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Shadow Government

Should Senior Military Officers Resign in Protest if Obama Disregards Their Advice?

Should senior military officers resign if the president disregards their advice and orders them to execute assignments that, in their judgment, are ill-defined, inadequately resourced, or otherwise flawed?  There is a lively debate among commentators on American civil-military relations on this topic; given the related debate about Obama’s responsibility for America’s deteriorating global position, the ...

T.J. Kirkpatrick
T.J. Kirkpatrick

Should senior military officers resign if the president disregards their advice and orders them to execute assignments that, in their judgment, are ill-defined, inadequately resourced, or otherwise flawed? 

There is a lively debate among commentators on American civil-military relations on this topic; given the related debate about Obama’s responsibility for America’s deteriorating global position, the commentary is not idle. I have already weighed in on some civil-military challenges confronting the administration (see here and here), but the resignation idea deserves more attention than I have given it so far.

In the last couple of weeks, several prominent commentators have urged Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other senior military to resign in protest of President Obama’s poor leadership of the various wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. If they do not resign, critics argue, the senior officers become complicit in a doomed strategy. The commentators differ on which Obama misstep is most damning. But the overall thrust is that the president has consistently ignored the good advice of senior military advisors and so, they argue, those advisors are well within their rights to resign rather than execute flawed policies they recommended against — so argues a former senior defense official in the Wall Street Journal, a retired Marine colonel here in Foreign Policy, and a conservative pundit in The American Thinker, among others. Even a Republican congressman from Colorado has joined in, urging military officers to resign

The thinking behind this is what I call "McMasterism," after a particular reading (or misreading) of Dereliction of Duty, by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. I read McMaster’s book as criticizing the American military leaders of the Vietnam War for not correcting the record when President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara misled the public about the nature of the general’s advice. Others read him as merely criticizing the American military leaders for letting service parochialism color their military advice. 

Several of the more outspoken calls for Dempsey to resign in protest explicitly invoke McMaster in defense of their position. They read his book as criticizing the senior leaders for not resigning in protest when President Johnson not only misreported their advice, but ignored it altogether. In other words, the "McMasterism" thesis is that the military should not merely advise but also insist on its advice and, if the president disregards that advice, the military then has the right to resign in protest, or, at a minimum, to blow the whistle on civilians and mount a vigorous public protest.

Advocating resignation and protest like this is bad counsel and would do much to undermine healthy civil-military relations if it ever became accepted practice among senior officers. There is, in fact, no tradition of resignation in protest within the U.S. military. It has happened, but far more rarely than advocates realize. To be sure, there are probably many quiet retirements that come early because the senior officer believes that he or she cannot continue to serve, given the direction of policy. But retiring and foregoing promotions is a far cry from resignation in protest. Even the most famous case of such a retirement — Air Force Chief of Staff Ron Fogleman’s decision to step down — took a very different form from resignation in protest: Fogleman stepped down because he believed that his civilian bosses had lost confidence in his judgment and they deserved to have a chief in which they had greater confidence.

A resignation in protest or a threat to resign in protest subverts civilian control and is what I have called "shirking." It seeks to coerce civilians into aligning with military preferences, rather than having the military implement the strategies selected by the civilians. It would undermine military professionalism over the long haul, because it would drive civilian leaders to politicize the process of selecting senior military officers. Political leaders would promote generals and admirals based on whether they thought the officers would be sufficiently pliant, rather than on whether they thought the officers were the most capable men and women for the job.

I realize the stakes of failed civilian policies can be quite high — indeed, the dramatic revelations in former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s memoir make this point vividly. Panetta argues that the rise of the Islamic State can be traced in large part to President Obama’s mishandling of Iraq policy in the first term. Panetta’s revelations largely confirm the criticisms heard for years, including some aired out here on Shadow Government. While the counterfactual cannot be proven beyond all doubt, it is likely that if President Obama had heeded the advice he was receiving from his generals in the first term, he would face a better array of options and choices in his second term. But the political actors empowered by the Constitution to hold the president accountable for these missteps are the members of Congress and, ultimately, the voters — not the military.

Moreover, the military is not always correct, and so it is not wise policy for the commander-in-chief to simply do whatever the generals say. Indeed, senior military leaders disagree amongst themselves. The usual challenge of command is not deciding whether to listen to generals but, rather, deciding which generals best understand the strategic situation and provide the best counsel.

In the most famous instance of dissenting generals, the so-called "revolt of the generals" in 2006, the retired generals who spoke out against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did not in fact offer a better strategy. Their critiques were far out of date by the time they went public, while their recommendations were largely in synch with then-existing policy. They merely reinforced the conventional wisdom, as reflected in the Baker-Hamilton Commission. President George W. Bush wisely rejected that conventional wisdom when he adopted the surge and, because he did, the U.S. military was able to reverse the trajectory in Iraq. (I discuss the politics and the civil-military relations behind these decisions here and here.)

A useful thought exercise for those advocating a more expansive use of military resignations in protest is to ask: Would I welcome a general or flag officer resigning in protest against a policy I myself have recommended as right? To those Republicans who would like to see generals stick it to President Obama: do you think it would have been healthy for national security if the military had resigned in protest under President Bush? And for those Democrats who wanted to see the military do more to subvert President Bush’s policies: would you likewise endorse the "right" of the military to do that to Obama?

This does not mean the military lacks all recourse whatsoever. On the contrary, it has three courses of action available to a dissenting senior officer, all well-grounded in democratic civil-military norms. 

First and most importantly, the military has both the right and the duty to speak up in private policymaking deliberations, offering its counsel on the likely risks and benefits of different courses of action. Especially when civilians do not want to hear such advice, the military has an obligation to speak up — but in private, to the policymakers themselves, and not to the policymakers through the media. Indeed, the chairman, the vice chairman, and all of the service chiefs have the explicit right to request a private meeting with the president to give their full and frank advice. Officers below that rank have ample opportunity in the interagency policymaking process to make their views heard.

Second, when asked to do so in sworn testimony in congressional hearings, all flag and general officers have not just the right but the obligation to offer their private military advice even if it differs from administration policy. In fact, all flag and general officers have already sworn under oath that they will do just that — it is the first question on the confirmation form for all senior officers, and the Senate will not confirm them to their promoted rank if they fail to promise to provide such candid advice. The constitutional fix for bad military policy by the executive branch is better oversight from the congressional branch, and since Congress represents civilian control just as the executive branch does, its  members have a right to hear military views.

Third, the military has the right — and, I would argue, the obligation — to clarify the public record when senior civilians misrepresent the content of their advice in public. This is a tricky right, I acknowledge, and should be used sparingly to correct egregious misrepresentations rather than every distortion, however slight. Senior military officers serve at the pleasure of the president, and any president is going to lose pleasure in a general who rushes to clarify every misstated jot and tittle. But when the president mischaracterizes military advice in important ways, the military can clarify the record, provided it does so through one of the two courses of action described above. Dempsey properly fulfilled this obligation a year ago when President Obama mischaracterized the general’s advice about the costs and consequences of delaying possible air strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

These protections are adequate to ensure that our political leaders are making policy with the benefit of the best military counsel available. These protections may not guarantee that the chosen policies will be optimal. But conducting business this way rather than through resignations of protest guarantees that we not inadvertently lose something even more precious than optimal policy: democratic civil-military relations.

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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