by Gordon S. Brown, Amb. (Ret.)
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Beginning the second year of my assignment as political advisor to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), I was beginning to wonder how I could continue to contribute meaningfully to the job. General Norman Schwarzkopf, my energetic and ambitious boss, had been on the job a year longer than I, and had pretty well absorbed the regional, political, interpersonal, and tactical advice and background that my excellent predecessor and I had directed toward his ready ear. Our numerous trips to the area had solidified good personal rapport with his local counterparts, including most of the ambassadors in his area of responsibility. The next year, I thought, looked like more of the same—long trips with the commander and his team, solidifying relationships, seeking still more access and cooperation, schmoozing, and building up a stronger regional presence and network.
I figured my role in the command had peaked, even though my advice and input would continue to be useful. Schwarzkopf, who by no means was an easy boss, appeared to respect my advice—which in turn made me a valuable reference point for the other members of the command. They could use me as what they called their political “reality check” before sending proposals for new cooperative or other projects up to their rather intimidating four-star boss. I relished that indirect role, which helped make the commander look smarter by giving him better, more thought-out options. I also helped resolve coordination issues with our embassies and the Department of State. In short, I was useful—if a bit jaded.
Frankly, my misgivings about the job had to do with a diminishing enthusiasm for the long and often tense trips around the Middle East, doing the same things, but with ever more pressure from the impatient commander to increase CENTCOM’s role in the area, as well as its standing in Washington’s budget fights. We were, to a degree, travelling salesmen for military cooperation—and I found a few of my State Department and regional embassy colleagues had reservations about how hard we were pushing. My liaison role could on occasion be touchy.
One the other hand, Olivia and I were enjoying our non-Washington but Stateside assignment in Tampa. While I was travelling, she was putting down roots with volunteer work, new friends and interesting activities. Moreover our son was living with us, getting re-focused after dropping out of college. There was no question of curtailing.
Any misgivings I had were eliminated once Saddam invaded Kuwait.
Overnight, the job changed, as did my perceptions about working with the military.
First, I learned what my military colleagues’ real jobs were, and how their incessant peacetime planning process pays off when it’s needed. I’ll admit that I had shared some of my civilian colleagues’ disdain for the evident overstaffing of a peacetime military HQ, where people of high rank seemed to be concocting endless staff-consuming contingency plans for unlikely contingencies. And yet, here was a contingency that had come true—and, fortuitously, one for which we at CENTCOM had only recently run a full-scale war game. All of a sudden, those plans had to be taken off the shelf and executed—and that meant that every one of those apparently supernumerary or underutilized officers on the staff suddenly was involved in preparing and deploying vast amounts of materiel, men, and support capability to a distant theater of impending hostilities. It was impressive. Those of us State Department employees who are frustrated by the annual summer transfer confusion and disconnections can only imagine what it would be like to move tens of thousands of men and millions of tons of equipment and supplies in a coherent, accurate and time-sensitive manner. Thanks to their planning culture and deep staff capabilities, however, the military knew—and performed—the drill very well.
A more obvious, but still relevant, observation is that all that peacetime salesmanship, coordination, and schmoozing on the part of our regional commanders and others – the stuff that had begun to seem overdone to me just months before—paid off. The relations we had established with the regional military and civilian commands, and equally important with our embassies, was absolutely essential. We had built a bank account, so to speak, that we could draw on when we had to request last-minute overflight clearances, basing rights, housing and other facilities, communications priorities, and a host of other requirements.
Our deployment, when it began, was so rapid that our embassies were literally waking people up in the middle of the night to tell them that planes were already on their way toward their airspace, and please, could they pass or land without incident? That the regional hosts were so receptive was due in large part to years of familiarity with our military, and support from our embassies. That the Saudis had the well-developed infrastructure that could accommodate such a huge flow of men and materiel was due in part to some far-sighted planning over the years, to which our military had contributed greatly. And that such a huge, as well as alien, deployment to foreigner-allergic Saudi Arabia was managed with a minimum of political and cultural friction was due to the excellent and deep, if unwritten, understandings developed over the years between General Schwarzkopf, Ambassador Freeman and their respective predecessors (and, of course, their political advisors!)
