Category Archives: Civil-Military Relations

It’s Not the Military’s Job to Oppose Trump

The National Interest

November 3, 2018

President Donald Trump’s promise to send large numbers of troops to the southern border to stop the so-called migrant caravan making its way north through Mexico has been, to say the least, controversial. Many have called on Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to put his foot down on the matter. Some, notably Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, have called for Joint Chiefs chairman Joe Dunford to do the same. This misapprehends the proper role of the military leadership in our society.

While I share the misgivings about using the military to stop unarmed asylum seekers for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this essay, it is well within Trump’s remit as commander-in-chief of the armed forces to order their deployment for that purpose. Indeed, as Ignatius acknowledges, many other presidents have done so.  There are some legal questions about what active duty troops under Title 10 federal authority (as opposed to National Guard soldiers under Title 32 authority) may be asked to do. But, so far as we know, they have so far been asked to perform only unquestionably lawful support functions.

To the extent that Mattis and Dunford disagree with the policy, they owe it to the nation and their President to give their best advice against it. Despite his impulsiveness, Trump has demonstrated that he is persuadable by Mattis in particular. Presuming they have tried and failed to convince the President to reverse course, however, they have two legitimate choices: carry out the order to the best of their ability or resign their posts in protest and continue their fight from the outside.

While I agree with those who argue the deployment is an unseemly “political stunt,” that would seem an odd hill, indeed, to choose to die on.  It has been understood from at least the time of Carl von Clausewitz that the military exists to serve political aims. The Joint Staff recently reiterated this, observing in a doctrinal publication that “the strategist must recognize and accept that those policy goals are created within the chaotic and emotional realm of politics” and that therefore “The military professional who believes politics has no place in strategy does not understand the fundamentals of strategy.”

Unless they believe the order unlawful or one that seriously endangers U.S. national security—and it would be difficult to make either argument based on what we know so far of Trump’s plan—Mattis and Dunford are much more valuable inside the room where they can help steer the policy clear of legal and moral pitfalls. While one presumes that Trump’s recent bombast about troops firing their guns at migrants with rocks is mere bluster, ensuring that our policies comport with American values and the laws of armed conflict is a vital role that Mattis and Dunford can and must play.

Dunford, in particular, must appear always above the political fray since he is a uniformed officer. His duty is to render his best military advice to the President, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Council. In private. His public commentary ought to reflect the policy preferences of the elected decision-makers, not his own or those of the brass.

To the extent that the Chairman’s personal views on the matter should be made public while he remains in uniform, it’s the job of the Congress to ask him on the record. That both Houses are currently controlled by the President’s party makes it unlikely they’ll do so.

If the public is unsatisfied with this arrangement, they have another opportunity to weigh in on the matter at the ballot box next Tuesday and again two years after that. It is not the job of the military leadership to override the policy preferences of their elected bosses.

Original article .

Social Media Attacks on Trump Could Put America’s Security at Risk

The National Interest

August 24, 2018

Retired Adm. Bill McRaven, who became a household name after special operators under his command killed Osama bin Laden, is once again in the spotlight. In a terse August 16 op-ed for the Washington Post, he castigated President Donald Trump for revoking the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan the previous day in a fit of partisan pique after repeated criticisms of his policies.

Later that evening, thirteen other former senior national-security figures from both political parties signed an open letter stating their opinion that “the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances—and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.” They added, “this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials. As individuals who have cherished and helped preserve the right of Americans to free speech—even when that right has been used to criticize us—that signal is inappropriate and deeply regrettable. Decisions on security clearances should be based on national-security concerns and not political views.” Other open letters followed, with some 175 formers signing.

It is too early to know whether these statements will have any impact on the national debate. Thus far, opinions on Trump have been decidedly inelastic, seemingly impervious to evidence. To the extent that McRaven and the others change minds, however, it will come not only because of their impressive contributions in service to the nation but because they have kept their powder dry, weighing in only on egregious violations of the norms of our Constitutional system, and are not seen as partisan actors.

Sadly, this has not been the case with Brennan himself. While I fully concur that Trump’s revocation of his security clearance is outrageous and sets a dangerous precedent, even many of his defenders have distanced themselves from his actions since leaving government service.

He retired from his post as CIA director on the day Trump took office. Within months, he became a famous Twitter troll, expertly leveraging his reputation and the social media platform to tweak Trump while drawing attention to himself. On his first day of tweeting, he opined, “Trump Admin threat to retaliate against nations that exercise sovereign right in UN to oppose US position on Jerusalem is beyond outrageous. Shows @realDonaldTrump expects blind loyalty and subservience from everyone—qualities usually found in narcissistic, vengeful autocrats.” While I concur in that opinion, it’s simply that: a view on a matter of foreign affairs outside the scope of Brennan’s expertise as an intelligence professional and some snide armchair psychiatry.

He’s issued forty-nine tweets since, the lion’s share of which have been aimed at the president. Almost none of them had any but an indirect bearing on the intelligence community or the national security of the country. He’s weighed in against Trump policies ranging from immigration to trade to veterans’ affairs to alliance policy to the Iran deal to gun control.

Mostly, though, he’s attacked

Trump’s character. Brennan told us that Trump “continues to demonstrate daily that he is a deeply flawed person.” He frequently retweeted Trump with personal messages such as “your self adoration is disgraceful,” “your unprincipled and unethical behavior as well as your incompetence are seriously damaging our Nation,” “You are to governance & politics what Bernie Madoff was to the stock market & investment advice,” “History inevitably will regard Trump as one of the most disastrous figures of the 21st century,” “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history,” and “It’s astounding how often you fail to live up to minimum standards of decency, civility, & probity. Seems like you will never understand what it means to be president, nor what it takes to be a good, decent, & honest person.”

Most famously, perhaps, he declared, “Your kakistocracy is collapsing after its lamentable journey” and “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.” And, in a complete lack of self-awareness, he stated, “It never ceases to amaze me how successful you have been making yourself so small, petty, and banal with your tweets.”

My complaint with Brennan isn’t with his contempt for Trump or his policy views. I was a Never Trump guy from the moment he came down the golden escalator, long before there was an open letter or a hashtag. With a quibble here and there, I agree with Brennan on just about all these issues. Nor am I too highfalutin for Twitter trolling. I enjoy immensely, for example, Dan Drezner’s toddler-in-chief thread, 432 examples strong as of this writing. But, because of who he is, the volume and tone of Brennan’s commentary is inappropriate.

Drezner is a serious scholar, a tenured full professor at a top-tier public policy school with numerous academic press books to his name. That’s not incompatible with nearly two decades of being a wiseass on blogs and Twitter because he’s a one-man brand. Brennan, by contrast, continues to represent the CIA and intelligence community and is making their job harder.

Brennan’s caustic and frequently juvenile attacks on Trump are simply beneath the dignity of the office he so recently held. People like Brennan, McRaven, and the thirteen signatories of the open letter linked in the introduction continue to serve as elder statesmen and owe it to the nation to be prudent in their public commentary.

Since retiring from the Navy, the only time we’ve heard from McRaven was when he was counseling young Americans to make their beds first thing every morning. His speaking out so forcefully on Brennan’s security clearance is powerful precisely because he’s stayed above the fray until now.

Beyond issues of propriety, Brennan’s half-cocked tweets are harmful in that they contribute to the absurd notion that there’s a Deep State out to get Trump. The intelligence community writ large and the CIA in particular are seen by many Trump supporters as particularly suspect, in that they’ve been insistent that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 election.

While it’s likely true that the hard-core Trump fans are going to believe that no matter what, Brennan makes it easy for Trump and his allies to cast the CIA as partisan. While it’s obvious to me that he’s intending to speak only for himself, the general public will naturally see him as the spokesman for CIA officers who are unable to voice their opinions because of the nature of their oath.

General Michael V. Hayden, himself a former CIA Director, and James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, who were among the thirteen signatories of the open letter defending Brennan. They, too, have been an outspoken critic of Trump. But they have mostly confined their public comments on the President to intelligence matters, including Hayden’s March 2017 New York Times op-ed “Donald Trump Is Undermining Intelligence Gathering” and Clapper’s book and frequent commentary on the Russian operations against the U.S. electoral system. While this distinction hasn’t stopped the president from lumping them in with Brennan, their remaining in their professional lane makes their commentary decidedly less political. That Hayden last served under President George W. Bush and has been retired almost a decade also makes it much less likely that he’s seen as speaking for the agency.

