Today’s Los Angeles Times carries an article by me on the resignation of Admiral Fox Fallon from Central Command. In it I applaud his departure. Fallon was on the wrong side of so many issues–from opposing the surge in Iraq to making public statements that made it more difficult to maintain pressure on Iran. But his departure also raises a broader issue that I didn’t have room to address in the article: When is it appropriate for military commanders to break ranks with their civilian overseers?
This has been a hot issue for years. A decade ago, one of the most capable officers in the entire army, H.R. McMaster, published a best-selling book, Dereliction of Duty, which took the Joint Chiefs of Staff to task for not quitting in protest because President Johnson supposedly ignored their best military advice about the Vietnam War. More recently, a group of retired general officers came out against the Iraq War and against Donald Rumsfeld when he was still Secretary of Defense. Many in the military have suggested there should have been more protest and, if necessary, resignations among the senior ranks to protest the misguided decisions made by the Bush administration about the Iraq War.
There is little doubt that senior officers should have ample opportunity to engage in debate and dissent–in private. The President and secretary of defense should hear a wide variety of views before making a decision. But it’s another matter altogether when senior officers go public with their disagreements, especially when disagreeing with policy decisions that have already been made by their civilian superiors. That is an untenable situation, and–as with George McClellan, Douglas MacArthur, and now Fox Fallon–there is no choice but for such general officers to resign.
A further distinction should be made. Military officers are experts in how to wage war, not when to wage it. Their advice is most needed when it comes to tactics and operations, not for building grand strategy. Bush and Rumsfeld would have been well advised to pay closer attention in 2003 to the misgivings of generals such as Eric Shinseki, who warned that a larger force would be required in Iraq. And today the administration should certainly listen to Fallon or other officers about which military options, if any, are viable in the event of war with Iran.
But that’s a different matter from Fallon publicly carping that the U.S. should make nice with Iran and not threaten the mullahs with military action. Those decisions are above his pay grade, and while he should get a say in internal deliberations, his views should not necessarily be translated into policy.
Even when it comes to tactics and operations, generals shouldn’t necessarily carry the day. Fallon, after all, was wrong in opposing the surge. If the President had followed his advice we would not now be winning the war in Iraq. The trick, from the standpoint of a commander in chief, is to listen to a wide variety of views and not to defer automatically to the military hierarchy. Some officers will necessarily be unhappy with the final decisions if they run contrary to their own views. But once the President issues a directive, it is the job of the armed forces to salute and march out–not to mouth off to Esquire. If any officer can’t in good conscience carry out his orders, he has only one option left: to resign. And that’s just what Fallon did.
Democrats will try to make a scandal out of Fallon’s departure. But in fact it shows the system of civilian control of our armed forces working as intended. That is something any future President, Democrat or Republican, should be grateful for.