John Kerry tried to raise the Fallujah issue Thursday night, but didn’t really get his thought across. That’s too bad, since it would have been — still would be — the perfect riposte to Bush’s “How can you lead the troops after what you’ve said?” mantra.
(Memo to GWB: The guys in the trenches already know that the people in Washington make mistakes; what bothers them, and sheds their blood pointlessly, is when people in Washington make tactical decisions for political reasons.)
The story is pretty damning: after the mutilation of the bodies of the American contract fighters, the Marine commanders on the ground wanted to wait and let tempers cool before moving in to the city, but they were overruled. Having started to take the city, they wanted to finish the job, but they were overruled again. (That’s according to Lt. Gen. Conway, the senior Marine in Iraq.)
That kind of flip-flopping vacillation is infinitely more damaging than any rhetorical “mixed message.” If raised correctly, that mistake might prove just as damaging to the President’s electoral prospects as it was to the future of our venture in Iraq.
Imagine, if you will, one of the questioners at Friday’s Town Hall meeting asking the following question:
Mr. President, someone ordered the Marines to take Fallujah when the Marine commander on the ground wanted to hold back and let the city settle, and then, after the fighting had started, ordered them to retreat. Who gave those orders, and why?
This morning’s New York Times makes it clear that the Bushites are fully aware of the dynamite they’re sitting on, and fully as unprincipled as you’d expect them to be in dealing with it. They’re blaming the troops.
David Brooks, the Times’s new second-string GOP spinmeister, reports that “The defense secretary had been one of those most unhappy that the Marines had not taken control of Falluja in April when they had the chance.”
“That the Marines had not taken control of Falluja”? That’s an interesting way to phrase it. “That some REMF ordered the Marines to quit wit the job half one” would be more like it.
Of course, Brooks also reports that we’ll never know which particlar REMF to blame for this particular SNAFU, because no one is in charge:
I asked Rumsfeld yesterday how decisions like the one to take back Samarra are made. Are Iraqis like Allawi really deciding when and where Americans fight?
He described a decision-making process that has no formal structure, but involves constant consultations, involving State Department types like Ambassador John Negroponte, military types like Gen. George Casey and Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, and a raft of Iraqi officials. It also involves the big Washington honchos like Powell, Rumsfeld and Bush.
Actually, there’s a technical military term for “a decision-making process that has no formal structure, but involves constant consultations.” It’s called “an unclear chain of command.” It gets people killed.
Napoleon said it before, and he’ll say it again: the only unalterable rule of warfare is that if you set out to take Vienna, you take Vienna. The Fallujah head-fake-and-pullback was a classic mistake. We’re entitled to know who made it, and what the consequences have been for that person’s career.
The consequences for the country, and for Iraq, we know already.