WASHINGTON — Four and a half years after the nation's top military leaders saluted and fell in behind President Bush's pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, their replacements are beginning to question the mission and sound alarms about the toll the war is taking on the Army and the Marine Corps.
The change at the Pentagon is striking but little-noticed, in part because Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a longtime veteran of the CIA, is quiet where his predecessor Donald H. Rumsfeld was not.
"It's part of a sea change," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a national-security research center in Washington. "The ideologues have been replaced by managers who view Iraq not as a cause, but a problem to be solved."
Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, Undersecretary for Intelligence Gen. James Clapper and other top officials also are concerned that the war may be crippling the military's ability to respond to other crises. They have allies in the congressional Democratic leadership — particularly House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri — who've been speaking out about that for months.
"I'm convinced we are in serious trouble readiness-wise," Skelton said this week in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers. "Am I worried? I'm worried to death."
Although Democrats in Congress have been powerless to halt or even slow the war, six developments have combined to produce growing resistance, even within some parts of Bush's own administration, to the president's unrelenting emphasis on staying the course in Iraq:
1. The Democratic takeover of the Senate and the House of Representatives last January.
2. Bush's choice of Gates to replace Rumsfeld, one of the main architects of the war. Gates was a member of the independent bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which called for the United States to reach out to Syria and Iran and "strongly urged" a drawdown in Iraq.
3. A shift, completed this week, in the military's top uniformed leadership from administration loyalists to officers who are more concerned about the growing strains on the military.
4. Mounting evidence, in a variety of official reports in recent weeks, that Iraqi forces won't be prepared to take over from American troops in significant numbers until late next year at the earliest, and that Iraqis have made little progress toward political reconciliation.
"Barring that, no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference," Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
5. Mounting evidence, most recently in a United Nations report, that the war against al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan is faltering, in part because Iraq is tying down so many U.S. troops.
More forces are needed in Afghanistan, and "we can't send them because we're bogged down" in an "intractable civil war" in Iraq, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said Wednesday.
6. Bush's low approval ratings and popular discontent with the Iraq war, which have prompted some legislators to reconsider their support for the president's policy as next year's elections approach.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Gates and like-minded allies can curtail the U.S. commitment to Iraq, avoid a military confrontation with Iran and direct more resources to Afghanistan and to rebuilding and reequipping the Army and the Marines.
Still, the change in outlook among many senior officials is unmistakable.
The outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, a loyal advocate for administration policies, used the word "freedom" eight times in his final remarks as chairman. Mullen didn't use it once in his first speech Monday as the new chairman.
After Mullen was sworn in, he sent a letter to the military that spelled out a vision of the Middle East markedly different from the one the administration has hailed. Mullen didn't talk about how the two wars could spread democracy and freedom in the region, as Pace did until the final minutes of his two-year tenure as chairman.
Instead, while Mullen called the wars vital, he cautioned that they might not make the Middle East safer. He also told the troops that his job is to prepare the military for what comes next.
"To the degree the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contribute to or detract from a stable, secure Middle East, they bear a direct effect on the security of the United States," he wrote. "The demands of current operations, however great, should not dominate our training exercises, education, curricula and readiness programs."
Such equivocation is a different tune for Defense Department leaders: Rumsfeld and his civilian aides championed the war in Iraq and brooked no dissent.
Skelton, the House Armed Services Committee chairman, said that in the past he felt as if no one was listening when he warned the administration about the strain on the military.
Now, he noted, former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker in January and the current chief, Gen. George Casey, testifying last week, have expressed concerns about the Army's readiness.
"The parallels are alarming," Skelton said. "We cannot risk breaking the Army again. My real worry is that we have a choice between two losses or one loss. We're not putting enough effort into Afghanistan, and I'm deeply concerned about that."
Mullen's letter to the U.S. military earlier this week is at http://www.defenselink.mil/pdf/letter-to-troops.pdf