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As Pace Exits, Critics Attack His War Leadership

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been chided for being too compliant and passive, while his supporters say he was a loyal officer, unfairly tossed aside because of politics.
Jonathan Ernst
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Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been chided for being too compliant and passive, while his supporters say he was a loyal officer, unfairly tossed aside because of politics.

The last of the senior Pentagon officials who helped plan and carry out the Iraq war is finishing up his last week on the job.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace was not re-nominated for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, becoming one of only a few people in decades who failed to get an extended term.

His critics say Pace was too compliant and passive under his former boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Pace's supporters say the combat veteran of Vietnam was a loyal officer, unfairly tossed aside because of politics.


'A Spectator at a Train Wreck'

With the war heading into its fifth year, high levels of American troops remaining at least through 2008, and no sign of reconciliation among Iraqi leaders, Pace was recently asked whether the invasion was a good idea.

"I absolutely do, absolutely do, absolutely do," he said. "Is it frustrating that they aren't farther along as we are 230 years into our existence? Sure."

Frustration is the word critics use to describe Pace. He was the No. 2 officer when U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003. Two years later, Pace became the top military adviser to President Bush.

"History will not be kind to Peter Pace," says retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a Vietnam veteran who once headed the Army War College. "The war changed around him. The character of the war changed substantially on his watch."


Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer and professor at Boston University, is even more harsh.

"I think history will remember Gen. Pace as being a spectator at a train wreck," he says.

Bacevich says either Pace gave bad advice or his good advice wasn't heeded.

"But it's impossible to make the case that Pace as vice chairman, then chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], has been effective on military matters," says Bacevich.

Defending Pace's War Advice

The war began to change under Pace's predecessor, Gen. Richard Myers. Myers says that, in private, he and Pace offered their best military advice.

"It goes back to, do you think you were effective in advising the secretary of Defense and the president," Myers says. "Were they listening, and were you trusted advisers? I think the answer is yes in both our cases. I think we were trusted advisers. Does it mean that civilian authorities were always going to follow your advice? No, it does not."

Myers bristles at the fact that Pace was not re-nominated for a second term. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Pace he did not have enough support in the Senate. Myers says that smacks of politics, not performance.

"You know, if you're not satisfied with the performance of a chairman or any senior officer, fire him," says Myers. "But that wasn't the case here. I think it was done in a way that further politicized the office of the chairman. And that's a very dangerous trend for this country."

War Decisions and Assumptions

Pace is not giving interviews. At a Pentagon press conference last week, Pace was asked about some of the decisions that were made, such as disbanding the Iraqi army, now widely seen as one of the greatest blunders of the war.

"First of all, the Iraqi army was not disbanded. It disintegrated," Pace said. "If I knew the Iraqi army was not going to be available, then I would have made a different recommendation about the total size of the troops going in."

It's not entirely true to say that the Iraqi army "disintegrated." Thousands of Iraqi soldiers came back looking for work. Myers says that in hindsight, the Americans should have found jobs for many more of those Iraqis.

And Pace also admits to shortcomings.

"So were there errors in assumption? I certainly made the error of assuming the Iraqi army would be there," Pace said. "In retrospect, you say you wish you knew. But you didn't know on the way in."

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Tom Wilkerson says there were many more assumptions — such as how American troops would be received by Iraqis or how Iraqi money would rebuild the country.

"It would appear that almost 100 percent of them didn't come to pass," says Wilkerson.

Rumsfeld's Vision to Blame?

Wilkerson says the real tragedy is that there was no clear thinking about what would happen if those assumptions turned out to be wrong.

As violence increased in Iraq, there were some calls for more American troops to secure the population. Rumsfeld continued to refuse. Wilkerson says that only after Rumsfeld left were U.S. troop levels increased and a new counterinsurgency strategy created.

"They never looked at it at all until it hit them in the face," Wilkerson says.

Pace has his defenders — among them, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who has offered blistering criticism of how the war has been managed. He points to Pace as a young officer fighting bravely in the battle of Hue City during the Vietnam War.

McCaffrey says Pace is a man who is loyal and honorable, who cares about the troops. He says the real culprit is the man at the Pentagon who made the final decisions about Iraq: Donald Rumsfeld.

"Mr. Rumsfeld, with his unbelievable arrogance and bad judgment, has put the country in a position of tremendous strategic peril," says McCaffrey.

How Far Can Officers Challenge Civilian Leaders?

The state of the war in Iraq, the blunders and the seeming silence of top officers has led to a serious debate inside the military: What is the role of senior uniformed leaders? Should they be more vocal, perhaps more unvarnished before Congress? Should they go so far as to air their differences of opinion in newspaper op-ed pieces before a final decision is made?

For his part, McCaffrey says that senior officers must be independent advisers, not ones who merely echo their political masters.

"When testifying before Congress, when Congress says, 'General or admiral, give me your personal judgment,' they're supposed to give their personal judgment, not just mindlessly support Mr. Rumsfeld's bad thinking," McCaffrey says.

McCaffrey says Pace "was right in the middle of that painful situation."

Gen. Scales says the debate includes a proper role model for a senior officer.

"Colin Powell was far more assertive, far more aggressive and resolute in pushing his views on national security," says Scales. "The consensus is that Peter Pace was the opposite."

A few days ago, the pain of leaving the top military job was evident as Pace spoke to enlisted soldiers and Marines at the Pentagon. His voice broke as he recalled the friends he lost in Vietnam and the visits he will no longer make to troops in combat.

"I'm not sad that I'm not going to be chairman anymore, as great an honor as that is," Pace said. "I'm sad because I won't be able to put the uniform on and, on occasion, get out on the battlefield and hug my fellow service members, and tell them I love them, and thank them for what they are doing for their country."

Pace will step down Monday at a departure ceremony at Fort Myer, Va., a graceful 19th-century Army base that borders Arlington National Cemetery. Among those in attendance will be his fellow Marines from Vietnam, survivors of the second platoon of Golf Company.

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