by MacKubin Thomas Owens
The Department of Defense faces some stark choices in the future due to the threat of sequestration. But the continual sounds of shoes dropping at the Pentagon suggest that the sequester may be the least of its problems.
The first shoe was the announcement in December that Marine Gen. James Mattis would leave his post as commander of Central Command in March, well short of what would be expected of a combatant commander who has acquitted himself well since he was appointed in August 2010. Most observers were stunned. There seemed to be no logical reason for his being replaced early. Most unforgivably, he learned of the move when an aide read a Pentagon press release announcing the change.
According to recent reports (on journalist Tom Ricks’ blog, for instance), White House officials, especially National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, weren’t happy with Gen. Mattis’s advice, in particular his effort to change the strategic framework regarding Iran. Gen. Mattis thought we should be planning for what Iran is capable of doing —such as closing the Strait of Hormuz or attacking Israel —not just what we assume Iran will do. In addition, Gen. Mattis and the White House clashed over the way ahead in Afghanistan, his concerns about Pakistani stability, and the response to the Arab spring.
Despite these policy disagreements, it is noteworthy that during Gen. Mattis’s time as the commander responsible for one of the most volatile regions in the world, there were no manifestations of the unhealthy civil-military relations that characterized the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. There were no leaks to the press from within his command over policy disagreements and no reports of “slow rolling” or “foot dragging” in Gen. Mattis’s implementation of the president’s policy.
A president has every right to choose the generals he wants, but it is also the case that he usually gets the generals he deserves. By pushing Gen. Mattis overboard, the administration sent a message that it doesn’t want smart, independent-minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders. What other generals and admirals are likely to take from this is that they should go along to get along, a very bad message for the health of U.S. civil-military relations.
The second shoe to drop was the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense. Much of the opposition to Mr. Hagel has focused on his alleged hostility to Israel and his seeming indifference to a nuclear-armed Iran. As serious as these issues may be, the real problem is his likely approach to the defense budget.
The Hagel nomination is a replay of President Harry Truman’s appointment of Louis Johnson as secretary of defense in early 1949. Like Mr. Obama, Truman was committed to funding his domestic programs at the expense of military spending. When the incumbent defense secretary, James Forrestal, argued that cuts in the defense budget were too deep in light of emerging threats, Truman asked for his resignation and replaced him with Johnson, whom most historians regard as a partisan hack.
Like Truman and Johnson before them, Messrs. Obama and Hagel are predisposed to look at the defense budget in the abstract, independent of the real world. Yes, the defense budget can and should be cut. But the danger is that President Obama has appointed Sen. Hagel for the same reason that Truman appointed Johnson: to take an ax to the Pentagon in order to free up money for the president’s expanded welfare state. This is alarming. National security strategy—not budget cuts for their own sake—should drive defense spending and force structure.
The third shoe dropped on Jan. 24, when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the opening of most ground-combat billets to females. There are three reasons this is a terrible policy change.
First, there are substantial physical differences between men and women that place the latter at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to ground combat. Second, men treat women differently than they treat other men. This can undermine the comradeship upon which unit cohesion, and thus battlefield success, depends.
Finally, the presence of women also leads to lowered—or worse, double—standards that will have a serious impact on morale and performance. Secretary Panetta’s statement that “if [women] can meet the qualifications for the job, then they should have the right to serve” is bunk, and everyone, especially infantrymen (and most women), knows it.
Indeed, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave the game away when he said as the policy change was announced that, “if we do decide that a particular standard is so high that a woman couldn’t make it, the burden is now on the service to come back and explain to the secretary, why is it that high?” Gen. Dempsey thereby guaranteed that politically appointed civilian officials will lower standards.
So we have a yes-man/hatchet-man as the likely next secretary of defense whose job is to do his worst at the Defense Department. And the firing of a general who did what he is supposed to do: provide advice forcefully. And women in the infantry, which undermines military effectiveness but pleases the diversity crowd.
With a secretary who doesn’t care and generals who will now think it in their best interest to keep quiet, we are likely to see more such nonsense. The combined effect of these three events will degrade the readiness and effectiveness of the U.S. military far more than sequestration will.
Mackubin Thomas Owens serves on the faculty of the Naval War College. He is also the editor Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and author of US Civil-Military Relations After 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.