Given that McRaven, Hayden and David Petraeus (another signatory to the aforementioned letter, signing in his capacity as a former CIA Director) are retired flag or general officers, it’s worth a word about civil-military relations. While it’s harmful, for reasons that I’ve laid out, for former civilian intelligence officials like Brennan and Clapper to become part of the political fray, we’ve long held military officers to a different standard. Soldiers, after all, have guns and tanks. The loyalty of those in uniform to lawful orders from civilian policymakers, and especially the commander-in-chief, must be sacrosanct.

While many fiercely argue that, once retired, officers become mere civilians, entitled to unfettered free-speech rights like the rest of us, many of us disagree. As I argued in a commentary two years ago this month, it undermines the public’s confidence in the military as a profession when retired officers, especially those of high rank and recent service, become mired in partisan politics.

Where precisely one draws the line is unclear, but I’ve suggested, as a starting point, that “the distinction that holds for active duty officers and, to a lesser extent, civilian employees of the Defense Department between partisan politicking and issue advocacy.” It’s clearly wildly inappropriate for retired generals and admirals to endorse or oppose the re-election of officials they’ve recently served or worked alongside, as Bill Crowe did in 1992. It’s murkier but still highly frowned upon to endorse candidates for partisan office, like John Allen and Mike Flynn did in 2016.

It’s not only permissible but “likely valuable for retired officers to weigh in on public debates on controversial issues, like gender integration or proposed military action, where it would be inappropriate or difficult for serving generals to weigh in where their civilian masters have spoken.” Certainly, things like the propriety of revocation of security clearances for reasons unrelated to trustworthiness or the integrity of the Russia investigation fall within that ambit.

Additionally, I concur with RAND scholar and Bombshell co-host Radha Iyengar Plumb that McRaven and the signers of the open letter spoke out in “reaction to abuse of political power in a national security context” and that this is mere “defending institutional norms” vice partisan politics. While taking on a sitting president is inherently political, as nonpracticing professionals their oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies—foreign and domestic—remains in force.

Original article 

Who Suffers the Most from Government Shutdowns?

The National Interest

January 23, 2018

he federal government shutdown of 2018—or, at least, the first one—ended with only one workday missed. To the extent ordinary citizens noticed at all, they likely think it was no big deal. This is especially true with regards to the impact on the U.S. military, who they’ve been steadily assured went right on working, without so much as having to endure the hardship of missing the weekend’s NFL playoff games. In fact, however, millions of man-hours of productivity have been lost from this continuing crisis, with a real impact on readiness.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis issued a memorandum at the onset of the shutdown declaring, “We will continue to execute daily operations around the world—ships and submarines will remain at sea, our aircraft will continue to fly and our warfighters will continue to pursue terrorists throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.” While that absolutely happened—and would have continued for quite some time even in an extended shutdown—that’s not all his department does on a daily basis.

While current operations continue, many training and support activities cease—especially those that require travel. Military students at resident courses, including the one where I teach, are allowed to remain in place to continue their studies, but their civilian faculty are sent home. Ongoing field exercises are typically suspended, with personnel required to return to home station. And, depending on which pots of money they’re paid from, students at nonresident schools are often sent home mid-course, only to have to come back at a later date.

At my own institution, which has a roughly even mix of military and civilian faculty, we were able to weather the 2013 shutdown with only modest inconvenience. While we were in the middle of a block of instruction taught by civilian PhDs, we were able to slide lessons taught by lieutenant colonels and commanders to the left.

This go-around, we happen to be in an elective period, and because we have several outside faculty teaching, adjusting the schedule was impractical. Had the shutdown continued another day, the classes designed and normally taught by the furloughed PhDs would have been picked up mid-term by colonels and lieutenant colonels with twenty-four hours to prepare. It was likely the best out of a set of really bad options, but it would have not only been a suboptimal outcome for the students—themselves majors and lieutenant commanders deserving of the best education we can provide—and put the new instructors in an incredibly awkward position, but it would have taken up valuable preparation time for upcoming classes and exercises led by those same officers.

Additionally, while the military students would have remained in the course, their interagency civilian colleagues were furloughed for the duration. During the 2013 shutdown, which lasted sixteen days, this meant that not only were students from the CIA, State Department, and other agencies missing a significant chunk of the curriculum, but the military students were missing the invaluable perspective that they’re in the room to provide. And, because they’re staffed almost exclusively by civilians, the library and similar critical support facilities were closed, as were all manner of base programs and services for the troops and their families.

As I noted in this space after the October 2013 shutdown, the best estimates are that it costs between $2 billion and $4 billion to prepare for a government shutdown and the same amount to get back up and running. And, while this was the first actual shutdown since then, there have been more than a dozen near-shutdowns in the interim, as we continue to fund the government by continuing resolutions, often mere weeks at a time, and play a constant game of chicken with the debt ceiling.

Beyond the financial cost, of course, there is the impact on morale. DoD civilians constantly worry about being furloughed and whether the next paycheck is coming—including right before Christmas this past year. Then-SecretaryChuck Hagel declared “we can’t continue to do this to our people, having them live under this cloud of uncertainty.” If anything, it’s gotten worse, given the frequency of the brinkmanship.

Perhaps worse than the uncertainty is the constant reminder that we’re less valued. While we’ve finally gotten rid of the insulting “essential” vs. “nonessential” label, opting for the more sterile “exempt” and “nonexempt,” the fact remains that the vast majority of the civilian workforce is considered expendable while every single uniformed member of our armed forces is considered mission-critical—even though they’re frequently doing the identical job.

The flip side of that is that, as Mattis declared in his memo, “active forces will stay at their posts adapting their training to achieve the least negative impact on our readiness to fight.” For the duration of the shutdown—and, again, this one was thankfully short—our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen pull double duty, doing their own jobs while trying to cover for the furloughed civilians.

This is a great cost to the nation and its armed forces for no obvious gain. Historically, Congress has always authorized and the president always signed off on back pay for employees furloughed during a shutdown, so we’re actually paying people not to work. Like the debt ceiling, wherein Congress periodically has to authorize borrowing the money it has already voted to spend or else put the nation in peril, it’s an absurdity that needs to end.

In the meantime, we’re scheduled to go through this farce again on February 8.

Original article

Greater Deference to Generals Has Undermined Civilian Control of the Military

New York Times

December 6, 2016

With Michael Flynn already in place as national security adviser and names like Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton and Newt Gingrich being floated for key foreign policy posts, I breathed a sigh of relief when General James Mattis was announced as Donald Trump’s choice for defense secretary. Yet, while we could certainly do worse, we should be troubled by the prospect of a military man running the Pentagon at a time when the public is so isolated from its armed forces.

While I share the concern of “War on the Rocks” senior editor, Erin Simpson, about whether General Mattis is temperamentally suited to wrestle the Defense Department’s massive bureaucracy, his sterling reputation as a warrior-scholar would earn him instant respect. Yet there’s a reason that Congress, in establishing the position, was emphatic that it be “appointed from civilian life” and specified that the nomination would not be “within seven years [initially 10] after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force.” The military exists to implement policies set forth by civilian leaders. Recently separated officers are likely to reinforce the advice given the president by the Joint Chiefs rather than offer a political perspective.

Kori Schake, who co-edited a recent volume on civil-military affairs with Mattis, assures us that he would be “superb” in the role and dismisses concerns about militarization of the post on grounds that Mattis scrupulously deferred to civilians as a general. Yet she also paints the picture of an American society where few are “directly affected by decisions about our military forces.” Not only is the public therefore “enormously deferential to the military” but “elected leaders seek greater legitimacy by wrapping themselves in public confidence for the military.”

The consequence of this attitudinal shift, completely understandable more than four decades into an all-volunteer military, is to turn the old presumptions about civilian control of the military on their head. While it’s true, as Schake notes, that the brass has been overruled on such issues as gender and homosexual integration, elected leaders show much more deference to generals and admirals than they do to senior bureaucrats in other agencies. This is also true of major news media outlets, who regularly lampoon Congress for having the temerity to buy weapons systems that the Pentagon didn’t ask for or refusing to close military bases the brass insists are excess. Generals who are particularly charismatic and good at courting the press, like David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal or Mattis, are especially influential.

