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Free speech for officers?

DefenseIraqArmed ForcesWars and InterventionsPoliticsIranWhite House

Today, Korb and Carter discuss instances in which military officers have publicly disagreed with the president's policies. Previously, they discussed the proper military oversight role for Congress. Later in the week, they'll discuss the Air Force tanker contract, torture policies and more.

It's what officers say, not whether they say itBy Lawrence J. Korb
When the history of the military's role in this mindless, needless and senseless war in Iraq is written, two leaders will be remembered for speaking "truth to power." One is Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, who told Congress in 2003 that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to bring stability to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The other is Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, the head of the Central Command (Centcom), who told the president that the surge was not working in Iraq, that Afghanistan needed more attention and that a military attack against Iran would be foolhardy.

Both men were doing their jobs, that is, giving candid professional military advice to their civilian superiors. Shinseki, a Vietnam War veteran who was in charge of peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, was the military's leading expert on stabilization operations.

Fallon was brought into the Centcom job to provide an objective view of the situation in the entire region. Moreover, according to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, he is one of the best strategic thinkers in the service. What Fallon was doing was presenting strategic advice.

For doing their jobs, both men were treated shabbily. Shinseki's professional opinion was denounced by Paul Wolfowitz, then the deputy Defense secretary who had avoided service in Vietnam. Fallon was forced to retire after completing only one year of a three-year tour.

Obviously, Fallon or any military officer must carry out the decisions of the president. But there is no indication that Fallon had undermined President Bush in any way since taking over as Centcom commander.

Some will argue that Fallon shouldn't have made his views known to the media.

But if letting the media know about your policy positions is a fire-able offense, then why is Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of our forces in Iraq, still on active duty? In late September 2004, a few weeks before the presidential election, Petraeus, then a lieutenant general in charge of training Iraqi security forces, wrote a Washington Post Op-Ed article in which he argued that the Bush policy in Iraq was working, that Iraq's security forces were standing up and that we would soon be standing down. Though this was not only inappropriate and incorrect, it was music to the ears of the Bush campaign.

The only losers in the Fallon and Shinseki episodes are the men and women in uniform and the country. Centcom will lose one of the nation's best military professionals, and it will have had four different commanders in the five years since the invasion of Iraq. Military professionals will get the message that to get ahead, tell the politicians what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.

Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information.


Fallon's sin: disagreeing publiclyBy Phillip Carter
Larry,

I agree that we have a great deal to admire about William "Fox" Fallon -- from his combat experience in the skies over Vietnam to his impressive intellect. I think he has served our nation well, particularly in his last position commanding Centcom, where he reportedly served as a bulwark against this administration's aggressive plans for Iran.

However, I disagree that we should lionize Fallon here. I also disagree with your favorable comparison of him to Shinseki, because I think the two officers' performance has little in common. And, more broadly, I think we should not applaud a senior military officer for what effectively amounts to an act of civil disobedience.

When Shinseki told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required" to secure post-war Iraq, he did so in response to a question. He had gone to the Senate that day as the chief of staff of the Army, and he provided that answer in his official capacity to elected members of Congress. He didn't seek out the question, nor did he try to leak this answer to the media beforehand, even though his answer clearly reflected months of staff work and thought. Further, the number of troops required to accomplish a military mission was clearly a matter within his expertise and purview as chief of the Army. Shinseki avoided the ultimate questions of war and peace, leaving those to the nation's political leadership.

Fallon, by contrast, sought out Esquire writer Thomas Barnett to tell his story after cultivating a close relationship with Barnett over the course of many months. Unlike Shinseki, Fallon, when he spoke to Barnett, provided his professional military advice and analysis to a reporter, not to his chain of command or to Congress. He publicly broke ranks with the White House and the Pentagon on the Iran issue, and according to Fred Kaplan in Slate, he did so on other issues as well.

Fallon may eventually be proved right on the merits, but we might not always agree with the generals or admirals. During the 1990s, the top military brass frequently opposed the Clinton administration's military policies, whether the issue was allowing gays to serve in the military or deploying peacekeepers to the Balkans. Generals and admirals frequently worked covertly with members of Congress to obstruct White House initiatives. Senior military officers made an art form out of invoking the Powell Doctrine to oppose prospective military missions on the grounds that they were too risky, too costly or lacked a sufficiently clear exit strategy. Consequently, America dragged its feet entering the Balkans and failed to intervene at all in Rwanda. I think these episodes showed the danger of relying too much on generals for key strategic decisions.

Your point about the message this sends to the ranks is a good one; we need our top military leaders to tell the truth, and that truth may sometimes differ from what the president and secretary of Defense want to hear. Nonetheless, I think there's a middle path here -- a way for generals and admirals to provide candid military advice, to do so within command channels and to uphold the chain of command. Fallon's sin was not disagreeing with the White House, it was doing so in such a public way.

No president can afford to have a senior military commander flout his (or her) constitutional authority or freelance his own foreign policy. Fallon's errors didn't come anywhere close to the conduct of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom President Truman fired during the Korean War for threatening to attack China. But Fallon did undermine the chain of command by sending ripples of doubt and dissent through the military hierarchy. Gates was right to accept Fallon's resignation for this, if only to reinforce that civilian political leaders, not generals and admirals, decide this country's national security policy.

Phillip Carter practices government contracts law with McKenna Long & Aldridge in New York. He previously served as an Army officer for nine years, deploying to Iraq in 2005-06 as an embedded advisor with the Iraqi police in Baqubah.

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