Where's the indignation, General Dempsey?

Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cast himself as the arbiter of military conduct and guardian of the military's prerogative to remain outside America's bruising political battles. He has said, "one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy -- in our form of democracy -- that's most important is that we remain apolitical." More than just staking out the high ground, he has chosen to police it, objecting to retired veterans criticizing the president. 

Gen. Dempsey also rebuked Congressman Ryan during budget season for suggesting the military leadership had concerns about President Obama's new goal post of another $400 billion in cuts to free up money for domestic spending. Gen. Dempsey turned up the volume in that exchange, invoking his impugned honor that Ryan would "collectively call us liars."

Which is why it is so odd that Gen. Dempsey has not held the president to the same standard. On several recent occasions, President Obama has asserted that his Republican challenger for president would force on our military money and weapons they don't want. 

In his convention speech -- an overtly political occasion -- President Obama said, "my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don't even want." No reaction from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During last night's presidential debate -- another overtly political occasion -- the president twice insisted Governor Romney was peddling "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military isn't asking for."

Really? No one in the American military believes defense spending should be higher than the president's FY2013 budget request? The president of the United States was misrepresenting the views of many in our military, counting on their professional reserve to remain silent while he uses their credibility with the public for political advantage in an election. How does that not count as politicizing our military?  

The Budget Control Act would cut $50 billion a year for the next ten years from DOD's budget, something Gen. Dempsey has said would be a disaster of such proportions that the United States "wouldn't be the global power that we know ourselves to be today." Most of my military colleagues are concerned about the gap between demands and resources, and most believe the defense budget should not be further cut. Some believe near-term risk should be accepted in the military realm in order to solve the much larger vulnerability of our national debt; others believe civilians are asking the military to make yet more sacrifices so that politicians don't have to face up to the hard choices of entitlement reform. Which is to say that our military is not of one view on practically any subject, even those that touch on the center of their professional judgment.

To be fair, Gen. Dempsey is in an awkward position, caught between the commander in chief playing politics and the desire to stay out of the political mud-slinging. And this is a thin-skinned and stridently political president who it may be difficult to remain effective as the senior military advisor to if Obama takes umbrage at being corrected (which he surely will). But Gen. Dempsey has put himself in that position with his forceful interventions on the issue previously. Other generals have labored under no lesser burdens.

I'm very much in favor of our military staying out of politics; but if Gen. Dempsey is going to set himself up as the arbiter of the civil-military boundary, he needs to actually police both sides of it. And that means correcting the record when the president misleads the public or caricatures our military as having only one view about an important national issue that goes directly to their military judgment.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Two brief thoughts on last night's debate

Like everyone else, I thought Governor Romney helped himself last night. I won't dwell on my reactions because the debate focused on topics far removed from Shadow Govt's ballpark, though both candidates did make a passing reference to foreign policy. Doubtless the Shadow Govt. team will have more to say when the ball moves into our court with the October 22 foreign policy debate.

However, I can't resist making two observations that I haven't seen get much emphasis in the commentary I have read thus far:

1. Obama talked the longest but Romney said the most. I was watching on MSNBC (I wanted to get a sense of what my Duke colleagues were thinking to gird myself for the inevitable hallway ambushes) and their pundits all seemed to think that Romney had run roughshod over the moderator and, in Rachel Maddow's words, won on "time of possession." That struck me as odd, because my sense was that Obama had droned on longer than Romney. It turns out I was right, according to CNN's clock,which had Obama speaking for 42 minutes and 50 seconds while Romney spoke for only 38 minutes and 32 seconds. It felt like Romney was more efficient with airtime -- alternating between rapid-fire statistics and repetition of key points -- whereas Obama meandered and often seemed at a loss for words, maybe even at a loss for thoughts. There is no question Romney was more commanding -- more sure of himself and more sure of the facts -- but he was not commanding the clock.

(2) Obama seemed like he had something bigger on his mind than the debate. In part because the president came off as distracted, I began to wonder what was distracting him. There have been many hypotheses advanced: maybe he was distracted by actually getting challenged, given how gentle the press usually treats him; maybe he needs his teleprompter to help him; and so on. Perhaps because of the bias of my interest in foreign policy, I wondered whether he had just had a very troubling intelligence briefing. I imagined him standing there and thinking about this briefing about some horrible pending threat and then having to overcome that distraction to focus again on, what was it, oh yes, my $716 billion worth of cuts to Medicare. Of course, there is no evidence for my hypothesis beyond Obama's halting performance, but an enterprising reporter might want to dig in that direction a bit.