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March 17, 2008

Beware Of Truth-Telling Admirals and Generals

Mackubin Owens nails the Fallon affair:

The differences between Fallon and the administration were real, not the result of any misperception. It is well established that Fallon worked to undermine the "surge" in Iraq by pushing for faster troop reductions than the commander on the ground in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, thought prudent. He attempted to banish the phrase "the Long War" because, according to Barnett, it "signaled a long haul that Fallon simply finds unacceptable."

Regarding Iran, Fallon undercut the cornerstone of the Bush administration's Iran policy of keeping all options-including the use of military force-open, in order to pressure Iran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. This makes diplomatic sense. As Frederick the Great once observed, diplomacy without force is like music without instruments.

But last fall, Fallon told Al Jazeera TV, "This constant drumbeat of conflict ... is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions." A week before a trip to Egypt in November of last year, Fallon told the Financial Times, that a military strike against Iran was not "in the offing. Another war is just not where we want to go."

It is thus undeniable that as commander of CENTCOM, Fallon acted in a way that exceeded his authority. The tenor of Fallon's public pronouncements was in stark contrast to that of statements made by other high-ranking military officers who, while they have no desire
to provoke a war with Iran while the U.S. military is heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, have not taken it upon themselves to constrain American foreign policy to the extent that Fallon has. Indeed, had Fallon not stepped down, the president would have been perfectly justified in firing him, as Abraham Lincoln fired Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, as Franklin Roosevelt fired Rear Admiral James O. Richardson, and Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Let us be clear. The problem wasn't that Fallon was merely "pushing back" within the administration against a policy he didn't like. The problem was that a uniformed officer was actively working to undermine that policy after the decision had been made--and that he was also speaking out against the policy publicly while being charged with executing it. The playing field is not level for commanders speaking in public. They have a responsibility to support the missions they've been given, not to publicly evaluate the wisdom of the policy because, among other things, such a public evaluation undermines the confidence of their subordinates as they go into battle. This is unacceptable.

In our politicized world, one's response to this affair is likely to be colored by one's attitude toward the defense and foreign policies of the Bush administration. Those who normally would reject the idea that a military officer should "insist" that elected officials or their constitutional appointees adopt the officer's position seem to be all for it when it comes to the Bush administration. For instance, in a March 2005 column for the Washington Post handicapping the field to succeed Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, David Ignatius argued that "the next [CJCS] must be someone who can push back" against Rumsfeld. But those who see Fallon as a hero for "pushing back" against George Bush should realize that someday a President Barack Obama might have to deal with a future combatant commander who is publicly undermining his policies, as Fallon was undermining those of President Bush.

The cornerstone of U.S. civil-military relations is simple and straightforward: The uniformed military is expected to provide its best advice to civil authorities, who alone are responsible for policy. While reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of military action against Iran or any other adversary, the decision to take such action lies with civilian authorities, not with a military commander.

Of course, uniformed officers have an obligation to stand up to civilian leaders if they think a policy is flawed. They must convey their concerns to civilian policymakers forcefully and truthfully. If they believe the door is closed to them at the Pentagon or the White House, they also have access to Congress. But once a policy decision is made, soldiers are obligated to carry it out to the best of their ability, whether their advice is heeded or not.

Most American military commanders have gotten this. For instance, according to Dana Priest's book The Mission, the Clinton White House wanted U.S. pilots in the no-fly zone to provoke the Iraqis into attacking American planes. The then-CENTCOM commander, General Anthony Zinni, believed that this could lead to war with Iraq and insisted that the White House issue him a direct order to undertake such an action. Faced with leaving a paper trail, the White House changed its mind.

But others, e.g. George McClellan, Douglas MacArthur, and now Adm. Fallon, have chosen to publicly "push back" against policies with which they disagree. In doing so, they pose a danger to republican government. The danger is illustrated by the case of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan during the American Civil War.

