Playing the Blame Game on Iraq

President Bush and U.S. commanders have conceded lately that things are getting worse in Iraq. But some military officers fear the administration may be trying to shift responsibility their way. Army Times reporter Sean Naylor, who has reported on their fears, talks with Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

In Iraq today, armed men kidnapped nearly a dozen Iraqi soldiers and four civilians were killed in a roadside bombing. The U.S. military announced the death of another Marine yesterday, raising the death toll for U.S. troops this month to 98.

The spike in casualties has led to increasingly sober assessments from the U.S. military. General William Caldwell, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, recently described the violence in Baghdad as disheartening. The tone began to shift this summer when General John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, warned that Iraq could move toward civil war.

A reporter for the Army Times newspaper writes this week that the Army brass are trying now to preserve their credibility and insulate themselves from blame. That reporter, Sean Naylor, joins me now.

Sean, would you say that the assessment by commanders is something that their attitudes really are changing, or they're getting frustrated, or are they just being more candid with the public now?

Mr. SEAN NAYLOR (Reporter, Army Times): I suspect that the candor follows by probably several months their internal downturn in assessments. I talked to a source of Capitol Hill for this story who indicated that they had been hearing the sort of comment that Caldwell made behind closed doors for some months prior to that. So I think what appears to be happening is that the generals have decided that their reputations and the reputations of the Army leadership - perhaps the Army itself - are now riding on them speaking candidly about what's occurring.

ELLIOTT: Why do you think that's happening now?

Mr. NAYLOR: Well, I talked to several retired and active duty generals about that. And I heard a variety of theories. One was that they're trying to insulate themselves from any accusations that might come out of investigations that are likely to be launched into the conduct of the war, if and when the Democratic Party takes control of one or both houses of Congress.

Another general suggested to me that they are very familiar with H.R. McMasters' well-known book, Dereliction of Duty, which came out in the '90s, and all of today's Army generals will have read - or are supposed to read - and that's a book that is very critical of the Vietnam-era generals for allowing the country to slip into the Vietnam War without speaking out. And I think that they want to make sure that nobody writes a book like that about them five years from now.

ELLIOTT: And nobody tried to make it sound like they're sugar-coating the situation in Iraq.

Mr. NAYLOR: Exactly.

ELLIOTT: Now, you quote a retired Army lieutenant general, Keith Kellogg, who seemed to believe that the change in tone of military commanders was in direct response to what they were hearing from the Bush administration.

Mr. NAYLOR: Yes. General Kellogg suggested that some of the comments from the Bush administration recently, in his opinion, looked like an attempt to sort of shift responsibility onto the shoulders of the generals. And in response, General Kellogg said, the generals' attitude was, okay, well, if you're going to hand us this responsibility publicly and folks are going to be judging in the future the Army on what we do, then we're going to speak out. We're going to have more of a say in this from now on.

ELLIOTT: You know, just this week, during his news conference, President Bush said that if General Casey said he needed more troops for victory, that he'd send more troops. You know, how do you interpret that kind of a statement?

Mr. NAYLOR: Yeah, that's actually the sort of rhetoric that we've been hearing from the Bush administration from the get-go in the war in Iraq. So I was slightly surprised to hear General Kellogg speak as if it had just started happening. And I put this to him. And he said he felt like there was even more of an attempt on the part of the administration in recent months to sort of shift the focus onto the generals and away from the civilian officials.

ELLIOTT: You say that some of the military commanders in Iraq think that they are not equipped to win militarily because too much attention has been paid to the political side of things in preparing the Iraqi government.

Mr. NAYLOR: Yes. That was certainly the view that I got from some retired officers who are very familiar with what's going on in Iraq. And they felt that the command structure in Iraq and the United States government had put too much faith in the Maliki government, and had sort of tended to believe what the Maliki government was telling them without really verifying it. And now U.S. commanders are surprised by just how great an influence some of these Shiite militias have in the government.

ELLIOTT: Sean Naylor is a reporter for Army Times, and the author of Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda.

Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. NAYLOR: Thank you.

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