Bush And The Generals

' It has become conventional wisdom that American presidents should leave war to the generals. Megalomaniacal dictators like Hitler might blunder in as "Feldherr'--lord of the field--but in a democracy, the wise commander in chief delegates to the professionals. Presidents who forget this maxim--like Lyndon Johnson trying to run the war from his Tuesday lunches at the White House or Jimmy Carter micromanaging the disastrous Desert One rescue operation over an open phone line from the Oval Office--have come to regret it.

George Bush seems to have learned from the mistakes of his predecessors--and from his own experience. During the aborted coup attempt against Manuel Noriega in October 1989, Bush was overwhelmed by raw intelligence data pouring into the Oval Office. According to White House aides, he is determined to take a more hands-off approach toward the operational side of the Persian Gulf War. When the time came to prepare a war plan against Iraq, Bush laid down some general markers: he banned the use of nuclear weapons and ordered the military not to attack civilian targets, particularly mosques. But when Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented the president with the final script, he did not change a word.

If the war aim is total victory, there is little reason to bridle the war horse. But ultimately wars are political acts, and the chief political leader cannot escape responsibility for their conduct. Even in World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had to play an active role, countermanding his generals on numerous occasions. Abraham Lincoln fired his generals until he found one--Ulysses S. Grant--who would fight the Civil War aggressively enough.

In the gulf, Bush will have to make a hard call on if and when to begin the ground war. He may have an even more difficult choice on how to end the war. If Saddam survives but his Army is decimated, can Bush declare victory? Or must Saddam be destroyed as well? Bush enjoys a close relationship with his chief military adviser, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Powell is politically savvy. Indeed, during one briefing last week, Pentagon brass were heard to mutter that their general seemed to be running for president. But Powell is still an Army man who believes that winning wars is about taking territory. There is a risk that Powell and the other ground-war champions in his chain of command will be a little too eager to storm the Iraqi redoubts before the Air Force has finished softening them up.

Bush's strategy council is a small and tightknit group. Only Secretary of State James Baker expressed any reservations about going to war, and he signed on to the final decision. Such unanimity gives the administration a firmness of purpose, but the absence of dissenters is troubling. The one doubter about a ground war, Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Dugan, was fired for taking his views public. Even Lyndon Johnson kept an inhouse critic, George Ball, during the Vietnam War. During the Cuban missile crisis, the debate in John F. Kennedy's circle of advisers, the "Ex-Com," was spirited and sometimes heated. Kennedy reached out to former statesmen for advice. Bush has so far stuck with his inner circle, national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, Cheney, Powell and Baker.

The most successful civilian war leaders do not substitute their military judgment for that of the professionals, but they constantly question and probe. Even Grant had to answer Lincoln's constant queries. Winston Churchill was particularly effective at cutting through military cant. Told by an admiral that an operation was justified by British naval tradition, Churchill replied that "the only traditions in the British Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash."

White House aides say Bush has demanded almost hourly briefings on the progress of the war, and on at least one occasion he vetoed a bombing mission. (Administration officials will not elaborate on why.) Bush has been no pushover during the gulf crisis. Certainly, he has shown that he can stand up to Saddam. The time may come when he may also have to stand up to his own generals.