Military historians tend to treat McClellan as a first-rate organizer, equipper, and trainer but an incompetent general who was constantly outfought and outgeneraled by his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee. That much is true, but there is more to the story. McClellan and many of his favored subordinates disagreed with many of Lincoln's policies, and indeed may have attempted to sabotage them. McClellan pursued the war he wanted to fight-one that would end in a negotiated peace-rather than the one his commander in chief wanted him to fight. The behavior of McClellan and his subordinates led Lincoln to worry that his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation might trigger a military coup.

McClellan openly expressed his disdain for the president and the secretary of War. Lincoln and his cabinet were aware of the rumors that McClellan intended to put "his sword across the government's policy." McClellan's quartermaster-general, Montgomery Meigs expressed concern about "officers of rank" in the Army of the Potomac who spoke openly of "a march on Washington to 'clear out those fellows.'"

That McClellan had his own idea for fighting the war, one that did not match that of his commander in chief, was revealed by one of his officers after the Maryland Campaign of September 1862. In response to a query from a colleague as to "why the rebel army [was not] bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg [Antietam]," the officer replied "that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery."

Lincoln dismissed the officer in question, remarking to his secretary John Hay "that if there was a 'game' ever among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game." Shortly thereafter, Lincoln relieved McClellan himself after another long bout of inactivity following Antietam. Of course President Harry Truman took the same action against Gen. MacArthur, an officer who had taken his disagreements with the president public.

A public disagreement between a president and his military commanders is one thing. But even a private disagreement can cause a commander in chief to lose confidence in his subordinates. For instance, when President Franklin Roosevelt decided to attempt to deter Japanese expansionism by moving the US Pacific Fleet from California to Pearl Harbor during the summer of 1940, the fleet commander, Rear Admiral James O. Richardson, objected, arguing that basing the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii was provocative and could precipitate a war with Japan. The president fired him and replaced him with Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. As Admiral Harold Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, wrote to Kimmel after the affair, "This, of course, is White House prerogative and responsibility, and believe me, it is used these days." To his credit Richardson kept his objections to FDR's decision private and went quietly into retirement.

By contradicting the president in public, Fallon clearly exceeded his authority. Had he not chosen to step down, the president would have been obliged to fire him, not least because of the serious threat to balanced civil-military relations that his actions--like McClellan's before him--constituted.

I have written before about how media ignorance of military history can cause them to portray current events in a false and even intentionally misleading light.

Civilians are placed in charge of the military because that is the way our democratic republic is designed to operate. The notion that military personnel ought to be speaking truth to power via the media is ludicrous at best. At worst, it encourages them to both subvert and flout the lawful civilian chain of command. Those who encourage such activity for the temporary political advantage it offers them would do well to beware the precedent they are setting for future administrations, in which they may not find such 'truth telling' a welcome attribute in military officers.

Posted by Cassandra at March 17, 2008 07:57 AM

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And one also wonders why Wesley Clark was forced to retire.
Hugh Shelton had the dignity not to publicly impugn him, but that affair had another eery quality to it.

From what I've read, Fallon was none to popular among the officer corps, especially in the Navy. The "swarming" tactic that the Iranians have been working on could lead to loss of major warships in the Persian Gulf, and Fallon had established an ROE that forbade deterrent action against this.

Petraeus is a very good officer, and also has the respect of a lot of officers below him, based on things that I've read and been told. He may very well be elevated to Centcom Commander by this summer, after the April hearings before Congress.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 17, 2008 09:15 AM

Yep. The best thing Petraeus does is lead by example.

The worst thing Fallon did was lead by example.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 17, 2008 09:36 AM

Don-- he's none too popular with the lower folks, either. I can't think of a single person I worked with who didn't at least smile to hear he's going.

Posted by: Foxfier at March 17, 2008 04:41 PM

"As Frederick the Great once observed, diplomacy without force is like music without instruments."

I prefer Al Capone's theory - "You can get more with a kind word and a gun then with just a kind word".

"But those who see Fallon as a hero for "pushing back" against George Bush should realize that someday a President Barack Obama might have to deal with a future combatant commander who is publicly undermining his policies, as Fallon was undermining those of President Bush." - Spot on, but scary!

Posted by: Frodo at March 18, 2008 10:52 AM