Dissent in the Pentagon

It has been two weeks since chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, publicly disagreed with the Bush administration’s assessment of “Iranian meddling” in Iraq. This occurred just after the White House made strong accusations that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are being killed by Iranian-supplied munitions.

Administration officials said that the evidence they had collected led them to believe that Iran had adopted a strategy of targeting American soldiers. This view was reinforced by a triumvirate of appropriately sober senior types who dutifully flashed a wow 'em PowerPoint presentation in Baghdad, and the handing over of spent munitions with "Iranian serial numbers" to CNN Baghdad reporter Michael Ware -- who dutifully waved the evidence in front of the camera.

But Pace had his own assessment. “We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran,” he said. “What I would not say is that the Iranian government, per se [specifically], knows about this.”

That’s a lot different from what the White House said, and was taken as evidence that the same crew that cooked the books on Iraq was in the process of doing so on Iran. The difference was that this time the military wasn’t going to let them get away with it.

Pace’s comment was big news for 48 hours, but the story then died a quiet death. Yet now that two weeks have passed, Washington analysts are beginning to have second thoughts about Pace’s statement. Why would the senior military officer question a president -- and, even more shocking, why would he do it so publicly?

In fact, there is only one instance in history where a JCS chairman publicly disagreed with the chief executive -- that was when Colin Powell questioned President Clinton’s policy on gays in the military. Clinton let Powell slide, but the White House learned a valuable lesson -- never again would the JCS be headed by a officer capable of standing up to a president. Indeed, Powell was followed (in order) by David Jeremiah (who lasted less than one month), John Shalikashvili (“he never heard a shot fired in anger,” one officer disparagingly notes), Henry Shelton (a manager), Richard B. Myers (who knuckled under to Donald Rumsfeld), and now Pace -- whose gruff exterior is a mask for his soft-as-butter political views.

Until now.

While the cadre of senior retired military officers that form a closely knit club in unofficial Washington were stunned by Pace’s statement, senior Pentagon officials had long known that Pace was increasingly worried not only by the administration’s bumbling policies in Iraq, but by the National Security Council’s penchant for grabbing hammers from the nation’s diplomatic tool box.

“Pace is a hell of an officer, but he’s not crazy about fighting useless wars,” one of Pace’s former comrade-in-arms, now retired, says. “And he’s come to the conclusion that those guys [at the White House] never saw an aircraft carrier they didn’t like.” Reinforced by grumbling from his fellow chiefs, but powerless to reverse the administration’s decision to deploy the USS John C. Stennis alongside the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower to the Persian Gulf (“Jesus Christ, they won’t even have room to turn around,” one retired admiral notes), a former high-level JCS planner says that Pace decided that he would take matters into his own hands: “Word is that Pace told [Rear Admiral Kevin] Quinn [the commander of the Stennis] to stop for fuel -- if you know what I mean.” This former official smiled wryly, knowing that the nuclear-powered Stennis won’t need to stop for fuel for the next twenty years.

Pace’s office refuses to comment on this report (now widely circulating in military circles) but other military officers find it unlikely that the Marine Corps General would even quietly flaunt a presidential order. Doing so, they say, “would be highly unusual.” That’s an understatement. If Pace actually told Quinn to take his time in getting the Stennis to the Gulf, his actions are without precedent in American civilian-military relations. There have been hiccups of course: Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, Dwight Eisenhower replaced the genetically disagreeable John Gavin as head of the Army during a 1955 budget debate, and Jimmy Carter relieved Major General John Singlaub for publicly criticizing his decision to remove U.S. troops from South Korea in 1977. But no chairman of the JCS has ever circumvented a president. Pace would be the first.

Did it happen? “I don’t doubt it,” a former Marine commander says. “The JCS is very concerned about getting into another shooting war. But listen, even if Pace didn’t talk to Quinn, the fact that this story is circulating tells you something about how the military feels about this administration. These guys came in and everyone at the top ranks thought that anything would be better than Clinton. I remember it well. Everyone was saying, ‘thank God, someone who understands us.’ And look what we got -- Rumsfeld, Feith, Condi, Cheney, Bush, Abrams, that idiot [CentCom commander] Tommy Franks -- and an Army and Marine Corps eviscerated by Iraq.” That viewpoint is anything but extreme; it is now standard issue among retired officers.

Leading the pack of critics is former Vietnam combat veteran and three-star Army artillery officer Robert Gard, who convinced two of his colleagues -- Marine four-star Joe Hoar and Rear Admiral Jack Shanahan -- to sign a letter to Bush opposing any military actions against Iran. “The current crisis must be resolved through diplomacy," the letter said. Gard and his cohorts argued that an attack on Iran would have “disastrous consequences.”

This wasn’t the first letter that Gard has engineered; he was behind the 1996 anti-landmines letter (which roiled the Pentagon and angered then JCS chairman John Shalikashvili), he led another group of senior officers in opposing Bush’s National Military Defense (NMD) program, and he convinced yet another group to attach their names to a 2005 letter to John McCain protesting abuse of detainees held in military custody (Jay Garner was one of the signatories). Until just three weeks ago, Gard’s anti-landmine letter had the greatest impact, forcing Shalikashvili to call each of the signers in an attempt to convince them to remove their names, to little avail. “Gard was a big pain in the ass,” a retired colonel who was one of Shalikashvili’s assistants confirms. But Gard’s letter on Iran has had the greatest impact; not only were Gard’s efforts profiled in the press, the letter is now being passed hand to hand in the Pentagon -- often accompanied by comments that it’s too bad serving officers are barred from signing such missives. “My guess is that Pace would have signed it,” one of Gard’s colleagues says.

Editor’s postscript: An indication of significantly widening dissent inside the Pentagon appears in today's Sunday Times  which reports that "up to five generals and admirals are willing to resign rather than approve what they consider would be a reckless attack [on Iran]."