Obama Dumps a Smart, Independently Minded General
12:40 PM, Jan 22, 2013 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
It seems clear that American civil-military relations have been healthiest when there is a high level of trust between civilian and military leaders, i.e. when there is mutual respect and understanding between them that leads to the exchange of candid views and perspectives between the two parties as part of the decision-making process.
On the one hand, the military must have a voice in strategy making, while realizing that politics permeates the conduct of war and that civilians have the final say, not only concerning the goals of the war but also how it is conducted. On the other, civilians must understand that to implement effective policy and strategy requires the proper military instrument and therefore must insist that soldiers present their views frankly and forcefully throughout the strategy-making and implementation process. This is the key to healthy civil-military relations.
No general in recent times has represented the military side in the civil-military dialogue better than General James Mattis, the current commander of U.S. Central Command. Nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in the summer of 2010, Gen. Mattis has presided over the most volatile region in the world. During his time as commander, none of the symptoms of unhealthy civil-military relations such as those that characterized the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, have manifested themselves. There have been no leaks to the press over policy disagreements and no reports of “slow rolling” or “foot dragging” in Gen. Mattis’s implementation of the president’s policy.
Yet in December, it was announced that Gen. Mattis would be leaving his post in March, well short of what would be expected of a combatant commander whose has acquitted himself well in the position. Most observers were stunned. There seemed to be no logical reason for his being replaced early. But according to Tom Ricks’s blog, The Best Defense, at FP online:
In a follow-up to his original post, Ricks provided an account of what he been told since his original piece:
Ricks goes on to note that, Gen. Mattis’s efforts to change the strategic framework regarding Iran kept—insisting on the need to plan not just for what we assumed Iran might do, but also for what Iran was capable of doing—was not welcomed by the White House. In addition, there were other disagreements between Gen. Mattis and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. According to Ricks, these included Afghanistan, concerns about Pakistani stability, and response to the Arab spring. But the most troubling element of the episode, Ricks reports, is that it is only part of a broader “attempt by Donilon to centralize foreign policy making in his office, with DOD and State as implementers.”
The White House responded to Ricks’s blog post on Mattis but Ricks was unimpressed: The response “strike[s] me as politicized, defensive and narrow. These are people who will not recognize it when they screw up, and will treat as enemies anyone who tells them they are doing that. And that is how things like Vietnam get repeated.” Ricks, a supporter of the president, claims to be worried.
We should all be worried. The combination of President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense—to be his hatchet man to slash the defense budget without regard to geopolitical realities—and the early retirement of a general renowned for his powerful blend of strategic sense and candor, bodes ill for the security of the United States. With a yes man as secretary of defense and a signal to the uniformed military that the frank and forceful presentation of the military’s view throughout the strategy-making and implementation process is not welcome runs counter to the principles of sound civil-military relations.
Of course, a president has every right to choose the generals he wants, but it is also the case that he usually gets the generals he deserves. By pushing Mattis overboard, the administration is sending a message that it doesn’t want smart, independently minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders. The message that generals and admirals may receive that they should go along to get along, which is a bad message for the health of U.S. civil-military relations.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and author of Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.