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.