America’s generals have mostly been appropriately deferential to their civilian masters. But the temptation to court a deferential public as an end-around is always there. President Obama was rightly furious when McChrystal’s ambitious Afghanistan surge plan was leaked at a time when the administration was considering moving in the opposite direction. The Pentagon, frustrated by sequestration, has openly challenged Congress, repeatedly exaggerating the consequences of a mere half trillion dollar annual budget and even threatening to close bases without legislative authorization if lawmakers don’t act.

Having a civilian perspective atop the department is vital in this environment.This is doubly important given Trump’s utter lack of knowledge of, or seeming interest in, national security issues. It’s highly problematic, then, that he will have to defer on these matters to his national security adviser and defense secretary, both recently retired generals.

Original article

Generals and Political Interventions in American History

War on The Rocks

August 4, 2016

In a curt letter to The Washington Post, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, reacting to speeches by two recently retired generals — Michael Flynn and John Allen — before the Republican and Democratic conventions, declared that, “The military is not a political prize.” Dempsey explained:

The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference. And our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders.

Certainly, this is not a new controversy.  Way back in 1992, one of Dempsey’s predecessors Admiral William Crowe gave a speech endorsing Bill Clinton for the White House as the future president was facing criticism over his dodging of the draft during Vietnam.  He was soon joined by another 20 retired generals and admirals, many of whom, like Crowe, had seen their military advice overruled by Clinton’s opponent, sitting President George H.W. Bush.

Moreover, the United States has a long history, literally going back to the founding, of retired generals entering politics.  George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Franklin Pierce, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Dwight Eisenhower all rose to the presidency at least partially on the strength of their military records.  In recent times, Wesley Clark ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination and there was a serious effort to recruit Colin Powell to run as well.  Indeed, there was an effort this cycle to draft Jim Mattis, who showed no interest in the pursuit.

Retired generals have involved themselves into political debates in myriad other ways. Ten years ago, in what came to be called the “revolt of the generals,” when several just-retired generals, most of whom had been “in the inner circle of policy formation or execution of the Administration,” openly lambasted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with whom they’d had disagreements while in uniform, over the Iraq War.  And, of course, the nickname of the controversy was a play on the “revolt of the admirals” of 1949, in which active and retired flag officers squared off against President Harry Truman over a decision to cut an aircraft carrier to fund a new strategic bomber.

The ethical norms around each of these political interventions differs and none of them are particularly well-settled. There is no serious question whether they have a legal right to do any of these things; they clearly do. Yet there is reason to be concerned about the impact on civil-military relations when the most senior officers join the political fray.

Clearly, there’s a distinction between declaring oneself a candidate for office and endorsing a candidate.   As Duke political scientist Peter Feaver notes, “When you stand for office you officially cross over and become a politician — you are viewed as a partisan politician and thenceforth can only speak as a partisan.”

But what about endorsing? Obviously, it makes no sense to declare a moratorium on any veteran or former soldier ever speaking about politics. That would disenfranchise a huge number of people and deprive the public debate of an important perspective.  And, indeed, it would be an odd argument for me to make, since I’m a former Army officer.

While there is no clear standard, the rank at which one separated from the service and the proximity of said separation are part of the equation.  Nobody seriously thinks someone who left active duty as a first lieutenant, as I did, represents the service.  And, even for very senior officers, that presumption fades with time.

Dempsey took a stab out laying out the distinction while he was still chairman. In a May 2014 session at the Atlantic Council, he observed:

If you want to get out of the military and run for office, I’m all for it. But don’t get out of the military – and this is a bit controversial, I got it – don’t get out of the military and become a political figure by throwing your support behind a particular candidate.

His rationale is spot on

[I]f somebody asks me, when I retire, to support them in a political campaign, do you think they’re asking Marty Dempsey, or are they asking General Dempsey? I am a general for life, and I should remain true to our professional ethos, which is to be apolitical for life unless I run.

Retired Navy Vice Admiral Doug Crowder, writing in Proceedings last November, expanded that argument, contendingthat those who wear stars on their shoulder boards “are not merely private citizens after retirement” but rather part of a unique vanguard:  a general or “admiral for life.”

Crowder explains that his view on the issue was informed by his experience serving on the Joint Staff early in the Clinton administration when a civilian staffer, annoyed at being told that an issue being proposed would be opposed by the chairman, responded, “Well, maybe it’s time we got some Clinton generals in here.”

He was aghast at the notion that the civilian leadership would think senior officers would fail to support the elected commander-in-chief for partisan reasons, until he remembered that Crowe had in fact joined the fray in endorsing Clinton during the campaign. Crowder writes, “I have never met a finer officer and gentleman, but I could see how the public could misunderstand why an admiral was making a public political endorsement of a presidential candidate.”

As Crowder notes, “the Crowe endorsement opened the floodgates for future retired flag and general officer political endorsements.” They are now routinely trotted out by both parties. During the 2012 cycle a full page newspaper ad ran “listing the well over 300 retired flag and general officers who ‘Proudly support Governor Mitt Romney as our nation’s next President and Commander-in-Chief.’”

Certainly the Republic has not crumbled as a result. And the military continues to be near the top of all institutions in terms of the confidence of the American public. Still, the next president will surely have cause to wonder about the loyalty of the senior officers upon whose “best military advice” they are counting.

There are few general officers, active or retired, whose judgment on national security matters I respect more than John Allen’s. While there are things in his convention speech with which I disagree, I share his assessment that Hillary Clinton is more fit to serve as commander-in-chief than Donald Trump (granted, a low bar).

But Allen didn’t simply present himself as a seasoned policy hand.  His very first words in his convention speech were,

My fellow Americans, I stand with you tonight as a retired four-star general of the United States Marine Corps, and I am joined bymy fellow generals and admirals, and with these magnificent young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan” [emphasis mine].

He thus wrapped himself not only in his own substantial personal credibility but in that of his profession.

That continued after the speech. Trump, as is his wont, counterpunched, calling Allen “a failed general.” In response, Allen invoked the prestige of his profession, retorting, “He has no credibility to criticize me or my record or anything I have done.” He continued, “If he’d spent a minute in the deserts of Afghanistan or in the deserts of Iraq, I might listen to what he has to say.”  Worse yet, he termed Trump’s comments “a direct insult to every single man and woman who’s wearing the uniform today.”

Now, Trump’s assertion that Allen is a “failed general” because we haven’t defeated the Islamic State is at best simplistic and arguably absurd. But, having joined the political fray in such a full-throated way, Allen is fair game. Hiding behind the armor of the uniform he proudly wore and the troops who now serve is highly problematic for the institution, which holds such high prestige and has such tremendous value in our system of government precisely because it is viewed as a loyal servant of the nation rather than a partisan tool.

Further, it makes Allen’s warnings that electing Trump could result in “a civil military crisis, the like of which we’ve not seen in this country,” especially ominous.  He was, rightly, pointing out the moral dilemma that would face the uniformed leadership were Trump to assume office and actually try and enact some of the off-the-cuff musings on international relations as policy. Were Trump to assume the mantle of commander-in-chief and issue an order the brass believed unlawful, they would have a duty to advise him accordingly and to abide by the laws of this nation and the laws of war. There are appropriate venues for airing that discussion, such as a Congressional hearing. A national political convention is not one of them. But, in context of a retired general who has just spoken as a party convention, it comes across as a warning that the military would be disloyal if a president of the wrong party were elected. This could lead to a calamitous state of affairs.

Meanwhile, Flynn not only spoke at the Republican convention but was purportedly on the short list to be Trump’s running mate. Even though he was not selected for the ticket, he has taken on an attack dog role, even carrying the fight to Twitter where, in what one hopes was a newbie’s incompetence, he enthusiastically retweeted an anti-Semitic attack on Clinton. That is, to say the least, not a good look.

