Foreign Policy & National Security

Former Navy Secretary Unleashes Tide of Iraq Criticism

April 29, 2004
by Eric Weslander, Lawrence Journal-World

A critical question for citizens and journalists to ask the U.S. government right now is this: “Under what circumstances will the United States military withdraw from Iraq?”

That’s according to James Webb, the novelist, decorated Vietnam veteran and Reagan-administration Secretary of the Navy, who spoke Wednesday night at Kansas University. Webb says he’s never heard a good answer from the Bush administration to the question about troop withdrawal.

“What are the conditions?” Webb asked a crowd of more than 300 people in Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union. “If you can’t answer the question, then you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

Webb, who came to KU as part of an annual lecture series about ethics, opposes the war in Iraq and has a history of speaking his mind. In 1988, the year after being named Reagan’s secretary of the Navy, Webb resigned instead of going along with budget-related fleet reductions.

The Vietnam War was “more justifiable and more defensible” than the war in Iraq, Webb said Wednesday night.

He called the ongoing war “a palpable strategic error” and “a strategic mousetrap” that arose from “a breakdown in group ethics.”

It’s disingenuous, Webb said, for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to say that problems in Iraq weren’t foreseeable. Webb alleged the Pentagon ignored or brushed aside qualified aides who painted a realistic picture of the problems of occupation.

For example, Webb cited former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who warned before the war that the United States would need hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq for many years.

“There is literally nothing happening in Iraq that was not fully predictable,” Webb said.

Webb cited two main problems with the war. One, he said, was that instead of focusing separately after Sept. 11 on three important issues facing the country — terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict — the Bush administration mingled them in the public mind with the war against Iraq.

Another problem, he said, was that the invasion put the military into a weaker position. Too many U.S. soldiers are either in Iraq, preparing to go there or coming back from there, he said.

“This endangers our posture elsewhere,” he said.

Webb said he thought Bush was a decent human but didn’t fully consider alternatives to war or look hard enough for the potential downside.

One audience member asked whether Webb thought the Iraqi war arose from a desire to finish Bush family business. Webb said no and attributed the war more to Vice President Dick Cheney — whom he called “The Godfather” — and a war-bent circle of advisers with no sense of military reality themselves.

“The minds were programmed” before Sept. 11 happened, Webb said. “I think they jumped too fast.”

Jonathan Panzer, a freshman from Austin, Tex., didn’t agree with everything Webb said. For example, he said he didn’t think it was right for Webb to criticize the war as “unilateral” given that other countries besides the United States are involved.

“Just because we didn’t get Russia, Germany and France does not mean the war was unilateral,” Panzer said.

Still, Panzer said he appreciated the Webb’s independence.

“A lot of people are afraid to say what they really think is right,” Panzer said.

Webb’s speech was the ninth annual Walter S. Sutton Lecture. The lecture is put on each year by KU’s International Center for Ethics in Business, a cooperative effort of the School of Business and the College of Liberal Arts.