Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Larry Korb: YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG

"Generals should be guided by truth, not politics," he tells us. (Well, actually, the headline writers at the Washington Post came up with that, but I'm pretty sure that's how he feels.) The op-ed probably should've been titled "Hey Mullen, you're an asshole!", but I'm not sure he could get that past the editors.

In his Dec. 27 column, ["An admiral who found the center," op-ed], David Ignatius distorts the proper role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He glosses over Adm. Mike Mullen's professional failures, particularly on Afghanistan and his handling of the firing of Gen. David McKiernan.

Ignatius is wrong to argue that any military officer, especially a member of the Joint Chiefs, is supposed to find the center of the political spectrum. An officer has a responsibility to give the president and Congress his or her best military advice, whether that is embraced by the right or the left, whether it is popular or unpopular.

Ok, he's on reasonably safe ground so far. "Best military advice," free of ideological bias, etc etc. Agree with that, sure, but you're crazy if you think that four-stars can avoid politics all together: they'd cease to be effective if they didn't know how to handle Congress, the media, and the public. But yeah, the CJCS ought not be tailoring his military advice based on the ideology of the president, so we can generally agree here.

Things get dicey when Korb starts talking about Mullen specifically (and by "get dicey," I mean the op-ed turns into a hit-job):

What about Mullen? In late 2007, when Congress asked him about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Mullen shrugged it off. "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must," he told the House Armed Services Committee. Was that his professional opinion, or was it the policy of President George W. Bush, who gave short shrift to Afghanistan because of his obsession with Iraq? Is that what the combatant commanders were telling him? The answer is no.

About the same time, according to reports, Gen. Dan McNeill, then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told President Bush in a videoconference that he needed at least 30,000 more troops to stem the advance of the Taliban, particularly in the south. This position was endorsed by Adm. William Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command. Did Mullen support this? In fact, when the White House told McNeill not to go public with the request, Mullen did not complain, nor did he tell Congress. We learned about this because journalist David Sanger interviewed McNeill for his book "The Inheritance."

Ignatius wrote that Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended replacing David McKiernan as U.S. commander in Afghanistan because McKiernan did not answer an important question during a video briefing for the secretary of defense. Really? What was the question? According to The Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran," front page, Aug. 17, 2009], the questions concerned reconstruction and counternarcotics, and they were asked before the Obama White House completed its first review of the war in Afghanistan. How could McKiernan answer the question satisfactorily when he did not know whether he would receive the 30,000 additional troops he had first requested in April 2008 and did not know where President Obama was going to come down on the issue? Mullen wanted McKiernan replaced because he wanted someone to take the fall for the fact that he and Gates had been derelict in their duty on the situation in Afghanistan for several years.

Can we take a second to parse Korb's argument here? This seems to be the framework:
  1. Generals should avoid being political and/or tailoring military advice to political trends
  2. Adm. Mullen's "best military advice" should have included recommendations to shift resources from the Iraq campaign to Afghanistan
  3. The relevant combatant commander (Adm. Fallon and then GEN Petraeus at CENTCOM) would have prioritized Afghanistan over Iraq
  4. GEN McKiernan's "best military advice" was dependent on political decisions by the president in a way that Adm. Mullen's was not or should not have been
  5. McKiernan was fired because Mullen was trying to cover for his own failures and those of Secretary Gates

This is roughly it, right? Well, it looks pretty stupid when it's laid out like that, doesn't it? Just in case it doesn't, let me elaborate.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense serve at the pleasure of the president, which is to say that they are responsible for formulating the plans and policies necessary to execute the president's overall foreign and security policy vision. The Constitution created a system of checks and balances on presidential power, but let's be clear about something: the Chairman is not meant to be a competing power base. He is not meant to be a check on the president. He's around to provide technical expertise in assisting the president in policy formulation. (If you don't want to take my word for it, go check out Title 10, Section 153 of the U.S. Code: functions of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Who's "distort[ing] the proper role of the chairman" now?)

The CJCS does provide an assessment of the risks associated with the current National Military Strategy, but this hardly seems like an opportunity (or especially a requirement) to say "Iraq is a bad idea, shift these troops to Afghanistan!"

It's also entirely possible that Adm. Mullen viewed successful prosecution of the war in Iraq as a higher priority than escalation in Afghanistan, difficult as that may be for Lawrence Korb to imagine! LTG McNeill may have wanted more troops -- as the commander of the Afghan theater, I have little doubt that he believed this was the most important mission and the best possible use for those soldiers. Adm. Fallon may even have agreed. But Mullen's job was not to transmit directly the opinions of COCOM or theater commanders -- lord knows those guys had plenty of access to the president -- but rather to provide his best military advice. Why should we believe that he didn't?

Meanwhile, Korb rips Mullen and the Secretary for being impatient with McKiernan's failure to address questions they asked about his plans for Afghanistan because a resource request had not been answered yet. So the theater commander is permitted to base his plans on the strategic decisions of the president (or, perhaps, only this president) but the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense must offer advice that is willfully ignorant of or indifferent to that presidential guidance? That's pretty absurd.

And finally, Korb just goes balls-out and slanders Adm. Mullen: the latter was covering, Korb tells us, for "the fact that he and Gates had been derelict in their duty on the situation in Afghanistan for several years." Well, I think I've shown you that Mullen was not, in fact, "derelict in his duty" as prescribed by law. It seems manifestly irresponsible to accuse the president's senior military advisor of scheming and dishonesty, firing a respected 30-year veteran to distract from his personal failings. Seems like a dick move to me, not to mention being entirely groundless.

P.S. This is the same Lawrence Korb who I heard on NPR a few months ago ("now we bring you foreign policy expert..."!) repeatedly referring to the Iranian president as "Ah-ma-dee-ne-di-jad." That's one too many syllables, slick.

4 comments:

  1. I have no beef in this, but unless the numbers from Afghanistan were glossed from McKiernan, it does seem fair to say that Af/Pak was taken much too lightly for several years? Ive seen more civilized arguments for the fact that McKiernan was a wee bit scapegoated (though deservedly so, in context).

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  2. That's an unsophisticated swipe at Korb.

    SNLII

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  3. That's an unsophisticated swipe at Korb.

    Of course it is. I've taken similarly unsophisticated swipes at Loren Thompson, Tom Donnely, French rugby stars, and the Philadelphia Eagles. I specialize in unsophisticated.

    Seriously though, I'm a blogger (or an "online avatar," if you like). Lawrence Korb is a public personality, a man who trades on his foreign policy expertise. Could he get the names right? (And also not cast unjustified aspersions based on a misunderstanding of the appropriate relationship between senior military leaders and their political bosses?)

    Ive seen more civilized arguments for the fact that McKiernan was a wee bit scapegoated (though deservedly so, in context).

    Sure, fine. (I've even made one or two of them.) But that's not what this was about.

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