Shadow Government

Did Marine Commandant James Conway cross a civil-military line?

Marine Commandant James Conway may have gotten himself in a bit of hot water with his recent public remarks about Afghanistan and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.  

On Afghanistan, General Conway said, ""We think right now [Obama's announced Afghanistan timeline is] probably giving our enemy sustenance... We've intercepted communications that say, hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long... " The New York Times gave this a more problematic headline ( Top Marine Says Afghan Deadline May Help Taliban) than did the Washington Post (Taliban could be misleading its forces) ( ). I bet the White House prefers the Post's spin. But either way, Conway was simply stating the obvious: President Obama's announced timeline for Afghanistan has some downsides. Even supporters of the timeline, if they are honest, must acknowledge this inarguable fact. Most experts go on to say that Obama mishandled the announcement and created needless confusion about the meaning of the timeline, thus exacerbating the downsides; this is my view. And most experts probably say that on balance the costs of the announced timeline may outweigh the benefits; this is also my view. And some even go so far as to view it as a strategic blunder that may inadvertently sabotage the surge, possibly jeopardizing the war; I am not prepared to say this at this point, but it is not an absurdly unreasonable fear. If General Conway had volunteered any of those additional opinions in public, he might have crossed a civil-military line (unless those opinions had been solicited in Congressional testimony). But he didn't, and so he deserves a pass.

The White House may be more annoyed by his comments about lifting the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He repeated his oft-stated personal objection to changing the policy and his belief that 'an overwhelming majority [of Marines] would like not to be roomed with a person who is openly homosexual.'" Since Obama has made it clear that he intends to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces, Conway's remarks were "off message." But since President Obama and Secretary Gates have also made it clear that they are soliciting military opinion on the topic during this interval, Conway's comments probably do not cross a civilian control line -- especially since he also made it clear that if the president so directs, he will salute, obey, and implement the policy within the Marine Corps. However, Conway's comments dance up to the line and, I expect, will cause heartburn among Obama's advisors.  

The civil-military norms are clear in theory but hard to apply in practice. Military leaders owe their chain of command their candid professional military opinion, especially when that opinion runs counter to the predilections of civilian leaders. Military leaders also answer to Congress, and have the same obligation. But military leaders should not cross from advising, to advocating or insisting on policy outcomes. The military should not be politicking in an effort to undo or constrain the options of civilian leaders. The challenge is to explain current policy to the American public in a way that balances the need to be honest about military professional opinion with the need to let the commander-in-chief set policy.

This is an especially delicate line to walk when civilian leaders choose to do something that, in the opinion of the military, jeopardizes national security. But provided that military leaders have made their concerns known privately to responsible civilian authorities, they have no further responsibility to block policy. On the contrary, they owe their bosses their respectful effort to make the policy succeed. It is the responsibility of the bosses of the civilian leaders - the voters -- to hold political leaders accountable for bad national security policy choices.

Obama probably doesn't welcome Conway's comments, but I think they fall short of violating civil-military norms. Annoying the boss is not a firing offense. And President Obama, who has been pretty sure-footed on this one particular aspect of civil-military relations, will probably take the wiser path of letting the matter pass.

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Shadow Government

The Real Meaning of Bushehr

The ceremony on Saturday marking the beginning of the fueling of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor was preceded by much commentary about the implications of the move for Iran’s nuclear program and international efforts to halt Iran’s steady progress toward a nuclear weapon.

Under construction for decades, it was only a matter of time before Bushehr went live, especially after the Bush administration agreed in 2007 not to object to the project, hoping that a Russian-fueled Iranian reactor producing electricity would obviate Iran’s claimed need for indigenous production of nuclear fuel.

While Bushehr could eventually produce plutonium that Iran could use in a nuclear weapon, this would be a different path to a weapon than the uranium enrichment route that Tehran has thus far pursued. Plus, under Moscow’s agreement with Tehran, Russia will retain the spent fuel, which will be transported back to Russia. All aspects of the reactor’s operations, including the fuel, will be under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. 

These arrangements, are of course not completely foolproof, but are about as close as it gets. Even if Iran wanted a confrontation, and kicked out the Russians and IAEA from Bushehr, Iran does not appear to possess the reprocessing technology required to produce weapons grade plutonium from the spent fuel. Regardless, an international confrontation of this sort would be a green light for Israeli or perhaps even U.S. military action, an action one would assume the Iranians would not risk.