Flynn, who retired as the three-star head of the Defense Intelligence Agency just shy of two years ago, has been an active opponent of the Obama White House almost from the moment he hung up his uniform. He declared last year that, “The people in the United States have lost respect and confidence in their government to be able to solve the problems that we face now and in the future.” Feaver warned at the time that Flynn’s aggressive criticism could undermine policymakers’ confidence in the brass: “If they suspect ‘this guy’s going to retire and then go on MSNBC and bash me,’ [they might decide] ‘let’s not have that person in the room when we’re really discussing the issues.’” That would be both understandable and catastrophic.

It is technically true, as Richard Swain argues, that “retired officers remain members of the armed forces by law and regulation” and it is therefore reasonable to assume that “they remain at least ethically obliged to observe the limitations imposed by commissioned service.” But there has been little precedent for holding them to that standard. Nor is it reasonable to expect, for example, a retired lieutenant colonel, who already rendered at least two decades of service, to continue to abstain from the full rights and privileges of citizenship for the remainder of his life.

Still, we can nonetheless formalize professional norms for retired generals and admirals. Don Snider, a retired Army colonel and longtime scholar of the profession, argues:

While retirement from active duty does make each one a newly nonpracticing professional, in the world of public perceptions they still act and speak, and are seen and heard, as an esteemed member of the military profession.

As such, they continue to have an obligation to ensure that officership is perceived as “a real profession as opposed to just another governmental bureaucracy.” Otherwise, they undermine the confidence of the civilian leadership, the American public, and rank-and-file soldiers.

We can begin with the distinction that holds for active duty officers and, to a lesser extent, civilian employees of the Defense Department between partisan politicking and issue advocacy. It’s perfectly reasonable and likely valuable for retired officers to weigh in on public debates on controversial issues, like gender integration or proposed military action, where it would be inappropriate or difficult for serving generals to weigh in where their civilian masters have spoken.  (Although, here, the rule may well be the opposite as that for partisan endorsements: the longer the officer has been out of uniform, the less valuable his expertise.)

At the same time, it’s clearly inappropriate for retired generals and admirals to endorse or oppose the re-election of officials they’ve recently served or worked alongside. It simply smacks of disloyalty and brings into retrospective question the advice they rendered while in uniform. Further, it gives the impression, true or otherwise, that their views are shared by their successors — especially those who were protégées. Relatedly, if the endorser is later appointed to a plum post in the administration, as Crowe was, then it looks very much like the imprimatur of the military profession has been auctioned off for advancement.

We already impose a statutory moratorium on certain senior officers from lobbying or accepting a contract from their former agency for two years after retirement. Adding a ban on using their title in partisan political activity for, say, five years would serve the same purpose — removing the appearance of impropriety — without permanently taking them out of the arena. This wouldn’t solve the problem entirely but would put some space between an individual’s time in uniform and partially mitigate the impression that they are speaking for those with whom they recently served.

In an ideal world, retired generals and admirals would simply refuse, as non-practicing members of the profession of arms, to refrain from endorsing political candidates or otherwise engaging in partisan activity.  A Flynn or Allen could still speak out on national security issues that concern them, including those that are part of an ongoing campaign, without explicitly endorsing candidates or appearing at a party convention.  Few would criticize them if they had instead appeared at a think tank or before Congress arguing for a more aggressive approach to fighting ISIL, warning of the dangers to embracing torture, or abandoning protections for non-combatants.

It is essential that our generals and admirals are perceived as loyal to the Constitution, not a political party. A commander-in-chief should have every confidence that they are receiving the best military advice from the chairman, the service chiefs, combatant commanders, and other senior military leaders. Otherwise, it would absolutely be appropriate for the next president to look for “Clinton generals” or “Trump admirals” to fill the top billets. And we clearly do not want that to happen.

Original article

Sexual Assault in the Military and the Unlawful Command Influence Catch-22

War on The Rocks

James Joyner and James Weirick

October 7, 2015

Recently, a military appellate court once again overturned a rape conviction on the grounds of unlawful command influence. This time (United States v. Garcia), the source of the influence went beyond a base commander or even a service chief and included comments made by President Obama and the general climate around sexual assault in the military command structure.

Concerns over the military’s ability to effectively deal with sexual assaults had been percolating for years. These concerns were exacerbated by a spate of high-profile sexual assault cases: Naval Academy football players accused of sexual assault, members of the Fort Hood Sexual Assault Response Team accused of operating a prostitution ring, the head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office arrested for sexual battery, and two Air Force general officers — Lt. Gen Susan Helms and Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin — overturning subordinates’ convictions for sexual assault.

With this background, the Senate Committee on Armed Services convened a hearing in June 2013 to investigate the ability of the military to effectively combat sexual assaults in the ranks. The panel included then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, all the service chiefs, and their uniformed legal advisors, or judge advocates general (JAGs). The chiefs and their JAGs were unanimous in their insistence on the criticality of “maintaining the central role of the commander in our military justice system.”

From this hearing emerged proposed legislative changes that fall into two camps, one headed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, (D-MO), and the other by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY).  The Gillibrand proposal would remove commanders from the decision to prosecute serious crimes, such as sexual assault and murder, while leaving uniquely military crimes to the chain of command. McCaskill’s plan leaves the decision to prosecute sexual assaults with commanders and focuses on mandatory minimum sentences, protecting victims from retaliation, and prohibiting a commander from overturning the results of a trial.  McCaskill’s changes have been approved, while Gillibrand’s proposals have twice fallen short of the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster in the Senate.

In the meantime, an ironic twist has further complicated the matter. In order to address the burgeoning issue of sexual assault in the ranks and combat the perception that dealing with it was not a priority, President Obama, service secretaries, service chiefs, and commanders down to the lowest levels mounted an aggressive campaign to highlight the severity of the issue to service members. Thousands of speeches were given and extensive training was instituted. This very campaign was found to constitute “unlawful command influence” under Article 37(a) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which provides that “No authority convening a general, special, or summary court-martial, nor any other commanding officer, may censure, reprimand, or admonish the court or any member, military judge, or counsel thereof, with respect to the findings or sentence adjudged by the court, or with respect to any other exercises of its or his functions in the conduct of the proceedings” and that “No person subject to this chapter may attempt to coerce or, by any unauthorized means, influence the action of a court-martial or any other military tribunal or any member thereof, in reaching the findings or sentence in any case, or the action of any convening, approving, or reviewing authority with respect to his judicial acts.”

The recent spate of unlawful command influence rulings began with a Navy judge’s finding that President Obama’s comments about sexual assault unduly influenced any potential sentencing.

Then, in the high-profile prosecution of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffery Sinclair for sexual assault against a subordinate, themilitary judge ruled that unlawful command influence had tainted the trial. Former Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos, was also found to have exercised unlawful command influence when he commenced on a worldwide speaking tour addressing the Corps about the problem of sexual assault. His actions resulted in a military court of appeals overturning a conviction for sexual assault.

It is with this background that the Garcia case was decided. The Garcia opinion noted that “with multiple references — some overt and others thinly veiled — to the Army’s efforts to confront sexual assault, the government attempted to impermissibly influence the panel’s findings by injecting command policy into the trial.” In the Garcia case, the prosecutor repeatedly, and improperly, mentioned the Army’s stance on sexual assaults. The military judge failed to provide the proper limiting instructions to the jury, i.e., to ignore the prosecutor’s repeated references to the Army’s stance on the problem of sexual assault. This issue would not exist, but for the repeated public statements by senior Army officials, and other government officials, about the need to eradicate sexual assault from the military. It is this means of improper influence that is so difficult to remove from a military trial, even with a military judge vigilantly policing the arguments of the prosecutor.

To be sure, improper and inflammatory appeals are common in civilian trials. Even though they are plainly prejudicial and have nothing whatsoever to do with whether the defendant committed the particular crime for which he is on trial, prosecutors often implore jurors to “send a message” about the unacceptability of rape, drunk driving, or what-have-you.  For that matter, as we’ve seen in the recent turmoil over police misconduct, mayors, governors, and even presidents frequently make impassioned statements about ongoing cases that could influence potential jurors.

Military justice is simply different. Because military jurors are under obligation to follow the orders of those above them — and in particular the president, secretary of defense, and senior generals — the command climate and references to the wishes of senior leaders are much more difficult for military jurors to discount. Civilian jurors are simply not subject to that same pressure. Which, in turn, means military defendants need more protection than their civilian counterparts.

