The McClellan Syndrome

December 21, 1990

"Sending reinforcements to McClellan is like shoveling flies across a barn." So said Abraham Lincoln in exasperation over Gen. George McClellan's insistence his Union forces were never quite at full fighting readiness, whether at Bull Run or in the Peninsula campaign or before Antietam. It is a syndrome not limited to the Civil War's "little Napoleon." There's a saying in the military that no Army general ever thinks he has enough.

Yet whatever the circumstances, whatever his mind-set, Lt. Gen. Calvin A. H. Waller, deputy commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf, was off the reservation in stating publicly that he would advise President Bush, if asked, that his forces would not be "ready to do the job" by Jan. 15. That's the deadline set by the United Nations for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Of course, three-star generals don't often talk to presidents; four-star generals do. And, of course, General Waller, a seasoned veteran, didn't get that third star for shirking orders. His comments were only different in degree from Defense Secretary Richard Cheney's remarks during his latest flight to the Middle East that not all of the planned 430,000-strong expeditionary force would be combat ready, married up with equipment and acclimated to the Arabian desert by Jan. 15.

But General Waller overstepped when he went on to ask: "What is so magic about Jan. 15? Why does it have to be that on Jan. 15 we must be ready to go and initiate hostilities?"

The "magic" of Jan. 15 is the stuff of psychological warfare. It lies in its linkage to the credibility of the U.S. threat to attack Iraq on or after that date if Saddam Hussein refuses to leave Kuwait. For weeks the Bush administration has labored, albeit clumsily, to convince the Iraqi dictator that "he's going to get his ass kicked" (President Bush's latest formulation) unless he withdraws. An overwhelming show of strength and determination is considered, in White House circles, the best approach for averting hostilities.

Now the world has to wonder, as it wondered after congressional critics questioned administration strategy. General Waller's remarks could inhibit the president. For if Mr. Bush orders his forces into action before Feb. 15 and things do not go well, the president will be reminded that he had been warned. The minimum discipline due General Waller should be to button his lip.

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