Q&A With Iraq Study Group's David Abshire
How do we unify our strategy and message?
Reaching out to Congress is critical. In the Congress, you have a group of people who have been to Iraq many times. Some of those people are very good strategists. The challenge is for "the Decider" to become "the Unifier," and the challenge for Bob Gates will be to draw Congress, the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon into the process of strategy making. It's something that he has had experience doing at Texas A&M; that is bringing together faculty, students, and other groups within a university bureaucracy.
The 9/11 commission formed a nonprofit when its mandate ended. Do you foresee something like that with the ISG?
What makes the ISG different is the fluidity of the situation. Some members of Congress have discussed with me the creation of a formal or informal caucus of the most knowledgeable members who have been over there to Iraq. It's very tentative at this point, but as a follow-up to this report, the caucus would act as a two-way street for discussion. We can get into very contentious situations in the coming months, depending on what happens. Every month or so, this caucus could develop new contingencies. Members of Congress will continue to go to Iraq. There are a wealth of knowledge and experience and some top strategic thinkers on Capitol Hill if the administration can use them.
That kind of idea, over the coming year, would create an ongoing, two-way street. Part of the problem with John Murtha, for instance, was that no one talked to him for a year and he had to go off on his own. If you have a regular private meeting of people with ideas, you have a place to test things and adapt to developments. Of course, the ISG itself would go out of existence, but congressional leaders would then meet frequently with our national security leaders to share ideas and discuss. This caucus idea has not fully jelled, but I can foresee something like this coming.
You've called Robert Gates a "transformational leader," yet the focus on transforming seems to have been part of Donald Rumsfeld's downfall.
We need someone with an agile mind as the secretary of defense; someone who doesn't get into mind-sets like "weapons of mass destruction" or "there is no insurgency." In each case, there was a full year before those realities were realized. There's a danger for any transformational leader who has the vision but not the roadway; who doesn't know how to accomplish the transformation on a practical basis. I was for transforming the military and worked with Rumsfeld in that first year, but strategy is not something planned. Rumsfeld developed rigid thinking, even when he came up against something different. In Iraq, when it was clear there was an insurgency in Iraq, they wouldn't even let people use the word. That was also Robert McNamara's problem. He was brilliant, but he was not an agile thinker.
McNamara makes for interesting comparisons.
I was assistant secretary of state for congressional relations from 1970 to 1973, and we were winning in Vietnam then. There had been a complete change in strategy at that point, and we are likely to see such a change now in Iraq. We had moved forward with Vietnamization, and Gen. [Creighton] Abrams had replaced Gen. [William] Westmoreland. They ended search-and-destroy missions. They emphasized Vietnamization, pacification, and support. We got our prisoners of war back. But we lost because of Richard Nixon's lack of support. There was a breakdown in the trust, and Congress and the president got in a fight over funding. In that period of presidential mistrust, had there been some type of go-between group between Congress and the executive, I think we could have saved that situation.
There is overwhelming support for Gates. Is that just because anyone other than Rumsfeld would be viewed as a savior?
It was an enormous turnover in terms of style and leadership from Secretary McNamara and General Westmoreland, who tried to win by kill ratios and search-and-destroy missions, to [Melvin] Laird and [Henry] Kissinger negotiating with other states. We might be seeing the same thing now. Gates is going to listen to people. Rumsfeld tended to shut out dissent. We now need all the bright ideas we can get. To quote Lincoln, it's time to think anew and act anew.