, a determined anticommunist who thought the Soviet Union was an evil empire, who backed aggressive measures against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the early 1980s--and who during the first Bush Administration sided most often with a Defense Secretary named Dick Cheney.

To the new realists, who want to tear up this Administration's failing bid to bring democracy to Iraq and replace it with a strategy for an exit, Gates is a secret ally, an agent of change who rocked the CIA he grew up in by shifting it out of covert action and into open-source programs at the cold war's end--and then became a reformist president of Texas A&M, tossing a beloved football coach and reducing admissions.

If Gates had been talking to reporters instead of preparing for his confirmation hearings next week to become Secretary of Defense, he would have found all this amusing, if not absurd. The man with the Kansas-flat voice and a weakness for hiking, hayrides and roller coasters would have got a kick out of saying that both sides are right--and that absolutely none of it matters.

That would be the analyst in Gates talking, the man who developed a reputation during more than 25 years at the CIA and White House for making cold calculations not only about the intelligence he was poring over but also about how to choose his allies as he zipped to the top ranks of the CIA in record time. Now in a late-inning gig that no one expected--least of all Gates--he is about to take over the Pentagon and the day-to-day responsibilities for a war gone bad. He brings to the task one advantage: he was a key member of the special commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Representative Lee Hamilton that has been cooking up options for what to do next. Gates was involved in the military end of the commission's work--which means, says a colleague, that "not only will he understand the proposals, he will know the origins of them."

The problem facing Gates is that the options being considered may already be obsolete. The conditions on the ground in Iraq are deteriorating so rapidly that even the Baker commission is struggling to keep up, several well-placed national-security sources told TIME. October was the deadliest month yet for Iraqi civilians since the start of the war, and November seems destined to surpass it. A Thanksgiving Day onslaught by Sunni militants killed more than 200 Iraqis, wounded hundreds and spurred a round of Shi'ite reprisals. As the Iraqi capital erupted in another frenzy of sectarian violence, the U.S. lost eight service members in a span of six days, bringing its death toll to nearly 2,900.

Although Baker has said the commission will develop its proposals by consensus, there were signs last week that the group had hit some speed bumps. Sources say renewed pressure from both political flanks in the U.S. is making it difficult for the commission's center to hold. Emboldened by their takeover of Congress, Democrats have sent unmistakable signals that they favor some movement, if not reduction, of forces at the earliest possible date. Meanwhile, present and former government officials say Vice President Cheney intends to oppose any proposal that would make regional talks with Iran or Syria a key part of the U.S.'s Iraq strategy, even though Baker favors such an opening. As the commission broke for Thanksgiving, the partisan pincer movement was beginning to provoke some talk of stalemate. "The impulse toward consensus has diminished somewhat," a close panel observer told TIME. "Everything that is happening--the election, the postelection, the situation in Baghdad--makes it more difficult."

Baker and Hamilton held dozens of listening sessions this summer and fall, but members for the most part were careful not to stake out their positions. With a tentative mid-December deadline just a couple of weeks away, the decision-making process is just beginning. Commission members, said a close adviser, "are just now trying to make sense of what they heard, what the choices are and who stands where on those choices." While a Baker-led deal is still a good bet, several sources said, the odds that the commission will be unable to provide a clear user's guide for cleaning up Iraq are narrowing. And that means Gates may need to sort out the options on his own.

So, what are they? No matter who is running the tabletop exercise, the choices are almost always the same. And practically the only thing everyone agrees on is that none are great. Here are the big four:

Get out fast. This option is the most tantalizing--and least likely--of all those under consideration by the armies of experts trying pick the Iraqi lock. While some Democrats, like Senator Barack Obama, have called on Bush to begin troop withdrawals within four to six months, there is almost no support for the idea within the Administration. The biggest problem is that the Iraqi army isn't ready to take over. U.S. Central Command boss John Abizaid told Congress two weeks ago that none of the Iraqi combat units are ready to operate independently of U.S. forces, and he says it will be a year to 18 months before the army is fully operational.

Without an army to keep the peace, a quick withdrawal would doom the country to chaos at best, and several years of violent civil war at worst. The balance of power inside Iraq is such that a withdrawal in the short term would strengthen the Administration's other nemesis in the region, Iran, at a time when Tehran is ignoring the world's objections and is suspected of steaming ahead with plans to build a nuclear bomb. "If the U.S. withdraws, Iran takes over," says Medhi al-Hafedh, one of Iraq's most respected politicians. "The Americans have to ask themselves if such an outcome is acceptable to them." So far, at least, the answer is no.

Surge forward. Among some active and retired generals, as well as some officers inside Baghdad's Green Zone, there is support for the idea of a temporary surge--boosting U.S. troops levels by 20,000 to 30,000 to stabilize the country. Under this plan, the extra U.S. forces would be deployed to try to quell the sectarian slaughter in Baghdad as well as subdue the jihadists of Anbar province. It is a step that, almost everyone agrees, should have been taken years ago.

The question is whether it is simply too late. There is, for starters, the zero-sum problem. Yes, the more troops we send, the more stability we can buy. But when the troops are withdrawn, instability will return. The second problem is logistics. The U.S. does not have the kinds of reserves that would allow it to beef up its Iraq forces for very long without a further decline in readiness, morale and troop retention. The Army's brigade combat teams are already ragged from fighting two wars; speeding their rotations back into battle would put some units at unacceptable risk. The new Marine Corps commandant said in effect last week he could not maintain the current "operating tempo" without increasing the corps' size--something the Bush Administration has opposed.

