Shadow Government

The right to be wrong, but not the right to lie

Stephen Hayes over at the Weekly Standard presents a very intriguing angle to the civil-military story behind President Obama’s Afghanistan decision. He is emphasizing the wrong part, however. At issue is the extent to which the senior commanders endorsed the option that President Obama selected: truncating the surge and rushing the withdrawal in a fashion ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen Hayes over at the Weekly Standard presents a very intriguing angle to the civil-military story behind President Obama’s Afghanistan decision. He is emphasizing the wrong part, however.

At issue is the extent to which the senior commanders endorsed the option that President Obama selected: truncating the surge and rushing the withdrawal in a fashion that interrupts the 2012 fighting season (but dove-tails with the 2012 presidential campaign season). As Hayes demonstrates, the White House sought to depict the president’s decision as one well within a range of options developed by the military. According to Petraeus’ successor, Lieutenant General John Allen, however, the option Obama picked was not on the menu. Obama’s plan — presumably the arbitrary summer 2012 deadline and perhaps also the numbers involved — was apparently devised elsewhere, perhaps by White House advisors.

Hayes emphasizes that President Obama over-ruled Petraeus’s advice, which is true but, as I have argued, he was well within his rights as commander-in-chief. On this, I point to no less an authority than General Petraeus himself. From a civil-military point of view, it is important to know whether or not the military refused to even present this as an option: it would have been inappropriate if they had tried to tie the hands of the president in that fashion. But if they did in fact present a range of options that included ones they thought too risky, and then President Obama chose yet another still-riskier option, that would not constitute a civil-military foul by either side. It is worth knowing whether the military endorsed the option, but that should not be viewed as the dispositive factor.

To me, the most important part of the Hayes story is that, if accurate and complete, it means the White House did not tell the truth about the military advice it received. Rather than admit that the president listened carefully to his generals and then chose something that they did not recommend, someone at the White House tried to pretend that the president simply chose among a range of options endorsed by the military. This is a subtle difference, but in civil-military terms it is a profound one. Civilians do not owe the military prerogatives over policy choices; they do owe the military a decision-making process in which the military voice can be heard and in which military views will be faithfully described to those authorized to hold the president accountable on these decisions, namely us.

If the president wants to elicit from the military an option and an endorsement of an option that the military does not initially prefer, as President Bush did with his Iraq surge, then he must engage in the lengthy back-and-forth that President Bush engaged in, cajoling the military into something resembling a consensus. The president does not have to do that — he can simply decide, as President Obama did — but he owes the military (and the voter) to tell the truth about what he did.

Ironically, if this story is true, the White House has just replicated the Johnson-McNamara error that was at the heart of H.R. McMaster’s influential Dereliction of Duty account of the Vietnam War. Although many read McMaster’s book as accusing the senior generals of dereliction for going along with Johnson’s decision to escalate the war more gradually than they thought prudent, in fact McMaster’s primary point was that the generals were derelict in going along with Johnson and McNamara’s willful misrepresentation to Congress and the American people about the content of the military advice. What McMaster wanted the generals to do was simply tell Congress what their advice had been, correcting the record that Johnson and McNamara had muddied by pretending that their Vietnam decisions were consonant with military counsel.

To their credit, today’s senior military leadership have not been derelict. They have saluted and obeyed their commander-in-chief. And they have not shrunk from telling the truth about their military views to Congress, even if it contradicts White House spin. Based on what is in the public record thus far, I cannot give so positive an evaluation to the civilian participants.

The president has a right to be wrong, but he does not have a right to lie about it. As Tom Ricks has argued, the Obama Administration already faces some serious civil-military challenges in the post Gates-Petraeus-Lute era (Lieutenant General Doug Lute has been a key civil-military interface in his role as White House coordinator on Aghanistan-Pakistan issues). Those challenges could quickly become insurmountable if they compound risky strategy choices with serious misrepresentations of the military position.

I hope those with better access to the president than I have will impress upon him the importance of clarifying this matter as quickly as possible. Perhaps the current story has a garble, and the anonymous White House official was misunderstood. I hope so, because otherwise I fear a civil-military rot will set in that could be quite corrosive to national security.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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