The Bush administration and the Pentagon were rocked back on their heels this week by an unfamiliar outburst of public truth-telling by the admiral President Bush has nominated to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The simple, stark answers on the future of the surge and the prospects of "winning" the war in Iraq that Adm. Mike Mullen gave to the Senate Armed Services Committee came hard on the heels of another embarrassing episode of truthfulness by FBI Director Robert Mueller in the matter of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who makes Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, look like an honest man by comparison.
All of it was so unnerving that it smoked Vice President Dick Cheney out from under the bed in his "undisclosed secret location" and out onto the talk shows, where he defended both Gonzalez and his former chief of staff, convicted liar Scooter Libby, and declared that invading Iraq was a good thing to do.
Still, the greatest shock was Adm. Mullen's testimony, in which he said that the escalation of American troop strength in Iraq to 160,000 had improved things somewhat: "Security is better. Not great, but better."
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Then, responding to a question, the admiral acknowledged that the Iraqi government has made little, if any, progress in reaching the political compromises that are crucial to the future of that country.
He added that without a political settlement between the Shiite Muslim majority and the Sunni minority there can be no victory in Iraq, regardless of how many American troops are sent there or how many years they remain.
The admiral went even further in his statement to the senators, saying that the surge is temporary and can't be sustained past April 2008, and in any case he wouldn't sustain it by extending the troops' already extended combat tours beyond the present 15 months.
What a remarkable breath of fresh air to hear the man tapped to be the nation's highest ranking military officer speak frankly and honestly about the security situation in Iraq and the faltering government in Baghdad. The outgoing chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, and his predecessor, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, failed miserably when it came to saying anything other than "Sir, yes, Sir!" to their civilian bosses.
In Iraq, meanwhile, American officers told McClatchy Newspapers' Mark Seibel and Leila Fadel, albeit anonymously, that the Shiite militias that have close ties to the Iraqi government are the real enemy in Iraq, not al-Qaeda in Iraq, as President Bush keeps insisting.
Can it be that the Bush administration has run out of military toadies who're willing to sit silently, in resplendent feathers, on civilian shoulders nodding wisely and squawking on cue as one misbegotten plan after another melts down in Iraq's broiling deserts? Or has the arrival of Robert Gates as secretary of defense, in place of the unlamented Donald H. Rumsfeld, liberated the generals and admirals to say what they think rather than what they think the boss wants to hear? Either way, the American people are much better off, and we can only hope that speaking the truth is infectious and soon will become epidemic, to the further shock and awe of the president and his remaining men.
What Adm. Mullen said was what other military commanders have said before -- and what the president has stubbornly refused to hear -- that nothing we do militarily can win this war. Victory can be achieved only by the Iraqis themselves, and so far none of them is willing to negotiate or even speak to each other in good faith.
Until they're willing to relinquish ancient blood feuds in the name of national unity, there's not one thing that 160,000 American troops, or 320,000 American troops, can do except stand between the warring parties and remain targets for all of them.
Meanwhile, we're treated to the spectacle of both the Iraqi parliament and the American Congress going home for their summer vacations while the American casualty lists in Iraq are longer than those of the Iraqi army.
While we wait through the dog days of August for Gen. Petraeus' and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's progress report in September, we can only hope that the outbreak of truth telling spreads to the general and the ambassador.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Joseph L. Galloway is a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers and a former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers; he is co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340.