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Why Bush Won’t Send More Troops

Virtually every independent analyst who does not want to withdraw from Iraq thinks we need more troops in order to win. Republicans at the Weekly Standard have said this. Democrats such as Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware have said this. The troops themselves say this, incessantly. A dearth of boots on the ground results in such predicaments as an inability to patrol the border where enemy fighters are swarming in, or the need to repeatedly fight for the same towns, which we lack the forces to occupy continuously.

But President Bush doesn’t think we need more soldiers. Comically, he also insists that in not sending more troops he is merely obeying the wishes of the “commanders on the ground.”

It may be literally true that the generals are telling Bush they don’t need more troops. But if it is, that’s only because they know they have no choice but to say so.

At the beginning of the war, Gen. Eric Shinseki privately challenged Defense Department troop estimates for occupying Iraq as too low. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was enraged and leaked the name of Shinseki’s successor to the media a year before the end of his term as Army chief of staff, thereby making him a lame duck. Last May, the Baltimore Sun reported that, based on a flimsy pretext, Maj. Gen. John Riggs was stripped of one of his three stars just before retirement for more publicly insisting that the military needed more troops.

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Shinseki and Riggs are exceptional only in that they spoke out publicly. Their view seems to be the consensus. A recent report in the New York Times was typical: “Commanders concerned for their careers have not thought it prudent to go further, and to say publicly what many say privately: that with recent American troop levels -- 139,000 now -- they have been forced to play an infernal board game, constantly shuttling combat units from one war zone to another, leaving insurgent buildups unmet in some places while they deal with more urgent problems elsewhere.”

In 1941, Josef Stalin was certain that Adolf Hitler had no intention of invading the Soviet Union. He branded any suggestion to the contrary, however grounded in fact, as capitalist propaganda. I would guess that when he asked his generals if they needed more troops on the German front, their advice was less than candid.

Stalin, of course, was a murderous, insane dictator, and Bush is not. Given that the president obviously wants to win the war, what is his motivation for shortchanging the number of troops? It appears to be a combination of partisanship and genuine ideological fanaticism.

In the prelude to the Iraq war, both Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney had reasons to low-ball the needed troops. Rumsfeld was fascinated with transforming the military into a smaller, high-tech force. Cheney believed Iraqis would “greet us as liberators” and therefore needed little armed supervision. Given the cult of personality around Bush, whom conservatives lionized as a fearless Churchillian slayer of terrorists, any deviation was seen as ideological heresy. After Shinseki ventured his opinions on troops, conservative pundit Jed Babbin blasted him as a weak-kneed, politically minded Clintonite who failed to understand that “the very premise of an extended ‘occupation’ is antithetical to President Bush’s policy of liberation.” Babbin intended that line as an indictment of Shinseki. In retrospect it’s an indictment of Bush.

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Bush’s continued stubbornness probably derives from a refusal to admit a mistake. If we need more troops now, that implies we needed more troops all along, which means that if the war ends badly, Bush must have made a colossal mistake. It’s characteristic of this administration that it would rather reduce the chances of being blamed for a national catastrophe than reduce the chances of the catastrophe happening in the first place.


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