Asking a Bush Administration official to reflect on mistakes made regarding the Iraq war tends to provoke a strained response about "challenges," or vague regrets about tactical errors and the failure to anticipate sectarian conflict.
For his confirmation hearing yesterday, Adm. Mike Mullen, soon-to-be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, became refreshingly specific in detailing what he views as the most critical errors of the Iraq war.
His list supports the common assessment of much of the Iraq expert community, but is most remarkable in that he has given it just as he is poised to become the President's top adviser on military affairs. Mullen's list of mistakes essentially piles all the blame for the war's errors on Bush's war cabinet and stable of planners.
The Admiral detailed his views on war mistakes in his prepared response to an advance policy question before Tuesday's hearing, and so obviously put some thought into what he was doing. Mullen wrote:
I believe the most significant mistakes to date are:
1. Did not fully integrate all elements of U.S. national power in Iraq.
2. Focused most attention on the Iraqi national power structures with limited engagement of the tribal and local power structures.
3. Did not establish an early and significant dialogue with neighboring countries, adding to the complex security environment a problematic border situation.
4. Disbanded the entire Iraqi Army, a potentially valuable asset for security, reconstruction, and provision of services to the Iraqi people, providing a recruiting pool for extremist groups.
5. Pursued a de-Baathification process that proved more divisive than helpful, created a lingering vacuum in governmental capability that still lingers, and exacerbated sectarian tensions.
6. Attempted to transition to stability operations with an insufficient force.
7. Unsuccessful in communicating and convincing Iraqis and regional audience of our intended goals.
US News & World Report's Terry Atlas picks up on the implication of what the Admiral wrote, explaining, "Mullen, of course, didn't name names, but he hardly needed to since these mistakes were based on key decisions and orders so closely tied to former Iraq occupation chief Paul Bremer (who disbanded the Army and ordered de-Baathification), former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who held down troop levels and froze out the State Department in post-war planning), Vice President Cheney, and President Bush himself."
The President has a standard talking point about how he listens to his commanders on the ground, but the decision-making on the war has made it clear that has not always been the case, and all of the mistakes Mullen points to could be attributed to situations where political considerations won out over military rationale.
It doesn't seem likely the President would welcome his incoming Chairman's dirty laundry list of errors, but Mullen setting off his new working relationship in such a way provocatively implies he is sending a strong unspoken message to Bush: You should listen to the military.