Conservative pundit and TV commentator Bill Kristol told conservative bloggers on Tuesday that President Bush and the Pentagon have to do a better job of selling the war, especially now that generals in Iraq believe that they are well on the way to utterly destroying the insurgency.
Kristol, who also edits the Weekly Standard, just returned from a trip to Iraq where he was briefed on the surge by senior U.S. military commanders.
“I was most struck by how much the generals focused on Iran,” Kristol told the bloggers at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “They were all convinced that we were going to win against al-Qaida.”
Instead, in the briefings the generals “emphasized Iranian training of Shia militias” and Iran’s extensive military and intelligence presence inside Iraq.
Kristol said he was struck by the change in conditions in Iraq in recent months, and noted that they were able to walk the streets of Ramadi “without body armor.” The change has come from the “pivot” to the counter-insurgency strategy of Gen. David Petraeus, which began early this year and accelerated in the spring.
Kristol faulted the White House and the Pentagon for behaving as if America was not at war.
Good war presidents also “second-guessed their generals,” which Bush appears not to have done until recently, he said. War presidents have also addressed the American public in speeches and briefings using maps to explain strategy, so Americans could understand the stakes and the progress of the conflict. So far, neither President Bush nor his defense secretaries have done that, in stark contrast to the way the first Gulf war was explained daily to the public by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in 1991.
“They aren’t thinking of this as a war,” he said. Even Congress would respond differently, Kristol suggested, if the White House would spend more effort to give them detailed briefings on strategy and tactics in Iraq.
Kristol also faulted the president for not paying more attention to the staffing of his administration, “apparently relying on the Harvard Business School model of delegating responsibility.” He noted that Ronald Reagan delegated responsibility, but also got involved in the details of “matters of import” in various Cabinet departments.
“Bush could have paid more attention to staffing in his administration, from the Cabinet level all the way down. It makes a difference to have conservatives all the way down” in mid-level and even low-level political jobs, he said.
Kristol served as chief of staff and counselor to Education Secretary William Bennett from 1985-1988.
While he refrained from naming names, Kristol singled out the State Department, which was “running whole areas of foreign policy with little supervision” from the White House, and the Pentagon, which he said “is not helping Petraeus win the war as best it could, especially with Iran.”
The briefings Kristol received in Iraq convinced him that the U.S. military is “decimating al-Qaida,” and yet that message is not being put out by the Pentagon in Washington.
The briefings also convinced him that the military believes it does not yet have the authorities it wants to go after Iran more vigorously.
He highlighted two areas where the U.S. military could be more effective: going after Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps staging areas inside Iran, and launching an effective disinformation campaign using the Internet and other tools against the Iranian leadership.
As an example of the type of thing the U.S. military should be doing he cited efforts by Hitler’s staff during World War II that succeeded in convincing Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that many of his top generals were traitors. Stalin had the generals arrested and executed, he said.
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