Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Still Missing the Point in the Debate on the Generals

In this WaPo op-ed column by Melvin Laird and Robert E. Pursley, we see plenty more desperate flailing by Rumsfeld defenders trying to articulate a principle that would justify stifling dissent by retired military officers.

First, Laird and Pursley say that the generals' criticism of Rumsfeld is ill-timed because it is coming too late:

while their advice and the weight of their experience should be taken into account, the important time for them to weigh in was while they were on active duty.

There's no indication as to why Laird and Pursley assume the generals were silent while on active duty. Obviously they didn't go public with their dissent while in uniform. Do Laird and Pursley think they should have? (Somehow I doubt that.)

Then Laird and Pursley switch gears and claim that the generals' criticism is ill-timed because it is coming too early:

Rumsfeld respects the delicate balance between military expertise and civilian control, but in the end the decisions are his to make. Our democracy is designed to favor civilian control of defense decisions. The problem is that when military advice is considered and then rejected, officers are likely to feel sidelined. Sometimes we all must wait for hindsight to be able to make accurate judgments.

And to illustrate, they point out that the concept of the volunteer army, which many in the military originally opposed, has turned out, decades later, to be a good one. Which I guess means that they think the generals are engaged in a "rush to judgment" by criticizing the Iraq War only three years after it was launched. Perhaps they will let us know when they think dissent is finally appropriate. Will it be okay to critique the war in 2010? How about 2025? (God forbid people should offer opinions while there is still a chance to influence events on the ground.)

As their groping continues, Laird and Pursley claim that, in fact, the generals have no legitimate beef with Rumsfeld because he has provided them with so many opportunities to share their recommendations:

There are many avenues through which military ideas can be expressed. The uniformed service chiefs and civilian service secretaries meet frequently with the secretary of defense. We still have many friends and associates in the military and the Defense Department. We are confident that Rumsfeld does not limit those who meet with him to proffer advice.

Of course, this too misses the point. When the retired generals urge that Rumsfeld be fired, they aren't merely complaining about the system by which ideas are shared inside the Department of Defense. They are saying that Rumsfeld's decisions have been stupid, inflexible, ill-informed, and ultimately disastrous. In other words, this is a quarrel about substance--not just about process. (It's noteworthy that Laird and Pursley make no effort to defend Rumsfeld on the merits. After all, how could they?)

Which leads to the final line of defense--the old "dissent comforts our enemies" argument:

We do not advocate a silencing of debate on the war in Iraq. But care must be taken by those experienced officers who had their chance to speak up while on active duty. In speaking out now, they may think they are doing a service by adding to the reasoned debate. But the enemy does not understand or appreciate reasoned public debate. It is perceived as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.

Like most defenses of the Bush administration, this boils down to "Shut up, he explained."

It may or may not be true that "the enemy does not understand or appreciate reasoned public debate." But Americans do. Why exactly should we grant Al Qaeda censorship powers over our democracy?

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