Officers take an oath to the Constitution, which makes the president their commander-in-chief. Enlisted personnel additionally swear to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Doing otherwise not only breaks their covenant with the nation but places them in legal jeopardy under the UCMJ.

For good reason, uniformed military personnel are bound by all manner of restrictions not applicable to civilians, even civilian employees of the Defense Department. Officers may be punished for using “contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present.” Any uniformed member who “willfully disobeys a lawful command of his superior commissioned officer,” “violates or fails to obey any lawful general order or regulation,” or even merely “behaves with disrespect toward his superior commissioned officer” is subject to court-martial. A service member can even be punished for failing to shave or wearing his or her hair out of regulation.

Further, while officers and noncommissioned officers are expected to exercise good judgment and to disobey orders that are obviously illegal, the culture is one that instills obedience for lawful orders. While there is the requirement to disobey obviously illegal orders, one does so at one’s peril. If the service member is later tried for disobeying an order, it is presumed that the order is lawful, and the accused bears the burden of rebutting the presumption. Moreover, especially when coming from the president and general officers, the merest expressed wish of those higher in the chain of command is treated as an order enjoying a presumption of lawfulness. For Marines, in particular, the commandant’s word is gospel.

Thus, most of the public conversation on this topic has been focused on the wrong problem. While it’s true that some commanders have failed to vigorously do their jobs in prosecuting sexual assault as a serious crime, that’s fixable. The real problem is that commanders have two jobs here — sending the message that sexual assault will not be tolerated and prosecuting those who break the law — that are in conflict. Because the first of those jobs is essential to the commander’s role while the second can be done by objective outside professionals, the two must be split.

The unlawful command influence restriction unnecessarily hampers senior leadership from trying to solve serious issues like the sexual-assault problem. While Amos was particularly ham-fisted in his messaging, his heart was in the right place by placing great emphasis on an issue that was impacting the welfare of the female Marines in his charge and the cohesion of his Corps.

And, of course, no one is going to stop the president of the United States or service secretaries from grandstanding when a military issue comes into the spotlight and puts pressure on them to weigh in. Commander-in-chief is only one of many hats the president wears and declining to speak out in the face of public perception that sexual assault is rampant in our armed forces would be unthinkable.

The combination of these two factors makes taking felonies out of the UCMJ imperative. For minor offenses — many of which aren’t crimes in the civilian world — the uniqueness of the military occupation, exigencies of location, and considerations as to whether an individual is otherwise a “good soldier” make the longstanding practice of commanders having a heavy influence vital for “good order and discipline.”

But felonies are a different matter. There, the aim is punishing transgression and separation of a bad egg from not only the military ranks but society at large. The civilian courts, lacking the conflict of interest inherent in military command, are simply the better venue for dealing with that.

The shared experiences of our allies — the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia — have demonstrated that removing felonies from their systems of military justice has increased the fairness and transparency of criminal trials, while maintaining the commander’s ability to ensure good order and discipline.

The United States federal justice system has demonstrated that it is well equipped to handle these types of felonies, even with the exigencies of location and unique difficulties presented by crimes committed on the battlefield. Military contractors are the closest analog to service members, and the recent convictions of four former Blackwater employees for murder, resulting from deaths of 17 Iraqis in 2007, demonstrates the feasibility of removing felonies from military jurisdiction while ensuring justice.

It is time to remove felony crimes from military jurisdiction. Military leaders have an obligation to address issues such as sexual assault and do all that they can to eradicate this scourge from our ranks. But as recent history had clearly demonstrated, these laudable efforts continue to result in criminal trials that courts find unfair and are forced to dismiss. The solution is to remove these cases from military jurisdiction, thus enabling commanders to continue to communicate openly with their units without impacting the fairness of criminal trials.

Original article

In Defense of Crazy Talk: Why Bradford’s West Point Article is Worth Talking About

War on The Rocks

September 10, 2015

The dust has now settled after William C. Bradford, a newly hired West Point law professor, made headlines for a controversial essay published in the little-read student-run National Security Law Journal. The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman reported that Bradford was denied tenure a decade ago from the Indiana University School of Law for wildly misrepresenting his military service and that, in the law review article in question, he seems to have misrepresented his affiliation with the National Defense University. These offenses made his employment by a military academy whose honor code is central to its mission untenable. It was therefore not surprising when Bradford resigned.

So that’s the end of it, right? We can all just forget about this sorry episode? Wrong.

While I wholeheartedly reject not only Bradford’s outrageous argument but most of the premises from which it flows, I rise to a qualified defense of the article on a number of fronts and I think we owe it to ourselves to keep talking about it.

Bradford’s article argues that a handful of prominent American legal scholars are a “fifth column” lending support to the Islamist enemies of the United States and should therefore be targeted for death as combatants in the war on terrorism. The argument is absurd on both first glance and deeper reading. It is nonetheless a highly valuable contribution to the national security debate.

First, there’s great value in outrageous but well-argued polemic. By pushing an argument to its logical extreme, Bradford has invited a vigorous pushback from the scholarly community. Second, debating the article would be especially valuable for cadets and more senior officers alike, many of whom share some of Bradford’s premises, even if they might never come to his extreme conclusions. Third, Bradford’s argument presents an opportunity to examine some actual U.S. policies.

Following the firestorm, the article was repudiated by the incoming editorial board of the National Security Law Journal in which it was published as an “egregious breach of professional decorum” and excoriated in its pages as “bonkers” by George Mason law professor Jeremy Rabkin, who calls its central charge that prominent scholars are intentionally acting on behalf of Islamists “too preposterous for anyone to take seriously.”

Interestingly, Bradford and Rabkin were among the signatories of a March 2003 public letter calling attention to the legal prohibition against Saddam Hussein’s government’s use of human shields to protect its military forces from impending attack from the U.S.-led coalition. Both are conservative legal scholars inclined to sympathize with the plight of a United States government hamstrung by international norms in fighting enemies who do not observe them. They simply reach different conclusions on where to draw the line.

Indeed, Rabkin and the student editors are not indisputably right. While I find the notion that the scholars should be murdered because their arguments happen to aid the jihadists risible (to put it mildly) there is certainly precedent for arguing that scholars have some responsibilities as citizens to consider how their arguments impact their country’s war efforts. There’s room for debate as to whether that obligation still exists and, if so, where the line is drawn and how the interests of the state are balanced with freedom of speech.

Bradford repeatedly feeds into a variation of the sentiment, popular in military circles since the Vietnam era, that America is fighting a “limited war” with one hand tied behind its back while its enemy fights a “total war” with no constraints. His central premise is that the Islamist foe, notably the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, are fighting a “fourth generation war” on the field of battle but nonetheless “will prevail if they psychologically exhaust the West, inveigle its peoples into doubting the utility and morality of the war, make the price of victory exceed the costs, and compel its peoples to pressure their governments to abandon the fight.” In particular, Bradford contends, the Islamists are exploiting Western fealty to the rule of law and, especially, a law of armed conflict (LOAC) that evolved over centuries of fighting like-minded foes.

Building from this foundation — which is itself perfectly reasonable — Bradford argues in exhausting detail (the essay is 193 pages long and contains 774 footnotes) that prominent Western legal scholars are abetting this strategy by harping on violations of these rules while giving little attention to the fact that the enemy is not playing by them at all.

He notes that respect for the rule of law has been a core belief of Americans, especially the elites, going back to the Declaration of Independence and is central to its foreign policy. Therefore, “for America to be chastised for violations of law, or worse, branded a rogue and anomic regime, threatens the fundament of U.S. legitimacy.” Thus, mere allegations of LOAC violations — and especially charges by well-respected legal scholars that their country is fighting an illegal war — “directly assault American political will.” Further, Bradford argues, this is not an indirect effect but central to the enemy’s strategy:

This is precisely why Islamist strategists have orchestrated a two-dimensioned operational plan consisting of an information element — a PSYOP campaign — supported by a military element — the unlawful use of armed force — to convince Americans that the United States is an evil regime that elected to fight an illegal war against Islam, that the United States systematically commits violations of law in prosecuting this war, that U.S. crimes erode national security and destroy core values, and that the only way the United States can restore its moral virtue, recommit to the rule of law, and protect itself, is to withdraw in defeat.