It’s important to note, however, that much of the above had to be in place before—well before—the balloon went up. Once the deployment was under way, and the broad lines of cooperation with the regional governments had been set up, the focus in the command moved to planning how to fight this particular war, if it became necessary. The emphasis switched rapidly from the political-military realm to the military to military one. What that meant for this political advisor was that I had much less access to the commanding general, whose time was consumed by his operations guys. Luckily, the general had a retentive memory and a good feeling for others’ political sensitivities. In the meetings he held with foreign contingent commanders or diplomats, often held with absolutely no time to prepare, I would hear him echo the guidance my predecessor, one of our ambassadors, or I, had given him months earlier. Once again, the value of all that peacetime preparation and repetition was paying off.
This distinction between political-military affairs and war planning however created problems for me. As political advisor, and the only person on the command team who had actually lived in Baghdad and understood Iraq, I was left out of key part of the process, including potentially politically sensitive things like the preparation of bombing target lists. Fortunately, some CENTCOM colleagues who had developed respect for my “reality check” function back in peacetime gave me a limited sort of back-door—if unsatisfactory—access to some parts of the process. I have no idea, however, if my indirect contributions had the slightest effect—my military colleagues had gone into warrior mode, and my role on the command team became that of facilitator rather than advisor.
The generals, who by and large struck me as very reluctant to see the war begin and their men get killed, still wanted political advice: for example, would the French or Russian efforts to mediate the crisis avert the impending war? But of course I had only marginally better information on those questions than they did. And planning for hostilities was their priority.
The political advisor’s office (yes, I had finally been offered backup by two excellent, rotating assistants) was nonetheless a very busy place. As the military buildup expanded to fill virtually all the basing capacity of our local allies, and foreign contingents began to flow in, too, thanks to the energetic coalition-building efforts of Secretary James Baker, our work came to be focused on issues such as basing or status of force arrangements, coordination with officials of other foreign forces and American embassies in the region, or helping manage the appalling press and VIP visitor load.
All the same, the more political aspects of the conflict flowed all around us. It was clear, for example, that the military had its own, and very political, goals for any war that might be fought—to win overwhelmingly (in order to put the Viet Nam syndrome to rest), and then not to get caught as an occupying power. That impulse led, regrettably in my opinion, to a tendency to exaggerate the threat level at the beginning, and a then a desire to rush toward the exits at the end of hostilities. And the fact that we had built a large and heterogeneous coalition that shared only one stated aim—expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait—meant that we could never, either at the command level in Riyadh or more importantly in Washington, openly define what our real war-ending aims were. We hoped—wrongly as it turned out—that our military humbling of Saddam’s Republican Guard would cause the Iraqi army to turn on their dictator. But events conspired against that, and we know the result: the war ended well enough, but the immediate post-war situation was never well thought out, nor agreed. Those who thought that we should have continued on to Baghdad understood neither the logistical challenges, nor the quagmire that awaited such a foolhardy move. It turned out that we had done was to have broken the lock on Pandora’s Box, even though it was not until 2003 that we opened the lid.
We returned to Tampa, some eight months after our deployment, to a hero’s welcome: Schwarzkopf was the man of the hour. But Iraq was in crisis, Saddam still in power, and the politics—both in Baghdad and Washington—were still unresolved. There was a slightly bitter taste to our victory.
But what a personal experience! To be a diplomat, the sole civilian, on the command team of a major military headquarters during a coalition war against a feared (if overrated) opponent was both eye-opening and exciting. I and my State Department colleagues did some good; we made things flow more smoothly between our allies as well as our own embassies in the region, and we took many smaller problems off the commanding general’s desk. But, surrounded by major political-military issues on which we sometimes had decided opinions, we were frustrated to be out of the decision-making nexus, advisors to a general whose priorities had changed 175 degrees.
I recall that, in the Riyadh headquarters, I was sometimes given quizzical looks by new security officials: here was an older officer on the command team, in camouflage dress but with no marks of rank on sleeve, shoulder, or collar. Was I an undercover general of some sort, they must have wondered, or the oldest damn private in the Army? Sometimes I still wonder.
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Gordon Brown served over thirty five years in the Foreign Service, retiring in 1996. A Middle East hand, his last postings were as DCM in Tunis, Political Advisor to CENTCOM, and ambassador to Mauritania. Since retiring, he has written a half dozen books, most on early U.S. Federal Period history.