Time and again, President Bush has tried to hide his incompetence behind our men and women in uniform. Repeatedly, criticism of his policies has been distorted into an attack on the troops; too often, questions about his strategy have been brushed aside with claims that his policy had been dictated by his generals.
Even now, with the House and Senate trying to force a change of direction, the White House accuses Congress of trying to "micromanage our commanders and generals," redefining the debate as a disagreement between Congress and the military, not with the president.
I think that game is about to end. I think President Bush is losing the American military, and that while he wrangles with Congress over deadlines, in the end it will be the military that forces dramatic changes in policy in Iraq.
Signs of that change abound. When the White House recently asked five retired four-star generals to serve as a so-called "war czar" overseeing our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, all five declined, a remarkable sign of disgust among those with a culture of service.
"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan said in explaining his refusal to consider the post.
That sense of a military establishment finally losing patience is also reflected in the behavior of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates has refused to toe the party line, asserting an independence that the Bush White House must find maddening. While the president was in Washington condemning Democrats for undercutting the troops, Gates was in Iraq announcing that the debate in Congress "probably has had a positive impact — at least I hope it has in terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment."
Adm. William Fallon, the head of Central Command, signaled a similar change by banning use of the term "long war" to describe our struggle in the Middle East. "The idea that we are going to be involved in a 'Long War' at the current level of operations is not likely and unhelpful," a spokesman explained.
Perhaps the most telling signal, however, came in a devastating critique published last week in Armed Forces Journal by an active-duty Army lieutenant colonel, Paul Yingling.
The piece, headlined "A Failure of Generalship," is nominally an attack on today's military leadership, which itself is extraordinary. The main thrust of Yingling's argument is that too many generals have stood mute while civilian leaders misled the nation about what is really happening in Iraq, repeating a mistake that led to disaster in Vietnam.
"While the physical courage of America's generals is not in doubt, there is less certainty regarding their moral courage," Yingling writes. "In almost surreal language, professional military men blame their recent lack of candor on the intimidating management style of their civilian masters," and even though that has begun to change, "they may have waited too long."
Yingling has served two tours of duty in Iraq. As a graduate of the Army's School of Advanced Military Studies, he had already been identified as one of the service's best and brightest, and he has made clear his intent to stay in the Army. With this critique, he has placed that career and his chance at a general's stars in severe jeopardy, but his willingness to take that risk will echo through the ranks as an example of the moral courage he finds absent in many of his superiors.
All these signs point to a storm gathering within the military, especially as the strains imposed on the Army by the surge become more apparent. In that regard, it is interesting to note that Army Gen. David Petraeus, commanding officer of U.S. forces in Iraq, has recently and repeatedly stressed his intention to provide the American public an honest assessment of progress or failure by September. By then, he suggests, the effects of the surge and the willingness of the Iraqi government to reform will be more apparent.
Last week, Petraeus was asked whether that assessment could conceivably include telling the president that things aren't working and the troops should come home.
"I have an obligation to some wonderful young men and women in uniform ... who are serving in Iraq, and who deserve a forthright assessment from the folks at the top ... and that's what I'm going to provide," Petraeus said.
Gates and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, have joined Petraeus in setting September as an crucial time of reassessment. In other words, while Congress and the president wrangle about deadlines, a deadline of sorts may already have been set.
• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.