Bradford here evokes the “stabbed in the back” mythos popularized by Colonel Harry Summers and other military apologists for the loss of the Vietnam War:

The most transparent example of the power of elite institutions to shape popular opinion as to the legitimacy of U.S. participation in wars is the traditional media. During the Vietnam War, despite an unbroken series of U.S. battlefield victories, the media first surrendered itself over to a foreign enemy for use as a psychological weapon against Americans, not only expressing criticism of U.S. purpose and conduct but adopting an ”antagonistic attitude toward everything America was and represented” and ”spinning” U.S. military success to convince Americans that they were losing, and should quit, the war. Subordinating reality to a “narrative,” journalistic alchemists converted victory into defeat simply by pronouncing it; Americans, sitting rapt at their televisions but lacking facts to gainsay the media version of events and as yet unaccustomed to doubting media personalities, accepted the verdict. When CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite misrepresented the failed North Vietnamese Tet Offensive of January 1968 — an operational win for the U.S. — as a Communist victory,” the imprimatur of “the most trusted man in America” made it so.

Bradford’s rhetoric here is almost comically over-the-top. But his version of events has strong support in both military and national security circles.

From here, Bradford argues that “Islamists have identified strongpoints and force multipliers” to help them “attrit American political will” within “an interconnected government-media-academic complex” of “public officials, media, and academics who mould mass opinion on legal and security issues.” Bradford asserts that “Whereas these institutions and intellectuals once embraced values consonant with the society in which they root, over the past half-century they have sharply diverged.” Again, while this argument is strained, its basic premise is widely shared in military and conservative foreign policy circles.

Nor is Bradford mistaken in arguing that legal scholars at America’s most prestigious institutions are generally “regarded as neutral arbiters of truth dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and above the American political and cultural fray.” While it greatly overstates things to say that “their pronouncements on all manner of subjects, including U.S. conduct in the war with Islamism, are received by the lay public as the essence of wisdom itself,” they doubtless shape public opinion substantially. Indeed, Bradford is likely right that those of us who question the way the United States has fought the war on terror have helped to undermine domestic support for the war effort — questioning everything from our use of torture and drones to the excesses of Abu Graib and Guantanamo — and that this helps the Islamists. In my judgment, that’s the price of living in a democracy. Bradford is simultaneously correct that the LOAC hampers our fight against an enemy that doesn’t abide by it and wrong in concluding that we should therefore abandon it.

Jumping from this premise, Bradford identifies “about forty contemptuously critical LOACA scholars” who have stood out in this regard “by proposing that LOAC restrictions on Islamists be waived to provide unilateral advantage, that Western states face more rigorous compliance standards, and that captured Islamist militants be restored to the battlefield, effectively tilt the battlefield against U.S. forces, contribute to timorousness and lethargy in U.S. military commanders, constrain U.S. military power, enhance the danger to U.S. troops, and potentiate the cognitive effects of Islamist military operations.” Furthermore, “rather than make good-faith legal arguments as to what LOAC does, does not, should, and should not require, offers up politicized arguments — against evidence and reason — that the Islamist jihad is a reaction to valid grievances against U.S. foreign policy.” Thus, Bradford contends, they are actively helping the enemy and thus should be targeted accordingly.

While the implication that we should execute these critics strikes me as nuts, it’s not that far down a slippery slope from actual U.S. policy during the war on terror. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed into law the USA PATRIOT Act, greatly increasing the discretion of the president and power of the agencies under him to go after those suspected of ties to terrorist organizations, both at home and abroad, while substantially curtailing judicial authority to check excesses.

Most notably, the Bush administration claimed the right to declare American citizens suspected of ties to al-Qaeda or the Taliban “illegal enemy combatants” and deny them the most fundamental civil liberties, including imprisoning them without trial or access to an attorney. Yaser Esam Hamdi was detained for almost three years without charge, until the Supreme Court ruled that he was entitled to due process. He continued to be held for several months after that ruling and only released on the condition that he renounce his citizenship, agree not to sue the U.S. government for its treatment of him, and agree to be deported to Saudi Arabia.

Hamdi, at least, was actually an enemy combatant, captured fighting against American soldiers in Afghanistan. Jose Padilla was arrested at a Chicago airport on suspicion of plotting a radiological bomb attack, held without habeus corpus as a material witness, and then declared an enemy combatant and held in a U.S. military prison despite having no military affiliation. Specifically, the president found “that Padilla was an enemy combatant who (1) was ‘closely associated with al Qaeda, an international terrorist organization with which the United States is at war’; (2) had engaged in ’war-like acts, including conduct in preparation for acts of international terrorism’ against the United States; (3) had intelligence that could assist the United States to ward off future terrorist attacks; and (4) was a continuing threat to United States security.”

Despite several judicial rulings that this exceeded the president’s constitutional authority (the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on this for technical reasons), he was denied access to counsel for two years. He was ultimately convicted on charges tangential to those on which he was held, namely that he had “participated in a South Florida-based al-Qaeda support cell that in the ’90s began to send money and people to wage holy war in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo and Somalia.”

More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s successor, a former constitutional law professor at an elite university, authorized a fatal strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen “who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes,” for his role as an al-Qaeda recruiter and jihadist motivational speaker. (I should add that, while I have some misgivings about the rationale used and its potential implications, I support the specific decision in the killing al-Awlaki for reasons outlined elsewhere.)

And yet as Freedom House’s Arch Puddington and Thomas O. Melia note in their assessment of the impact on civil liberties of the war on terror,

It is important to point out that the setbacks to individual rights during the war on terrorism pose less severe threats to American liberty than those that arose during the major conflicts of the past. The United States has not declared a wholesale suspension of habeas corpus rights, outlawed political dissent, placed tens of thousands of nonwhite residents in domestic detention centers, ordered security services to conduct campaigns of surveillance against war critics, or blacklisted entertainers and academics who differed with the policies of the federal government. Nor has the government taken sweeping action against the press, despite article after article that revealed sensitive information about counterterrorism initiatives.

It’s noteworthy that Melia is now a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Thankfully, most of us agree that killing thinkers for the crime of pointing out the legal and moral flaws in U.S. war policy goes way beyond the pale. But most also accept that the exigencies of war sometimes require changes to business as usual, including some restrictions on otherwise fundamental rights and exceptions to otherwise sacrosanct moral principles. Bradford, presumably unintentionally, points to the absurd extreme. Where the actual line between the two is drawn, however, is subject to continuous debate. Bradford’s essay can help drive it.

Original article

The Inter-Service Wars are Looking Like Calvinball

War on The Rocks

August 26, 2015

In an iconic installment of “Calvin & Hobbes,” the beloved comic strip by Bill Watterson, little Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes are playing baseball. Calvin gets a hit and rounds the bases to home, but Hobbes cries foul. “You didn’t touch all the bases!” he tells Calvin. Calvin protests and Hobbes retorts, “You didn’t touch seventh base.” They then debate what all the bases are, revealing there are at least 23 bases in addition to — as Hobbes reveals — a “secret base.” Calvin asks where it is and Hobbes tells him he can’t say. It is a secret, after all. A confounded Calvin grouses, “I can’t believe this moronic sport is our national pastime.”

This is how I often feel as I watch the inter-service wars — increasingly the national pastime of the U.S. military.

In their recent essay at War on the Rocks, “Airpower May Not Win Wars, But It Sure Doesn’t Lose Them,” two senior Air Force pilots, Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken, argue that the United States has departed from “the successful post-Vietnam template that relied on airpower to seek limited objectives” in favor of a “ground-centric approach” that “failed to achieve stated goals” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Few national security analysts would disagree with their assessment of the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the key words of their thesis are “limited objectives” and “stated goals,” not “airpower” or “ground-centric.”

The United States should stop fighting unwinnable wars, whether by land, sea, or air. Alas, given that its political leadership has repeatedly ignored that advice, it would be foolish to make force planning decisions based on a fantasy alternate reality. As a wise man once noted, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

It’s true that airpower was the primary U.S. and NATO contribution to the successes in Bosnia (Deliberate Force, 1995) and Kosovo (Allied Force, 1999). But the victories in Grenada (Urgent Fury, 1983) and Panama (Just Cause, 1989) were predominantly ground combat operations. What these victories had in common was very limited strategic goals that were amenable to quick resolution by military force.

