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Obama Dumps a Smart, Independently Minded General

12:40 PM, Jan 22, 2013 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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I wonder if Donilon understands that the key to making effective, sustainable national security policy is having robust, candid discussions between civilian and military leaders that bring to the surface differences and also explore assumptions. I am told that that is what Mattis was trying to do. He knows, as do all smart generals, that in our system, at the end of the discussion the civilians get to decide what to do. In a talk at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late November, Mattis said that, "We military leaders have a right and duty to be heard, to give our best military advice, but we were not elected to and we have no right to dictate."

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.

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