Military Advice and Military Indiscretion
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, made news last week by admitting some doubt about the reconfirmation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. "I’m hopeful … but you just never know." One obstacle that might be denting Levin’s confidence is Sen. John McCain’s disdain for ...
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, made news last week by admitting some doubt about the reconfirmation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. "I'm hopeful … but you just never know."
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, made news last week by admitting some doubt about the reconfirmation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. "I’m hopeful … but you just never know."
One obstacle that might be denting Levin’s confidence is Sen. John McCain’s disdain for Dempsey. McCain characterized Dempsey’s Benghazi testimony as "simply false" and has frequently berated Dempsey’s claims about the strength of Syrian air defenses. In rebutting Dempsey’s opposition to involvement in Syria, McCain derisively said, "One thing I’ve learned about some of our military leaders: [If] they don’t want to do something, they can invent lots of ways not to do it."
Interestingly, Dempsey showed none of the affronted dignity he’d taken 15 months ago when Rep. Paul Ryan alleged the chiefs were not giving their honest opinion to Congress in supporting the president’s budget. But, of course, in the intervening time period, the chiefs have been raked over the coals by Congress about opposition to gays serving openly in the ranks, sex abuse scandals, poor leadership judgment toward subordinates (including by Gen. James Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David Huntoon, the superintendent of West Point), and hyping the threat of budget cuts. It is not too much to say that the chiefs have a credibility crisis.
Dempsey’s pliancy in support of administration views does seem rather poorly camouflaged across a range of issues. But that doesn’t make him wrong, nor does defending the president’s choices in public mean he isn’t giving different advice in private. And he would not be the first senior military officer to bend his military judgment to what he believes the political leadership will bear. In fact, finding ways to make what is militarily sound politically acceptable is an important qualification for the job of being the president’s senior military advisor.
McCain’s insistence on accountability is admirable, and rare. He memorably also voted against Gen. George Casey’s confirmation to be chief of staff of the Army after commanding in Iraq, because he felt Casey had failed to successfully grapple with the challenges of the war. Still, Dempsey is almost sure to be reconfirmed; few in Congress would vote against a military pay raise, keeping open needless bases, buying unwanted equipment, or a senior appointment (unless there were a whiff of sexual scandal).
But presidents get the military leadership they deserve. If the president punishes dissent, as President George W. Bush allowed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to, the military will tell the president what he wants to hear. Maybe not at first, but you will see the promotion and selection of yes men (and women). If the president rewards creativity and honesty, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates did, it will bring forward better military advice. If the president doesn’t want to hear unwelcome truths, as President Barack Obama doesn’t, you will see the culling of military leaders who tell them, as well as their replacement by blander men. And those blander men tend to be less help when things go badly.
And the military shouldn’t complain too much about the quality of those blander men, since if they didn’t promote them to four-star ranks, they wouldn’t be eligible for selection to political postings (even in the case of Al Haig, who went into the White House as a lieutenant colonel and emerged as a four-star general, the Army had to agree to promote him). In fact, the military bears complicity for military leaders who aren’t willing to give their unabashed military advice.
But to complain about the chiefs being political is to complain that they are striving to find the means to fit military sensibilities into the broader political objectives of the person elected to the nation’s highest office. And that’s no bad thing in a free society.
The revelation that Cartwright is under FBI investigation for leaking classified details of cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear programs is a different and much more serious matter. If there is any basis to the allegations, Cartwright should go to jail — because an Army private who violated the terms of his security agreement would go to jail, and we should hold leaders to at least the same standard.
Stuxnet may not have been the dawn of the cyberage, but the operational details compromised will make more difficult future operations. Having been the commander of Strategic Command and a leading proponent of high-tech asymmetries in warfare, Cartwright knows better than most how damaging such leaks are.
Some may argue that, close as Cartwright was to the White House, he may have had its authorization to disclose the great success of the Stuxnet program. This White House has in numerous instances revealed classified information — but even if the White House encouraged him to do so, it would in no way excuse Cartwright, if in fact he is guilty.
Kori Schake is a senior fellow and the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @KoriSchake
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