Having served as an Army field artillery officer in Desert Storm, I’d like to think ground forces helped win that war. But, certainly, the massive aerial campaign that went first was the main effort. (And doubtless saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of us ground pounders.) Regardless, we won a decisive and relatively quick victory mostly because our aims were exceedingly narrow: force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait.

A dozen years later, our successors accomplished a much more challenging mission — invading the heart of Iraq and toppling Saddam’s regime — in half the time with a quarter of the forces and half the casualties of Operation Desert Storm. The failure was in achieving the nebulous, arguably unachievable, follow-on objective that post-Saddam Iraq would “set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation.” To the extent that goal — for which some 4,400 Americans died in vain trying to achieve — was attainable through U.S. military action, it was going to be facilitated by ground forces. But it wasn’t going to happen in an acceptable timeframe, without a massive mobilization of forces, or otherwise fit within the political constraints rightly imposed by a democratic society on war aims so tangential to the national interest.

But let’s not forget that, in the intervening period, a series of aerial operations (Southern Watch from 1991 to 2003, Northern Watch from 1997 to 2003, Desert Strike in 1996, and Desert Fox in 1998) failed to achieve much less ambitious aims in Iraq. Saddam continued to repress the civilian population, conduct air operations, and thumb his nose at UN nuclear inspectors throughout the period, and attempted to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush to boot.

For that matter, while Pietrucha and Renken are right when they note that “the ground-centric military paradigm undertaken in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom was strategically questionable, costly, and did not prevent the emergence of strengthened radical Islamist movements,” the same could be said of more than a decade of air strikes not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in places such as Pakistan and Yemen. And, while I wholeheartedly share President Barack Obama’s reluctance to deploy significant American ground forces against the Islamic State, it’s worth noting that a year of a rather heavy “air-centric military paradigm” hasn’t exactly been a rousing success, contrary to what Pietrucha and Renken argue.

The authors argue that landpower was unsuccessful in Vietnam because it could only be applied “at extreme cost in blood, treasure and popular support.” But it’s not as if the Air Force or naval aviation sat that war out. A massive, years-long bombing campaign did nothing to further our strategic aims. As noted by Dennis M. Drew, a retired Air Force colonel and long-time member of the Air University faculty, Operation Rolling Thunder, “the longest sustained aerial bombing campaign in history,” spectacularly failed to achieve the objectives set forth at the outset: “to persuade the North Vietnamese to quit the war, or failing that, to entice them to the negotiating table to arrange a compromise settlement of the problems in Southeast Asia.” Follow-on missions, notably Operations Linebacker I and Linebacker II, were more tactically successful but nonetheless not strategically decisive. As with the ground war, military superiority over the enemy couldn’t overcome the unachievable political objectives and the concomitant constraints on the use of force.

Pietrucha and Renken rightly note that the dropping of two atomic bombs was the decisive blow in the Pacific theater in World War II and claim this “settled that airpower could end wars.” But our political leadership wisely rejected the idea of using atomic weapons in Korea and Vietnam and never seriously considered using them in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our strategic aims seldom rise to the level at which the nuclear option is viable. At the same time, they repeatedly rise to the level at which our democratically elected leaders deem war necessary.

In fairness, Pietrucha and Renken fully admit that airpower has its limitations. But they judge it by different standards than they do ground combat. They seem to dismiss the failure of aerial warfare to achieve our stated political aims as a feature — “reversibility that preserve[s] options for decision-makers” — rather than a bug. Meanwhile, “landpower proved insufficient to meet the challenges” and “produced costly failures that we should not be eager to repeat” even in wars in which a massive application of airpower was employed in conjunction with the ground campaign. Airpower can win but never lose only if we’re playing Hobbes’ version of baseball or, even better, Calvinball — the game invented by Calvin in which the players may declare new rules at any point in the game.

Naturally, all of this is about a budget fight. The authors contend that “both the Air Force and Navy are struggling to make up for chronic neglect brought on by a focus on land campaigns” and suggest that budget resources should be allocated more generously to the U.S. Air Force and Navy rather than to the Army.

First off, while it’s certainly true that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were exceedingly costly in terms of American blood and treasure, it’s hard to argue with a straight face that it has resulted in “neglect” for the Air Force and Navy. We have, after all, famously continued to pour billions into the F-35 boondoggle which costs more than the entire GDP of Australia, enough to buy every homeless person in America a mansion, or whatever other cutesy comparison you’d like to make for a trillion-dollar airplane. Meanwhile, the Navy is getting ready to field the first Ford-class aircraft carrier at just under $13 billion a copy, with two more on the way.

Second, the Obama administration is already doing precisely what they recommend. The Army and Marine Corps, which bore the brunt of the last fourteen years of fighting, are being drastically downsized. The Army is shrinking from a wartime high of 570,000 to 450,000 and could fall as low as 420,000 if sequestration remains in place. (This, as the talking point goes, issmaller than it’s been since before WWII. That’s technically if only barely true, but largely meaningless in terms of combat power.) The Marine Corps drops from a wartime high of 204,000 to 182,000, or 175,000 under sequestration. Meanwhile, the main austerity inflicted on the Air Force is doing away with the A-10, whose sole mission is to support the Army, while the Navy is having to do with fewer Littoral Combat Ships used to support Marines. Indeed, while the Army budget plummets from a wartime high of $287.2 billion to $126.5 billion in FY2016 constant dollars, the Air Force only drops from $183.8 billion to $152.9 billion. The Navy takes a modest haircut, going from $194.4 billion to $161.2 billion — much of which comes out of the hide of the Marine Corps.

Given limited resources, a rising China, a resurgent Russia, and a weariness around counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, that’s arguably a sound policy. If, as Pietrucha and Renken suggest, we can simply rely on being “isolated by two great oceans,” accept “limited objectives,” and stop expecting “decisive conclusion[s]” to our disputes with other countries, it’s certainly the right call.

Yet history shows that this can never remain American policy for long. We are, as the historian Geoffrey Perret dubbed us more than a quarter century ago, “A Country Made by War.” Indeed, we’ve fought an awful lot of them since. While even sequestration-sized Army and Marine Corps would be more than adequate for any deterrent mission plus various special operations, humanitarian relief missions, and other small deployments, they’d be woefully inadequate for a re-run of the last decade.

While the obvious solution is the one stated at the outset — avoid such a re-run — a global superpower never runs out of challenges to its perceived interests. Recall that the man who led us into Iraq campaigned on a “humble foreign policy” that eschewed “nation-building.”

Original article

Don’t Believe Everything You Read in the Papers

War on the Rocks
July 25, 2014

Many of us have experienced occasions where we’ve read about an event in which we were a participant — either as a direct actor or merely an observer — and found ourselves perplexed by the written account. Whether because of an ideological agenda, an inadequate understanding of the topic, or — more commonly — a desire for a juicy headline and a scandal, reporters frequently misrepresent what transpired or was said. Paradoxically, however, we instinctively treat reports about events where we were not present as gospel.

Recently, a collaborator and I fell into this trap. A series of venues reported some remarks by General Jim Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, which seemingly questioned the president’s leadership on issues of international security, blamed the current crisis in Iraq on his fecklessness, and strongly implied that the president had betrayed the sacrifices of American warriors who had died there. As strong advocates for civilian control of the military, we submitted a blistering piece to War on the Rocks outlining the proper limitations for general officers publicly speaking on matters of policy, explaining the rationale for those limitations, and ending with Amos standing at attention in the Oval Office being reminded of his place in the chain of command. It was right on all counts — except for the not so minor detail that Amos hadn’t done what we were criticizing him for doing.

Late last week, several press accounts about the speech Amos delivered at the Brookings Institute began circulating.

Foreign Policy (“Top Marine Commander: Iraq Chaos Shows Costs of U.S. Withdrawal”) seems to have broken the news and set the stage for our reaction. They reported:

Stepping into an intensifying political debate, the head of the Marine Corps said the United States doesn’t have the luxury of isolationism and said Iraq’s deterioration may have been prevented if Washington had maintained a larger U.S. presence there.