Another concern cited by critics is that now that the reactor is operational, any military action taken against the facility becomes much more difficult given the likelihood of a Chernobyl-style dispersion of radiation. Given the reported continuing Russian presence at the site, military action already is already unlikely, given that the last thing Israel would likely want to do is kill Russian scientists and technicians that are working on a project that has been blessed by successive U.S. administrations of both political parties. Also, if Israel or the United States became convinced that Bushehr was being used as part of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it is likely that either country could find a suitable way to disable the reactor without contaminating a large geographic area.

Despite the fact that Bushehr thus fails to meet the hype swirling around the weekend’s events, there are several lessons to be learned from the plant going online.

First, it serves as another reminder of the bipartisan failure of U.S. Iran policy. The Iran saga is not solely about failed engagement by President Obama. The Bush administration tried various tactics with Iran and also failed to halt its progress toward a nuclear capability. A serious exploration of new options, including the military option, is thus in order if the United States remains unwilling to accept a nuclear Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent cover story in The Atlantic has caused renewed interest in this issue and the debate that has ensued on The Atlantic’s website is worth checking out.

Second, the actual startup of Bushehr says something about Russia’s perceptions of the Iranian threat. Russia often concludes much-publicized deals with rogue regimes and then delays their implementation for years. One notable example is its agreement to sell Iran the S-300 air defense system. Moscow did this with Bushehr, but obviously felt that it was out of time. Iranian-Russian relations have been hostile in recent months after Russia supported UNSCR -- so Russia perhaps decided to make amends and send the Iranians a message that they had not completely abandoned them in favor of tougher sanctions. 

The Bush administration tried outright opposition to Bushehr before eventually acquiescing to the reactor’s construction. The Obama administration apparently requested that the Russians delay the reactor’s start, but Russian Prime Minister Putin responded by announcing the summer start date for the reactor during Secretary Clinton’s visit to Moscow in March of this year. More recently, it appears that Bushehr got wrapped up into "reset" deal making. Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal reported that the administration "consented in recent months to Russia pushing forward with Bushehr in order to gain Moscow's support for a fourth round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, which passed in June." That adds Bushehr to a long list of concessions granted by this administration to Moscow as part of its "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations. 

The decision to proceed now raises questions about the frequent assertion by administration officials that Russia and the U.S. see eye to eye on the Iranian threat, given that Iran will clearly see this as a victory at a time when the Obama administration is trying to isolate Iran.

Finally, the brouhaha over Bushehr obscures the real troubling aspect of the current crisis -- the ongoing nuclear weapons program’s timeline. President Obama’s top nonproliferation official, Gary Samore, was quoted in the New York Times on Friday as saying, "We think that they have roughly a year dash time." One year to a breakout capability is likely based on an assumption that there are no covert enrichment facilities in or near operation, which is a risky assumption. With an update to the flawed 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran long overdue, this timeline debate is far from over.

The one year breakout timeline also obscures the bigger question of how close Iran should be allowed to get to a nuclear capability before military action is taken to stop the program. Iran may, as former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden has argued, decide that the safest route is to loiter at the nuclear threshold and not make the decision to immediately build a weapon, knowing that it would be a green light for preemptive action. If it chooses this route, Iran could keep Western intelligence agencies guessing for years, trying to discern whether the "go" order had actually been given by the Supreme Leader. Other states in the region might decide that it was too risky to assume that Iran had not yet built a bomb and might begin to lay the building blocks of their own nuclear programs. The cascade of proliferation in the Middle East that concerns many nonproliferation experts could thus begin even without a Pakistan or India-style test announced to the world.

Bushehr thus is little more than a diversion from the real challenges (and real threats) of Iran’s ongoing covert nuclear weapons work. The real key to Iran’s nuclear program lies at its facilities at Natanz, Esfahan, at the factories where its centrifuges are being built, and the labs and campuses of its nuclear scientists. Bushehr should remind us, however, that as Iran develops its capabilities in the nuclear sphere, we face an increasingly small window of time before an Iranian nuclear weapon becomes a reality.

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