Shadow Government

Overruling the generals: A response from Fred Kagan

Shadow Government is pleased to run Fred Kagan's guest post below.  I believe it helpfully advances the debate and clarifies were there is and isn't much daylight between his position and mine.  And I apologize for any and all misconceptions in my original post.

Fred is especially compelling on the matter of speaking for others vs. speaking for himself and I couldn't say it any better than he did.  However, I think he may have misunderstood my point.  I was not criticizing him for deceptively speaking on behalf of others.  Rather I was worried that he was saying things that he had heard some (many?) in the military already say and, in that sense, was stoking a flame that Fred, in this follow-up note, acknowledges could singe civil-military relations.  Put another way, I do not think Fred did anything dishonorable; I do worry about the wisdom of it because of the way it could resonate with civil-military grievances already in place.

I remember many people claiming that the Bush administration was trying to silence critics by pointing out how the strategy was endorsed by the military commanders, but I do not remember many instances of the administration actually doing so.  By 2005-2006, the critics were so loud I don't remember any Bush colleagues who thought we could silence anyone.  At the same time, the administration did believe then that the confidence of the ground commanders in the existing strategy was one reason to stick with it a bit longer to give it time to deliver results.  Not the only reason and, obviously, not the dispositive one as it turned out  -- but a legitimate one to raise.  It was not "silencing critics" then to point that out, anymore than Fred is trying to silence critics of his preferred strategy now by pointing out how military commanders preferred his approach to the one the president chose. 

Fred's new post raises the crucial question: if a president can be either too comfortable or too uncomfortable with overruling his/her commanders, how can we know when he/she has it just right.  I am not sure how to parse it sufficiently finely, which is why I come down on the side of "right to be wrong."  But I do agree with him that there are better and worse ways to manage the military advice and decision-making process and that the best way imposes obligations on both politicians and generals.  In future posts, I hope to lay some of those criteria out.  And when I do, I hope Fred Kagan will help measure all administrations, past, current, and future, against them.


By Fred Kagan

Peter Feaver is an acknowledged expert on civil-military relations.  I have not always agreed with his views on that issue, but I certainly appreciate his contributions to the field and look forward to continuing the discussion with him.  His recent commentary on my editorial in The Weekly Standardhowever, requires some brief correction in that he, no doubt unintentionally, misrepresented my argument somewhat and, more to the point, suggested that I was not speaking only for myself. 

The fact that I associate closely with various military officers periodically gives rise to the notion that I am acting as a conduit for them when writing in my own voice. While it is perhaps inevitable that some might draw such a conclusion, it is nonetheless imperative that I make clear that the notion is absolutely false.  I have never said or published anything with the intention of channeling the opinions of military officials, bringing concerns that they did not wish to voice to the attention of the public, or helping them in some way to bypass their chains of command. My candid opinions and assessments, even when they diverge from those of military leaders, are just that-my own.  It's an independence I've worked hard to maintain, and the reason why I have never accepted to enter into the employ of a commander in the field.   

I would not belabor this point if it did not arise in the context of civil-military relations at a charged time in American history.  It would of course be inappropriate for senior military commanders to attempt end-runs around their chains-of-command by planting stories, ideas, or lines of argument through cut-outs.  On the other hand, it is an important moment for citizens who are concerned about the direction of American national security policy to voice their personal concerns.

In 2005-2006 I was not criticizing President Bush for taking the advice of his generals, as Feaver suggests, but rather for pursuing the wrong strategy.  Some in his administration attempted to use the fact that the commanders were advocating that strategy as a club with which to silence those who questioned it.  I rejected then-and rejected explicitly in the editorial I just published-the notion that generals are always right, that their advice should always be taken, and that their proposals should be the end of discussion.  President Bush was extremely uncomfortable overruling the advice of his commanders-too uncomfortable, in my view.

There is such a thing as being too comfortable with overruling military advice as well, however, which was the point of my editorial.  The president is not obliged to take the advice of his commanders simply because he chose them.  Nor did I suggest any kind of "three-strikes-and-you're-out" principle.  There is, nevertheless, a disturbing pattern in this president's repeated decisions to reject portions of the advice and plans his commanders reportedly presented him.  The question at hand is not his right to make these decisions, but rather his wisdom in doing so.

