Shadow Government

Will Evidence of Assad's Alleged Mass Atrocities Prompt Obama to Change Course?

Today's New York Times details the horrifying evidence of mass atrocities allegedly inflicted by Bashar al-Assad's regime during the bloody civil war in Syria. The reporter, David Kirkpatrick, asked me whether I thought this is a game-changer for U.S. policy. I said no, but then I went on to speculate on the ways the photographic evidence might change some staffers' calculations:

Feaver imagined that the images might provide new ammunition to those who want "to go into the Oval Office, throw it down on the desk, and say, 'If we don't act, this is on us!'" 

And, yes, in the Alice-in-Wonderland sense of imagining impossible things, I can imagine someone inside the administration doing this.

It is much easier to imagine someone wanting to do this. Surely someone like Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, must be tempted to confront the president in this way. It is not likely, however, because many people imagine themselves confronting the president before they walk into the Oval Office. Very few congratulate themselves for having done so after they walk out. As I have noted before, even very senior and experienced people who are essentially immune from being fired are reluctant to confront the president in this way.

Even if Power or someone else did raise the issue, doing so would be unlikely to produce a change in policy. President Barack Obama already knows that Assad has committed mass atrocities, but the president has decided not to act decisively regardless. On the contrary, the president has doubled down on the bet that the diplomatic track will yield results with the Assad regime. Back in August, then the administration was looking to mobilize public support for military action, photos like these would have fit that effort by helping stoke public outrage. Now, however, the president is faced with the daunting task of convincing other people -- and perhaps convincing himself -- that he can reach reasonable accommodations with Assad. The photographic evidence released this week makes it harder to believe that the administration can really deal with Assad, but the president is committed to that course, and it will probably take something more than horrifying evidence of Assad's atrocities to shift Obama off that course.

It is always difficult to mobilize governmental support for military action. It is doubly difficult when the president has publicly committed himself to a different course and triply difficult when the president has landed on this path after flirting as extensively with military action as Obama did in August. The institutional bias against using the military in this way is always strong, and it is almost impossible to overcome once a president has reached the point Obama has reached today.

Obama is in a diplomatic quagmire. The photos released this week underscore the terrible human toll of that quagmire, but they are not likely to change the trajectory of U.S. policy or of the Syrian tragedy. Maybe if the Geneva process breaks down in a spectacular way, internal advocates for a new policy might have the ammunition they need to convince the president to try something else. Until then, this is likely just one more painful scene that will cause the administration anguish as it passes by on the other side, something to be reflected upon in the memoirs but not acted upon now.

Photo: THE REPORT/CARTER-RUCK/EPA

Shadow Government

If You Don't Want Generals to Speak Out, You Must Speak Up

Do senior military officers speak out too much when they disagree with the policies their commander in chief is considering?

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he thinks the military talks too much. He notes that this problem hasn't been unique to President Barack Obama's tenure. During George W. Bush's administration, Adm. William Fallon, for instance, clearly crossed Gates's line in airing his opinions about Iran policy, and he left his command abruptly as a result. But Gates, during his secretaryship, found Obama to be especially exercised about this issue, and Gates attributes much of the civil-military problems in the Obama era to the way that White House political advisors seethed at hearing military opinion, particularly when expressed in public.

Respected military historian Hew Strachan says these concerns are overblown. Author of a forthcoming book on civil-military relations in wartime, Strachan told the Daily Beast:

"The concern about the military speaking out shows a lack of democratic and political maturity. We're not facing the danger of a military coup. The professional experts, who deal with war all the time, should be able to express their views all the time, openly and coherently, just as you would expect a doctor or a teacher to express their views coherently about how you run medical policy or teaching policy."

This is a long-standing debate among civil-military relations specialists. At one extreme end are folks like Andrew Milburn who argue that the military has an obligation and duty to thwart civilians who are considering unwise policies; the most effective way to do that is to speak out to Congress, the media, and the general public whenever the president is tempted to err. My own academic work is closer to the other end of the spectrum: I have called doing end runs around the president in this way "shirking," a subversion of civilian control. 