We first saw the story via a Fiscal Times report headlined “Top Marine to Obama: Get in the Fight.” The article began with a provocative lede: “It’s highly unusual for a high-ranking soldier, let alone a high-ranking Marine, to publicly question White House and Pentagon policy. Yet that’s exactly what four-star Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, did yesterday in Washington.”

Business Insider (“The Marine Corps’ Top General Slams The Obama Administration Over Iraq”) and the Washington Times(“Top Marine Corps general slams Obama’s handling of Iraq”) followed suit.

There were several troubling quotes in these articles but the most seemingly controversial was Amos’ remark that:

I have a hard time believing that had we been there [in Iraq], and worked with the government, and worked with parliament, and worked with the minister of defense, the minister of interior, I don’t think we’d be in the same shape we’re in today.

He’s quoted as reiterating that point, declaring,

I just I find it hard to believe knowing how Iraq looked when we left in 2010, when we left, the Marines, and then what it looked like when the last U.S. forces left. That we would be in the position we’re in today in Iraq had we had the right forces, the right leadership, the right mentoring, the right government and courage.

In the context of the current political debate in Washington, where Republican critics of the president are blaming the current crisis in Iraq on our 2011 withdrawal, it would have been egregious for the Commandant to utter those remarks in a prepared public speech, much less one open to the press. And, indeed, that’s not quite what happened.

At the time when we wrote the piece, we were relying on press accounts and a partial transcript of the speech supplied by Brookings upon our request. After some pushback from an editor at War on the Rocks to clarify context, we had the opportunity to review a full transcript of the speech. We discovered that the remarks being pieced together in the various press accounts were in responses to questions from the audience, not the general’s prepared remarks, and often not in the context or order in which they were placed in the reports.

For one thing, the actual line from the transcript is more nuanced than that quoted in the press reports: “I have a hard time believing that had we been there and working with the government and working with parliament an working with the minister of defense, the minister of interior, and the governance and the rule of law, I mean, all of that stuff, that I don’t think we’d be in the shape we’re in today.” More importantly, rather than a planned commentary on the ISIS mess, it was in response to a question asking, “Are you concerned that the same thing [that has happened in Iraq] will happen to the Afghan security forces once we leave?”

Further, in the sentence right before the supposedly damning quote, Amos declared flatly that Iraq “didn’t need combat forces when we left. They’d already had, they were trained up.” So, Amos was actually saying exactly the opposite what Ollie North and others are claiming he did. The Commandant wasn’t criticizing the drawdown of American combat forces, but rather lamenting that the Iraqi leadership has failed so spectacularly at governance and arguing that American advisors at the ministerial level might have helped on that front.

Moreover, when asked directly about the ISIS situation much earlier in the dialogue, Amos described the pride his Marines had in what they’d accomplished in Iraq and added, “it was time for us to leave. We’d completed. We’d done what we said we were going to do. And actually we’d done what we were told to do.” Some analysts, myself included, might take issue with that assessment. But it’s hardly the criticism of the decision to pull out that’s being portrayed or the advancement of some sort of dolchstoss narrative.

Similarly, Amos’s remarks that “we as a nation have a role in that world whether we like it or not” and that “we may think we’re done with all these nasty, thorny, tacky little things that are going on around the world . . . but they’re not done with us” is being widely reported as a rebuke of administration leadership and an oblique reference to inaction over Syria. Read in context, however, it’s part of an explanation of the threat environment in a complex world where we claim global interests. While some of us might push back on Amos’ interpretation and see him taking sides in an ongoing policy debate, he’s essentially outlining the president’s National Security Strategy. Until and unless an election intervenes and changes our outlook, that’s settled policy as far as the Joint Chiefs are concerned. Furthermore, even in that part of the speech, Amos put his own role in exactly the right context observing, “And so what is our role? You know, I think that’s something that ought to have, you know, national discussion and dialogue.” And so it should.

While the Commandant was well inside his lane, explaining existing national security policy rather than joining the fray, this controversy nonetheless illustrates the pitfalls of senior officers commenting on matters of public policy: Amos’ words were used to pit the military against the commander-in-chief. Whether through honest error or disregard for the truth, partisans will glom on to juicy quotes from generals to buttress their own position.

Original article

Hagel: Climbing Out From Under The Bus

War on the Rocks
June 12, 2014

Less than two weeks ago, President Obama took to the White House briefing room to make a surprise announcement: “Today the American people are pleased that we will be able to welcome home Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, held captive for nearly five years.” He continued, “On behalf of the American people, I was honored to call his parents to express our joy that they can expect his safe return.” By Monday, however, the “I’s” and “we’s” went away, shifting to a “he.”

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, White House officials pointed the finger at Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as having ultimately approved the swap of Bergdahl for five Taliban leaders held captive at Guantanamo. Outgoing committee chairman Buck McKeon (R, CA) told the press that the administration seems to be setting up Hagel as the “fall guy” for the feel-good moment that quickly turned controversial.

Granting that McKeon is a Republican who enjoys turning up the heat on a Democratic president, he’s right when he declares, “I think people understand who made this decision. This goes right to the top.” McKeon’s partisanship showed through when he added, “Or maybe we don’t know who’s in charge of the White House.”

McKeon further charged, “I think they’re parsing words, worrying about who gets the blame, if things really go bad.” According to two polls released Tuesday, that state of affairs isn’t far off.  USA Today/Pew Research found that a plurality of 43% of Americans think it was wrong to make the deal, versus only 34% who thought it was the right call. CBS News found similar sentiments, with 45% against and 37% in favor. Moreover, 56% – and a whopping 65% of veterans – think “the U.S. paid too high a price.”

Now, I happen to be in the minority here. As an American and as a veteran, I expect our leadership to do what’s necessary to get our prisoners of war home safely. Distasteful as releasing Taliban militants might be, it’s hardly unprecedented to engage in prisoner swaps in these cases, especially as wars wind to their conclusion (although President Obama should have followed the law and notified Congress ahead of the swap; but that’s a separate issue). Regardless, it strains credulity that anyone other than the Commander-in-Chief made the call on this one.

Two weeks ago, Hagel himself told “Meet The Press” that “I signed off on the decision. The president made the ultimate decision.”

Of course he did.

Furthering a trend that’s been ongoing for decades, Obama largely ignores his Cabinet secretaries who, like Hagel, tend to be career Washingtonians. He prefers instead the counsel of trusted advisers from the campaign trail who he knows have his back politically and understand the importance of staying on message.  This is not without consequence. Months ago, Glenn Thrush observed:

Putting a premium on political savvy over creativity has made it harder to generate new proposals. Limiting the number of new voices in Obama’s inner circle has given a cramped, predictable feeling to his White House and increased the pressure on a diminishing cast of indispensable staffers, who are now burning out and breaking down.

While I have no doubt that Obama respects Hagel’s counsel on national security affairs -he was, after all, on the President’s intelligence and defense advisory boards before taking his current position – the bottom line is that these calls are all ultimately political judgments and this president doesn’t delegate them. Nor should he.

If Hagel is in fact being thrown under the proverbial bus here – and so far we only have McKeon’s word on that – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Going back to the 2008 campaign, Obama has been ruthless in cutting ties with close associates who get in the way of his agenda.

The situation most analogous to this one is the one faced by longtime Obama confidant Susan Rice, who was slated to replace Clinton as Secretary of State until her dutiful repeating of administration talking points on Benghazi became controversial. Not only did the coveted post instead go to John Kerry, but leaks went out declaring that he had been the choice all along. Rice did eventually get the National Security Advisor post, which isn’t subject to Senate confirmation, as a consolation prize.

But if Hagel is going to be the fall guy, he’s not cooperating. Appearing himself before McKeon’s committee Wednesday, he declared, “We made the right decision, and we did it for the right reasons” – note the “we” – and continued, “I want to be clear on one fundamental point – I would never sign off on any decision that I did not feel was in the best interests of this country.” He added, “Nor would the president of the United States, who made the final decision with the full support of his national security team.”

That version of events – which I believe happens to be the truth – is the right tack for the administration to take. The president made a difficult judgment call, but one that any of his predecessors would have likely decided the same way. He should simply own it.

Original article