Shadow Government

Strategic (mis)communication on Iran

Given the alarms that have increasingly been sounded in recent months about Iran's nuclear progress and furor over its alleged plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington and the storming of the British embassy in Tehran, one might think that Iran's leaders would be worried about the prospect of a Western attack on their country.  However, their remarks suggest just the opposite.  In recent days, Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei has boasted of "shatter(ing) the resolve" of the West, and the commander of Iran's paramilitary Basij forces -- who were responsible for the embassy rampage -- predicted that the U.S. would be too weak even to respond to an Iranian attack.   

Perhaps this is just bluster; however, U.S. officials have done little to dampen the regime's overweening self-confidence and the proclivity for escalation which is fueled by it.  While Obama administration officials continue to assert that the military option remains "on the table" with respect to Iran, they have a counterproductive tendency to simultaneously undermine those assertions and thereby undermine our efforts to deter Iran and muster support for tougher sanctions.  The latest disquisition on the inadvisability of military action came from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who on Friday described five reasons why the U.S. should not strike Iran.  All of them were debatable.

First, Panetta claimed that an attack might only set back the regime "one, possibly two years" because "some of [the nuclear] targets are very difficult to get at."  Putting aside the advisability of broadcasting the limits of our military capabilities to Iran and others, this analysis is questionable.  Presumably Panetta is in a position to know whether it would actually be difficult to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, though recent unexplained explosions such as the one which nearly obliterated an Iranian missile complex suggest they are vulnerable.  In any case, even partial damage could be difficult for Iran to recover from quickly.  Centrifuge manufacturing, for example, depends critically on specialized, hard-to-acquire components, which would make reconstituting the program difficult with vigorous sanctions enforcement.

Second, Panetta asserted that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would result in increased support for the regime in Iran and the region.  However, it is far more likely that our Arab allies -- especially those in the Gulf, who see Iran as the chief threat to their security -- would at least privately cheer a successful attack.  Among Muslim-majority populations, a mid-2010 Pew poll found that only in Pakistan is there majority support for Iran's nuclear program.  In Iran itself, far from bolstering the regime an attack may undermine it.  Khamenei himself recognized this recently, warning in a speech to the Iranian navy that two previous Iranian regimes -- the Qajars and Pahlavis -- had shown vulnerability in the face of foreign powers and had been swept aside as a result.

Panetta's third, fourth, and fifth assertions all concerned Iranian retaliation -- that Iran would target U.S. ships and bases; that an attack would carry economic consequences, presumably because Iran would target oil shipping or seek to close the Strait of Hormuz; and that an attack would lead to Iranian escalation and a conflict that would "consume the Middle East." 

It is a risk of any military activity that one's adversary will retaliate; the question is how capable he is of doing so.  While the threat posed by Iran and the uncertainties inherent to any conflict should not be discounted, neither should they be exaggerated.  Much sober analysis and planning would go into any strike on Iran by the United States and its allies, and it is difficult to imagine that the conclusion of those deliberations would be that we would be incapable of dealing with Iranian retaliation.  Most open-source assessments of the Iranian threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf, for example, conclude that Iran could not close the Straits for more than a brief period in the face of U.S. resistance. 

As for escalation -- it is already happening, as demonstrated by the aforementioned assassination plot and the storming of the British embassy.  Suggesting that we are deterred from responding is to invite further provocation.  Conversely, if we wish to prevent further escalation or, in the aftermath of a strike, make Iranian leaders think twice about how they respond, we must make clear that we are willing and able to counter any Iranian outrage or retaliation.

For U.S. officials to consider privately the concerns raised by Secretary Panetta is both responsible and necessary.  To muse upon them publicly, however, is neither; it is a strategic error.  Undercutting the credibility of the military threat not only reassures Tehran, but it increases the temptation of our allies in the region to hedge their bets and it takes pressure off of states such as Russia and China to support sanctions targeting Iran's central bank and oil revenues.  Panetta to his credit did not rule out force, but said it should be a last resort.  Few would disagree, but the timing may not be up to us -- the Iranian regime is unlikely to extend us the courtesy of waiting until we have exhausted all sanctions and diplomacy before going nuclear.  The surest way to put off that date and buy breathing room for a diplomatic strategy is to convince Iran's leaders that while we are not eager for a conflict, we are prepared to fight and win one if necessary.

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