Monday, November 20, 2006

McCaffrey on Iraq and Iran

Retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, now an analyst for MSNBC, talked today to Chris Matthews on Hardball about the situation in Iraq and the possibility of a military strike against Iran. General McCaffrey pointed to similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, including popular opposition to the wars and incompetence in their prosecution, but also differences, chiefly in the stakes for the American people: Vietnam didn't have oil. He expressed adamant opposition to sending more troops to Iraq, and called an attack on Iran "preposterous."

Here is my rush transcript of the segment, with only a few bits of well, you know, um, verbal polishing:

Chris Matthews: Is Iraq looking more like Vietnam, and did the Bush administration ignore the lessons of Vietnam? Retired General Barry McCaffrey is an MSNBC military analyst. General, I am struck by watching that report [David Shuster on the comparisons between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War] to recall that we didn't lose the war in [Vietnam]: American soldiers never really lost the big battles, they held their ground, we left under a timetable that our government had established. It was later that the ARVN forces fell due to a lack of support from us, but we didn't actually lose. Is Iraq similar in that regard, meaning we're unlikely to get blown out of any position, we're probably going to hold, but in the end it will be a war of attrition and we'll have to come home without meeting our objectives?

General Barry McCaffrey: Well, of course, the final statement you made is the hypothesis: how will this turn out? We don't know yet — it depends on what we do, what our allies do, what the Iraqis are capable of doing. The comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq are eerie in terms of domestic opposition, of some governmental incompetence (Rumsfeld versus McNamara). You can certainly argue, Chris — I sure do — that Iraq is much more important than Vietnam. We have an immediate important economic and political stake in the outcome of this struggle. Certainly the execution of it has been incredibly flawed. We are in trouble, and seeing our way clear now and generating the biparisan support to make it happen is going to be a very tricky situation.

Matthews: Explain that, because back in the Sixties, we were afraid that we looked at the world as a kind of a game board, if you will, a tragic game board, where the Soviets and the Chinese, the Communist powers, were gradually extending their red coloration, or pink coloration in some cases, around the globe, through Africa, through Latin America. We saw Vietnam as part of that growing control of the world, and that was the argument for the war. This time, how is it more tragic and more frightening than that?

McCaffrey: There's oil. There's something worth fighting over. There's access — you look at Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Persian Gulf states, Iran, Iraq: much of the world's known energy supplies are there. So, our allies, the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, are at risk. A failed state in Iraq may bring in the six surrounding neighbors [Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey]. The outcome, if it's a disaster, I would argue, will do more damage to the American people than the endgame in Vietnam.

Matthews: You know, if you had said that, General, as we were going into war, that this war was largely over oil, you would have been ridiculed by the Administration for reducing their moral advantage here. They would have said it's not about Israel, it's not about oil, it's about democratizing in that region and protecting us against a mushroom cloud. Do you understand — what you're saying is probably common sense, but it has been denied that this was about oil. In the last Persian Gulf war, Jim Baker admitted it was about jobs, jobs, jobs. This time, for whatever reason, they wanted to sterilize the war and make it look like it was about some higher mission.

McCaffrey: I think a lot of the democracy argument has crept in once the WMD argument evaporated with the 3rd Infantry Division and the Marines entering Baghdad, so I think we've actually had replacement arguments for why we're in Iraq. I don't mean to be critical of them in that sense, but we went in there because of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, a threat to their neighbors: that's why we went in, and now the argument has morphed into different rationales.

Matthews: Let's get to the particulars of the options apparently being discussed at the Colonel level at the Pentagon: more troops (maybe 20,000 to 30,000 now for the short term) for training in the long term, no real option there of an immediate pullout, and no dramatic doubling of forces or anything like that. What do you think of this proposal that we bring in another 20,000 to 30,000 troops for the short term to begin a long training period.

McCaffrey: First of all, I am adamantly opposed to reinforcing the current troop strength in Iraq. I think it's a big mistake. If you put an inconsequential increase — 20,000 to 30,000 troops; three, four, five brigades — it won't make any major change in the tactical situation. Then you'll be asking commanders six months from now, with the situation very likely to be worse, not better, to agree that it's a great idea to send them home. By the way, we're going to have to take this tiny Army and Marine Corps, tell them to extend their tours, accelerate the deployment, call up the National Guard for involuntary second deployments of the brigade — this is a bad idea. By the way, Chris, neither the Baker Commission nor the leaks out of the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] make one comment on the disastrous shortfall in resources: $61 billion to the Army, our National Guard has a third of their equipment (generators, trucks, helicopters). We'd better fix the Army and the Marine Corps before we start talking about options to fix Iraq.

Matthews: So John McCain's proposal for a substantial increase in forces over there is just not credible?

McCaffrey: No. Look, if the North Koreans invade South Korea, we could surge a quarter of a million troops in 90 days. We'd call up the entire National Guard, the Army Reserves, the Marine Reserves; we could do that, but not steady-state for a war that the American people have walked away from. One way or another, it's $7 billion a month. That money is coming out of Air Force and Navy modernization. We've got sailors and airmen filling ground combat roles all over Afghanistan and Iraq. The Congress — Article I of the Constitution — has to fix the resource shortfall before they willy-nilly talk about extending the tours of the combat forces now in country.

[commercial break]

Matthews: I have to ask you, General, about the story we talked about a moment ago with Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker. Without getting into all the details, do you think it's feasible for the United States to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, such as they are?

McCaffrey: No, I think our rhetoric has been ill-advised. The notion that we can use conventional air power to go after Iranian nuclear facilities is preposterous. We probably know where 3/4 of them are. With a six-month air campaign, we could probably degrade or knock out half of them. We'd set the entire world against us. And, oh, by the way, they'd close off the Persian Gulf and try and close our lines of communication from Kuwait up to 150,000 troops stuck in the middle of Iraq. It is absolutely a senseless idea; we're not going to do it.

Matthews: If we did so — maybe this is more of a technological question than a military one — what would stop the Iranians, with the wealth they have, from rebuilding everything we destroy, only this time with the entire world viewing them as victim?

McCaffrey: I don't think it would go that far. If we took two carrier battle groups and ran a bunch of good, vigorous strikes against Iranian nuke facilities at Bushire (بوشهر) and places like that, we'd have an immediate reaction: they would close the Persian Gulf. The Navy would have to withdraw out to sea. They'd go out 200, 300 miles. You'd see a huge insurgent effort against our 400 km [250 mi] supply lines. We'd be in a crisis mode within a week of the first air strikes.

Matthews: So they have retaliatory ability against us. It wouldn't just be a clean strike and walk away.

McCaffrey: Sure. My first platoon sergeant said, "Don't ever threaten people in public, and by the way, when you do it, make sure you can carry out your threat." We're threatening people in public and we can't carry out the threat.
General McCaffrey served in the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, where he was praised for his speed and boldness and criticized over allegations that he ordered the ruthless killing of thousands of retreating Iraqis after a cease-fire had taken effect. In the current Iraq War, General McCaffrey has soured dramatically from his early optimistic appraisals to more recent phrases like "abject misery," "real nightmare," and, on the positive end of the spectrum, "perilous, uncertain, and extreme — but far from hopeless." He also said, "This is the most competent and brilliantly led military in a tactical and operational sense that we have ever fielded," which seems to stand in contrast to his criticism of Rumsfeld's incompetence. It was particularly refreshing to hear such a clear-headed assessment of the perils of attacking Iran, absent the fuzzy-headed neocon chest-thumping.

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