But I would not muzzle the military entirely. Of course, the military's primary obligation is to provide its most candid advice privately to the administration. Nevertheless, the military does have a legitimate role in speaking outside the administration. For starters, senior military officers must testify before Congress. When they do, they are obliged to explain the administration's position and also, if asked, to give their independent military opinion, even if it differs from the administration's position. They cannot merely give their own opinion, however; they must also explain the administration's position if it diverges from their own. Moreover, the military can and should explain military policy to the general public, and the best way to do that is through the media.

This public role is tricky. The military must be wary lest it find itself carrying political water for an administration unwilling or unable to defend its own policies. The military also must speak without subverting the chain of command and the integrity of the internal policymaking process. That means that the military must be careful not to speak with the intention of mobilizing public opinion against administration policy; that was the line that Fallon crossed. And, of course, the military should not speak disrespectfully about the commander in chief, regardless of its private views; that was the line Gen. Stanley McChrystal crossed, which resulted in his early retirement.

If what Gates is saying is that the more often you speak to the media and the public, the more likely you are to inadvertently stray across one of these lines, then I have some sympathy with his position. I think the issue is less quantity than quality. Some military leaders are very good at staying within the lines and can speak for hours without crossing one; others cross the line within minutes of clearing their throat.

But what if Gates and other critics are making a more general point: that any speaking out by the military beyond the most banal statements about "God bless the troops" is a civil-military violation?

If so, I think that goes too far, even though I understand the impulse behind it. I think the military can rightfully speak out a bit more than that without crossing the civil-military line, though it must be very careful as it does so.

Here's the thing, however: If you are the secretary of defense and you want to muzzle the military that much, then you must unmuzzle yourself by a corresponding amount. And Gates did not do that. One of the most striking revelations in the book -- and now that I've thought about it for a week, perhaps the most striking revelation in the book -- is how many times Gates muzzled himself. Time after time, Gates records in his memoirs that he was dismayed at the attitudes expressed by the president and the other senior civilians, especially attitudes toward the military and on vital national security matters. And time after time, Gates records that he really wanted to say something but did not.

Gates failure to speak up was not a matter of l'esprit de l'escalier, like George Costanza's frustration with delivering a snappy comeback in a timely manner. On the contrary, it appears to be calculated: Time after time, Gates just chose not to speak up.

Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, a key shaper of the process that Gates is criticizing in the book, told National Journal that Gates did speak up: "I have to say I don't see anything that Secretary Gates says in the book that he didn't raise as an issue at the time." And according to the same National Journal story, Gates appears to confirm that, telling reporters, "there wasn't a single issue" he didn't raise in office that he addressed later in his book, whether about Afghanistan, Iraq, European missile defense, or the administration's program of "outreach" to Iran. Gates added: "I agreed with him [Obama] on all those things. My continuing concerns were more process concerns. I did raise those all the time with Tom Donilon, [former National Security Advisor] Jim Jones, and others."

But did he raise it with the one person who mattered most, the president? According to his memoir, he did not.

And so the Obama administration's fractious civil-military relations continued, observed but unaddressed, because no one would raise it with the boss. As Shadow Government contributor Kori Schake suggests, there were plenty of respectful ways Gates could have contributed the necessary corrective. To be sure, it must be conceded, even if he had, the political imperatives driving the behavior of Obama and the White House might have trumped anything Gates could have said. But at least he would have said it, and the fact that the secretary of defense spoke up on behalf of healthier civil-military relations would have resonated back with the rank and file -- and that, by itself, would have contributed to healthier civil-military relations. 

If you are Gates and you don't like the military speaking out in public, you have to be willing to speak up yourself in private. To the extent that Gates chose not to do that, important opportunities were missed.

Photo: Jamie Rose/Getty Images