Commentary:Defense Sec. should not muzzle his commanders
SAN DIEGO -- After years of criticizing President George W. Bush for running roughshod over American foreign policy by sending U.S. troops to fight two wars, liberals who support President Barack Obama have learned to stop worrying and love executive power.
Insisting that generals should pipe down, smile and take orders from the commander in chief, they feel it necessary to remind us all that the authors of the Constitution put the military under civilian control for good reason.
True enough. Civilian control of the military is an important tradition in this country, one worth preserving and respecting.
But there is another side to that coin. Recent and messy skirmishes at the highest levels of the Obama administration over how to proceed in Afghanistan, coupled with boorish attempts by administration officials to marginalize the one person who understands better than most what's really going on there -- i.e., the commander on the ground -- remind us of something else. One of the most valuable things about advice from military leaders in the field is that most career servicemen are focused on how to accomplish the mission they've been given. And one of the good things about that advice is that it usually isn't polluted by politics.
Right now, what concerns the administration most isn't just what they're hearing, but that others are hearing it too.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently put those advising Obama on notice that whatever they tell the White House is not intended for public consumption.
"It is imperative," Gates said during a speech at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army, "that all of us taking part in these deliberations -- civilians and military alike -- provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately."
Previously, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, said on CNN that: "Ideally, it's better for military advice to come up through the chain of command."
The scolding was aimed at Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and current thorn in the side of an administration that seems to be -- despite Gates' assurances to the contrary -- backing away from its commitment to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. News reports suggest that the administration is seeking an exit in Afghanistan or at least looking favorably at a "smaller footprint" strategy advocated by Vice President Joe Biden.
Consider the source. Biden is the same brilliant military strategist who was wrong about whether the surge would succeed in Iraq.
Although he hasn't said so directly, McChrystal thinks that Biden is wrong again. When asked after a recent speech in London whether the United States could be successful in Afghanistan by targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders with drone strikes without having soldiers on the ground, McChrystal didn't spin like a politician. He spoke plainly: "The short answer is 'No.' You have to navigate from where you are," he told the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "not where you wish to be."
McChrystal added that he believed "a strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a shortsighted strategy."
Perhaps the most troubling part about all this is Gates' emphasis on keeping these disagreements over policy under wraps. Heaven forbid that the military parents whose sons and daughters might be sent to Afghanistan, or the taxpayers who are footing the bill, be privy to what is being discussed. As if this involved them.
So much for the transparency that Obama promised when he took office. After all, these discussions aren't exactly national security secrets. The president has already been given the competing pieces of advice, and the cat is long since out of the bag on which strategies are being considered and who is suggesting what.
What Obama called a "war of necessity" just a few months ago is now, according to the general he installed to carry out that war, in danger of being lost without more troops.
The administration's concern about advisers speaking privately isn't military but political. Gates should be worried about protecting the country from future terrorist attacks. Instead, what the defense secretary seems to be most worried about is protecting Obama from embarrassment.
Sorry, Mr. Secretary. It's not working.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.