- By Peter Feaver
Marine Commandant James Conway may have gotten himself in a bit of hot water with his recent public remarks about Afghanistan and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
On Afghanistan, General Conway said, “”We think right now [Obama’s announced Afghanistan timeline is] probably giving our enemy sustenance… We’ve intercepted communications that say, hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long… ” The New York Times gave this a more problematic headline ( Top Marine Says Afghan Deadline May Help Taliban) than did the Washington Post (Taliban could be misleading its forces) ( ). I bet the White House prefers the Post’s spin. But either way, Conway was simply stating the obvious: President Obama’s announced timeline for Afghanistan has some downsides. Even supporters of the timeline, if they are honest, must acknowledge this inarguable fact. Most experts go on to say that Obama mishandled the announcement and created needless confusion about the meaning of the timeline, thus exacerbating the downsides; this is my view. And most experts probably say that on balance the costs of the announced timeline may outweigh the benefits; this is also my view. And some even go so far as to view it as a strategic blunder that may inadvertently sabotage the surge, possibly jeopardizing the war; I am not prepared to say this at this point, but it is not an absurdly unreasonable fear. If General Conway had volunteered any of those additional opinions in public, he might have crossed a civil-military line (unless those opinions had been solicited in Congressional testimony). But he didn’t, and so he deserves a pass.
The White House may be more annoyed by his comments about lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He repeated his oft-stated personal objection to changing the policy and his belief that ‘an overwhelming majority [of Marines] would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual.'” Since Obama has made it clear that he intends to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces, Conway’s remarks were “off message.” But since President Obama and Secretary Gates have also made it clear that they are soliciting military opinion on the topic during this interval, Conway’s comments probably do not cross a civilian control line — especially since he also made it clear that if the president so directs, he will salute, obey, and implement the policy within the Marine Corps. However, Conway’s comments dance up to the line and, I expect, will cause heartburn among Obama’s advisors.
The civil-military norms are clear in theory but hard to apply in practice. Military leaders owe their chain of command their candid professional military opinion, especially when that opinion runs counter to the predilections of civilian leaders. Military leaders also answer to Congress, and have the same obligation. But military leaders should not cross from advising, to advocating or insisting on policy outcomes. The military should not be politicking in an effort to undo or constrain the options of civilian leaders. The challenge is to explain current policy to the American public in a way that balances the need to be honest about military professional opinion with the need to let the commander-in-chief set policy.
This is an especially delicate line to walk when civilian leaders choose to do something that, in the opinion of the military, jeopardizes national security. But provided that military leaders have made their concerns known privately to responsible civilian authorities, they have no further responsibility to block policy. On the contrary, they owe their bosses their respectful effort to make the policy succeed. It is the responsibility of the bosses of the civilian leaders – the voters — to hold political leaders accountable for bad national security policy choices.
Obama probably doesn’t welcome Conway’s comments, but I think they fall short of violating civil-military norms. Annoying the boss is not a firing offense. And President Obama, who has been pretty sure-footed on this one particular aspect of civil-military relations, will probably take the wiser path of letting the matter pass.