In his new book, Eyes on the Horizon: Serving on the Front Lines of National Security, Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describes a life in national security from the perspective of the nation's top military official. He grew up in Kansas, served in Vietnam, and oversaw the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. General Myers recently sat down with U.S. News to give his thoughts on national security strategy under Presidents Bush, Obama, and beyond. Excerpts:
What will surprise readers most about your book?
I'm familiar with a lot of books that have been written about this era and how they treat the relationship between Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld and the generals, and I offer another perspective. I think it will help add to the body of knowledge there. And I think the way I treat violent extremism, where I opine that we haven't really defined our adversary in an appropriate way [will surprise readers]. I call it the global insurgency. And I offer a way to address that strategically. The fact that we haven't really defined this adversary in an appropriate way means we're not going to develop a strategy until we do.
Why should President Obama read your book?
One of the most important things [for] any of our senior civilians—he is certainly the most senior—is [understanding] the relationship between our civilian bosses and the military. It's one of the themes that run through there: civilian control of the military. You have to work on developing that trust over time. It doesn't come necessarily naturally. Allegiances do. Trust you have to build over time.
You write that we have fought Islamic fundamentalism without a unified strategy. How so?
We've addressed it globally, without an overarching strategy to guide us and without being able to focus all our instruments of national power. In my last year as chairman, that was one of the most frustrating things. And I'm not saying this in the way you could say State wasn't helpful or didn't participate. It's a hard job to focus all instruments of national power on a problem—or international power, in this case. The Department of Justice, the State Department, USAID, they are underfunded and don't have the people to do what they need to do to focus those instruments of power on the problems that we have. If we had an overarching strategy, I think it would be easier. I also opine that we need somebody in charge. If you asked people during my tenure, "Who's in charge of the war on terror?" they would probably point to Secretary Rumsfeld. Clearly, he had a mandate, but I don't think he had a mandate for the whole government. You can't expect the president to be the action officer on this. So who does this? I argue that they need to think about a cabinet-level position for some period of time.
Without looking at this in a more holistic and systemic way, we're doomed to fighting the tactical battles without addressing the strategic battle.
In what ways was your service in Vietnam similar to the experience of today's servicemen and women in Iraq?
What our men and women are dealing with on the battlefield is very similar to what the men and women dealt with in Vietnam, in terms of the ambiguity and the complexity of that kind of conflict. Who's the enemy? Is the shopkeeper the enemy? Not when he's selling you a pair of shoes. But maybe that night he's going to plant an IED [improvised explosive device] somewhere because of his hatred for your religion, the fact that you're a foreigner, or whatever it is. One of the big differences is that today the public understands that the policy is made by our civilian masters. It's not made by the military. During the Vietnam War, a lot of venom was directed at U.S. military members. I remember coming back from San Francisco where they advised me to change out of uniform into civilian clothing to travel back to Kansas City. And I said, "Why would I have to do that?" I'd been out of the country for three years. "Well, they'll harass you at the airport." Today that doesn't happen.
Do you regret the decision to invade Iraq?
The president never asked anybody that I know, at least not the secretary of defense or me or any of the leaders: "Should we?" It was always how would we do that if we made that decision after diplomatic efforts ran their course and were not successful. When you have a country with weapons of mass destruction, I think that was a danger. And from that standpoint, you could support it. This has a real chance of being very successful. And if it's successful, I think it's a huge thing for that part of the world. And I think if any country can pull it off, I think the Iraqis can. Giving 25 million people freedom from tyranny is not a bad thing. And I think the connection with WMD, even though they didn't find them, was good logic. And then, once you're there and Saddam [Hussein] is disposed, you've got to deal with what you got and try to help them get on their feet and take charge.