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January 26, 2007
Notes from the Pentagon

Vague rules
Defense officials tell us one of the rules of engagement for U.S. combat troops in Iraq is vague and written by lawyers with little or no battle experience. The result is that troops are at risk of getting killed in action because of military lawyers' penchant for ambiguity.

One troubling rule that is among several printed on the card given to troops going into combat is "use minimum force necessary to decisively eliminate the threat." It is viewed by many in the military as ambiguous and confusing.

"Does it mean you are obligated to wrestle with a threat rather than shoot him or her?" one defense official asked. "That is how a lot of police officers lose their lives each year, as the criminal gains control of the police officer's firearm. How about approaching and/or wrestling a threat who, it turns out, is a homicide bomber?"

Bottom line: There is no way in law to define "minimum deadly force," the official said.

It is not known whether the imprecise rules directly led to the deaths in action of U.S. troops in Iraq, but some say it is likely because the rules are overly cautious and vague, an apparent outgrowth of destructive political correctness applied to war.

"A major part of the problem is that military commanders have surrendered their responsibility for ROE [rules of engagement] preparation and approval to lawyers lacking the knowledge, training and experience to prepare ROE. Unsure of themselves, they err to caution and ambiguity," the official said.

Said a second official: "Only someone who hasn't been in a close gunfight could find that a reasonable set of ROE."

And a third official said of the "minimum" requirement: "Interesting. Someone did not take the Napoleon Orders class" a reference to making sure that orders issued to troops are clear.

We're told that one of the first things Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the next commander of forces in Iraq, needs to do is demand an overhaul of the rules of engagement by line officers, not lawyers, so that ambiguities will be eliminated and lives saved.

A spokesman for Multinational Forces-Iraq could not be reached for comment.

Petraeus prediction
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, asked Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the incoming commander in Iraq, what happens if the United States leaves Iraq.

"There is the very real possibility of involvement of countries from elsewhere in the region, around Iraq, entering Iraq to take sides with one or the other groups," Gen. Petraeus said at his Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing this week. "There is the possibility, certainly, of an international terrorist organization truly getting a grip on some substantial piece of Iraq. There is the possibility of problems in the global economy, should in fact this cause a disruption to the flow of oil and a number of other potential outcomes, none of which are positive."

World government
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, California Democrat, announced his committee's organization this way: "Members formed subcommittees with jurisdictions spanning the Earth and covering a range of the most pressing global challenges."

Korea, not Vietnam
Sen. James H. Webb Jr., Virginia Democrat and decorated war hero, gave the Democrats' response to President Bush's State of the Union address, and likened Iraq to the 1950-53 Korean War.

Mr. Webb said, "As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. 'When comes the end?' asked the general who had commanded our forces in Europe during World War II. And as soon as he became president, he brought the Korean War to an end."

We think that is an apt comparison, but probably not for the same reason as Mr. Webb's.

Like Iraq, the U.S. war in Korea was dogged by poor planning, the wrong types of troops, failed tactics and major miscalculations, such as China coming to the communist north's defense. The American death toll: 36,000 in theater.

But in the end, America won. The north's invasion was reversed and the south was preserved. It matured into one of the world's great democracies, free markets and U.S. allies. And a free South Korea helped blunt Josef Stalin's plan for a communist Asia. What some have called the "forgotten war" was messy and unpopular. It drove Harry S. Truman from office. But it made the world a better place. It just took 30 years to realize it.

Moving on
Word in the Pentagon is that Eric Ruff, press secretary to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, will leave the building later this year.

Mr. Ruff had worked as a special assistant for more than two years in May when Mr. Rumsfeld named him press secretary. Mr. Rumsfeld left office in December, succeeded by Robert M. Gates.

Mr. Ruff forged a close working relationship with Mr. Rumsfeld, advising him on communication strategy.

He is generally liked by the Pentagon press corps, which finds him accessible and responsive.

Mr. Ruff has served in a number of government public affairs jobs, including press secretary to Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican.

The un-Rumsfeld
Our colleague David Sands traveled with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates last week. He filed this report:

Mr. Gates made a quickie post-confirmation trip to Baghdad last month. But Secretary Gates' seven-country, five-day, 13-flight swing through Western Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East last week was the real shakedown cruise for the secretary, his generals and admirals, his schedulers, his staff and the Pentagon press corps. All were still recovering from six years of verbal and policy jousts with former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The new boss relies on notes from index cards in his public remarks, using few of the colorful metaphors or eloquent hand gestures favored by his predecessor. For journalists, the good news is that low-key, soft-spoken Mr. Gates rarely challenges the premises of their questions, another favorite Rumsfeld tactic. The bad news is that he answers only as much of the question as he wants.

Mr. Gates did let slip a few personal insights on the trip. His long years in the CIA served him well, as he could recall previous visits to virtually every stop on the tour. He even reminisced with Romanian journalists in Iraq about his 1975 trip there.

He frankly acknowledged the "risk" to his reputation in leaving a job he dearly loved as president of Texas A&M University to head the Pentagon in the depths of the Iraq war. But he added, "I think if you put your personal interests including protecting your reputation ahead of a sense of duty, you've got your values screwed up."

Mr. Gates said one of his "favorite quotes" is a bit of realist wisdom about diplomacy from Prussian ruler Frederick the Great: "Negotiations without arms are like notes without instruments."

And the Pentagon chief strongly hinted that his future fact-finding missions will feature either fewer stops or more days.

"I've found at least one fact," he said in Iraq on the trip's final full day. "I'm too old to do seven countries in 5 days."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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