Even if the troops were available, there are formidable political barriers to sending them. The Democrats have made it clear that the idea is a nonstarter. While that sentiment could change if Baker and Hamilton support a surge, Abizaid has said he opposes more troops because it would discourage Iraqis from taking responsibility for their own security. "Iraqis will decide Iraq's future," says Major General William Caldwell, the top Army spokesman in Iraq. "Additional coalition troops may produce short-term effects, and we may execute that option, but they are not a long-term solution."

Train and retreat. Quietly gaining favor in military circles, this approach is designed to balance the need for more U.S. forces with a desire to decrease the rate of U.S. casualties. Here's how it would work in theory. First, Washington would boost the number of troops in Iraq and, more specifically, increase the number of G.I.s on military-training teams. The goal is to get the Iraqi army--which is beset by a weak officer corps, weapon shortages and an almost total inability to move around--ready to take over the country as the Americans start to pull out.

If all goes as planned, the U.S. could reduce troops levels as much as 60% within a year. Even if that were possible, "train and retreat" still envisions leaving some 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq for years. These forces would be dispersed into four or five large garrisons or cantonment zones, far from urban areas. While U.S. troops patrolled the perimeter and guarded against mortar attacks from outside, Iraqi recruits would be trained inside. "You train 'em up and push 'em out," says a well-placed Baker-commission source. "That's what's happening."

No one knows whether, with all the military trainers in the world, the Iraqis will ever be ready to take on the militias. But the plan has political advantages. It relieves some of the pressure for withdrawals but boosts the overall footprint temporarily. Abizaid told lawmakers he is considering the "repositioning of forces in different ways," something Bush has hinted at as well. "It's a face-saver," says a foreign policy expert who has been involved in the Baker commission from the start. "It says, Let's go in hard, and if we can't solve Baghdad, we're going in the other direction."

Dig in. Although the military and political establishments are desperate for a new approach in Iraq, it's also possible that little will change. If the Baker commission falters or political stalemate ensues after the group reports, the U.S. may well keep troop levels the same, continue training Iraqis--and hope for the best. Sticking it out is the preferred course not just of the Commander in Chief but also of many of the top generals who report to him. To them, Iraq remains a fight that can be won--as long as political support for the enterprise doesn't bottom out completely. "I believe in the mission," says Lieut. General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the coalition forces, who ends his second tour of duty in Iraq this month. "It is what it is, and it's not going to lend itself to a timetable."

It is difficult to say where Gates will come down among these options. His years working for Bush's father can be read two ways. Gates often took the hardest line in internal debates about how to manage the end of the cold war, pushing for radical change when the President; his top adviser, Brent Scowcroft; and Baker, then Secretary of State, favored more moderate steps. As the U.S.S.R. teetered on the brink of collapse, Gates (along with Cheney) usually argued for the fastest route to bring it about. They almost always lost out to Baker and Scowcroft, who argued that the Gates-Cheney approach was bad policy and worse politics. Gates can be bold, but bold isn't always wise.

That instinct helps explain why Gates thinks of himself as a transformational leader. After the CIA missed the fall of the Soviet Union, Gates launched reforms of 14 parts of the agency's operations, from analysis to satellite imagery to language study. Although not all these reforms bore fruit, CIA spending on Soviet collection and analysis shrank from 60% of its budget to less than 15%. Gates tried the same thing at Texas A&M, a school with an almost stubborn resistance to change--ending admissions preference for children of alumni, hiring hundreds of new faculty members and firing veteran football coach R.C. Slocum.

Still, compared with what waits for Gates, those challenges were small. He will probably follow Baker's lead in emphasizing regional diplomacy and will support any commission proposal to open direct talks with Damascus and Tehran. But that will immediately put him at odds with Cheney. One who has worked at Gates' side says the old analyst in Gates will overrule the old ideologue. "He knows that you cannot solve this problem within the four corners of the country," said this former hand. "It's going to take a regional approach. I don't think he's going to look for the most graceful way to exit. That won't be his approach."

The last time Gates faced a confirmation hearing, he took his son Brad to the Blue Ridge Mountains for a weekend of camping. He said later that was "better preparation for the battle that was about to begin" than anything else he could have done. But the battles he faces now are more likely to be with his new bosses at the White House--and perhaps with his own instincts. The Bush team has only a limited amount of time to decide what to do about Iraq. Sooner rather than later, Bob Gates will cease being all things to all people.

With reporting by With reporting by Mike Allen, SALLY B. DONNELLY, Elaine Shannon, MARK THOMPSON, Douglas Waller / Washington, Aparisim Ghosh, Mark Kukis / Baghdad

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1 comment:

RoseCovered Glasses said...

You make many good points in your article. I would like to supplement them with some information:

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armements”

The Pentagon is a giant,incredibly complex establishment,budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Adminisitrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the Sec. Def. to be - Mr. Gates- understand such complexity, particulary if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

Answer- he can’t. Therefor he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

This situation is unfortunate but it is ablsolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen unitil it hits a brick wall at high speed.

We will then have to run a Volkswagon instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.