Lieberman, Bush and the Generals: The PR campaign around the troop "surge" in Iraq

President Bush is expected to make an announcement soon about his plan for Iraq, but a PR war has been raging for several weeks to prepare the ground for a "surge" in troop levels for Baghdad and Iraq. Bush and surrogates Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) have been busy pushing back hard against senior generals who oppose the surge and are concerned about an escalation in the war without a clear short-term objective.

It all started when General John P. Abizaid testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on November 15 that he opposed the "surge" strategy: "I do not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem. I believe that the troop levels need to stay where they are." The Washington Post reported on December 21 that "other generals have been equally resistant in public and private comments... The uniformed leadership has opposed sending additional forces without a clear mission, seeing the idea as ill-formed and driven by a desire in the White House to do something different even without a defined purpose."

A month later, Abizaid announced his retirement. As the longest-serving commander of the U.S. Central Command (who extended his service at the request of then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld), his retirement had been expected, so it is unclear if he was forced out as a result of his statement of opposition to the surge. Since his testimony, however, Abizaid has refused to answer questions about his position on troop levels and said his retirement "has nothing to do with dissatisfaction."

The Decider Decides

President Bush, for his part, has recanted his longstanding position of relying on the opinions of his generals to determine troop levels. As recently as July 2006, he said, "General Casey will make the decisions as to how many troops we have there... He'll decide how best to achieve victory and the troop levels necessary to do so. I've spent a lot of time talking to him about troop levels. And I've told him this: I said, 'You decide, General.'"

Since Abizaid and Casey let their opposition to the surge be known, however, Bush reversed his position. He refused to answer a reporter's question about whether he will rely on his generals in late December and a "senior aide" later told the Washington Post: "He's never left the decision to commanders... He is the commander in chief. But he has said he will listen to those commanders when making these decisions. That hasn't changed."

On December 21, newly installed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates held a photo-op breakfast with U.S. soldiers in Iraq in which every one told him they supported increased troop levels in Iraq. This was in stark contrast to a December poll of active duty military soldiers (2/3 of which had served in Iraq or Afghanistan) by Military Times that found 39 percent think there should be the same, fewer or no troops at all in Iraq, while 38 percent think there should be more. (Hat tip: Steve Benen.)

Finally, on December 24, a "defense official" told the Los Angeles Times that the top U.S. military commanders in Iraq, including Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., had now decided to recommend a troop surge.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who recently hired former Republican and Christian Coalition spokesman Marshall Wittmann as his communications director, attempted to seal the deal in a December 29 Washington Post op-ed that aimed to make the opinions of the generals irrelevant:

"In Baghdad and Ramadi, I found that it was the American colonels, even more than the generals, who were asking for more troops. In both places these soldiers showed a strong commitment to the cause of stopping the extremists. One colonel followed me out of the meeting with our military leaders in Ramadi and said with great emotion, 'Sir, I regret that I did not have the chance to speak in the meeting, but I want you to know on behalf of the soldiers in my unit and myself that we believe in why we are fighting here and we want to finish this fight. We know we can win it.' "

Whether Lieberman's recent hire has finally cemented his place within the Bush administration's Iraq PR shop is up to debate, but the message from this series of events is clear: If you're a general, it's best not to disagree with the decider.

For more information and continued updates on the politics of the troop surge, see the SourceWatch page on the "McCain doctrine" and related coverage on Congresspedia.