Streetwise Professor

April 2, 2011

The Gates Mutiny?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:26 am

Jennifer Rubin says that SecDef Robert Gates should resign for his statement that ground troops will not be committed to Libya while “I’m in this job.”  Rubin interprets Gates’s remark as a threat to the president.

That is a very plausible interpretation.  What should we make of it then?

The first thing to note is that Gates is not in the habit of making threats.  He is not a grandstander.  He is not a prima donna. He has a long record of service as a loyal servant in several administrations.  His remarks are an exception.  There must be an exceptional reason for him to make them.

Recent events provide clues for Gates’s outburst–which his remarks were, compared to his very low key norm.  In particular, the let-the-rebels-do-it “strategy” has proved to be utterly fantastic and farcical.  As a Patton, not a Gates, would have put it, these rebels couldn’t fight their way out of a p*ss-soaked paper bag. Testimony by Gates and Admiral Mullen revealed that there are perhaps 1000 with any military training.  They have no heavy weapons.  No discipline.  They are prone to indiscriminate killing–so much so that NATO has threatened to bomb these ostensible “allies” in the fight against Khaddafy unless they knock it off. Good luck with that.

Recognition of this is predictably leading to a serious potential for mission creep.  For instance, since the effectiveness of air power is sharply limited in supporting offensive operations by the lack of targeting assets on the ground, a proposal is afoot to have US troops train rebels as forward observers.

Please.  FO is a very demanding job that takes intensive training.  The US has acute difficulties in finding, training and keeping enough Joint Terminal Attack Controllers of its own.  It’s going to train some yo-yos whose main military qualification is shooting AKs into the air?  If these guys make mistakes, things go very wrong and people get killed.  In Libya, many of those killed would be civilians–the very people we are intervening to protect.

That this “solution” is even being considered is a confession of desperation.  To quote another famous military mind, Oliver Hardy: “Another nice mess you’ve gotten us into.”

Gates–unlike some other people I could name–is apparently thinking several steps ahead. He can foresee the dynamic of escalation and deepening involvement–he doesn’t want the mess to get worse.  Tentative measures fail.  A president has put his credibility on the line.  So the level of US involvement will creep up.  But not enough to achieve anything decisive.  So it will creep up some more.

Anybody seen this movie before?  Gates has, apparently, and is doing something that for him is exceptional in order to re-write the ending–or to stop filming altogether.

Checking an incompetent commander is always an extremely difficult endeavor.  In the US, Congress is supposed to check the executive.  That poses its own difficulties, because leadership by committee is always messy and erratic, and because politics and personality bedevil the process.  But messy oversight is often far superior to no oversight at all.  But in the case of this administration and Libya,  it has made it perfectly clear that it will not accept any Congressional control at all, going so far as to make the completely outrageous claim that it is actually in compliance with the War Powers Act.  You can argue that the WPA is unconstitutional, but you can’t argue that what Obama is doing adheres to it: but Hillary has done just that.  What’s more, so far Congress has acquiesced to this action and attitude, which had the president been of a different party it would have likely considered a usurpation of Congressional authority.

Checking a commander from inside the chain of command is even more fraught.  For dramatic depictions of the dilemmas involved, read (or watch) Mutiny on the Bounty or the Caine Mutiny or even Mr. Roberts.  Obedience is necessary in a military organization, but like anything, the obligation to obey cannot be unconditional.

That’s easy to say.  What’s far harder is to identify where the obligation ends, and how to limit insubordination to what is necessary to avoid catastrophe without destroying the military organization in the bargain.*

In this context, it is worth reading H. R. McMasters’ Dereliction of Duty.  McMasters is a Gulf War I hero who commanded a troop of the 2d Armored Cavalry that rolled over an Iraqi armored force at the Battle of 73 Easting (an event portrayed well in an episode of Greatest Tank Battles.)  He is now a brigadier general.  Dereliction of Duty is based on his PhD dissertation.  It argues that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were derelict because they acquiesced in McNamara’s gradual escalation strategy in Viet Nam even though they realized that it was a recipe for disaster.  McMasters argues the Chiefs should have made their objections to McNamara’s strategy known to the president, and failing to persuade him that way, to resign publicly.

That, of course, would have posed its own dangers.  But I think in the present circumstances Gates recognizes that it may come to that.  The handling of this military adventure is so appalling that there has to be deep discontent in the Pentagon, and in the ranks.  I strongly suspect that Gates is firing this warning shot now in the hope that he can stop the escalation process before it gets fully underway.  It’s a rather desperate measure, and given Obama’s narcissism and stubbornness, it’s unlikely to have an effect.  Arguably the best hope we have is that Obama really doesn’t have his heart in any military adventure, least of all this one: hopefully these sentiments will prevail over his desire not to be seen to retreat from the unnecessary confrontation with Khaddafy that he so thoughtlessly entered into.

So yes, maybe Gates should resign–but to make the point, not, as Rubin would have it, to atone for having made it through his threat to resign.

It should not have to come to that.  It would be far better for Congress to live up to its Constitutional duties.  But with Harry Reid adjourning the Senate in order to avoid forcing his caucus to have to vote on an amendment quoting Barack Obama v.2007 (“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation”) that doesn’t look likely any time soon.  So Gates, the archetypal loyal bureaucrat, is stepping up instead.

I doubt that it will be enough.  I shudder to think what will be enough.  May is only a month away.

* In my leadership class at Navy I wrote a paper on the necessity of disobedience in certain circumstances.  The prof was not amused.  Especially when I quoted Jackie Fisher: “In war the first principle is to disobey orders.  Any fool can obey orders!”

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  1. Unfortunately, a fool is our President. I shudder to think what he is doing to our country.

    Comment by voroBey — April 2, 2011 @ 10:40 am

  2. A fine post Professor.

    I often consider the ethical questions raised by compliance with orders or as termed in corporations “decisions”. In corporations people often must deal with “decisions” that are clearly motivated by interests of some portion of corporate management and to the detriment of shareholders. Bonuses etc are impacted by agreement with these “decisions” but people working in corporations have an ethical obligation to the shareholders. Sadly the current general rule is that corporate employees act in accordance with their own interests even at the expense of shareholders.

    In the general US political environment groups like Oath Keepers explicitly recognize an ethical obligation to the Constitution and to the US citizenry in the face of orders that would violate these obligations. Orders that are disobeyed do to cowardice or promotion of self interest are distinct from those that require courage and are nit in self interest in the interests of the country as a whole.

    I think Gates (much different than Horatio Gates) has adopted an ethically defensible position. He will not disobey orders but he will resign if given orders he believes not in the interests of the country because he does have the capacity to do so There must be more to Gates than has met the eye. I thought he had become a rubber stamp bureaucrat for the Obama administration but apparently he does have a line in the sand over which he will not tolerate any transgression.

    There is a whole lot of shuddering going on these days as when I think of who might replace him. You really need a score card to track all of the very serious problems and some people have simply given up on trying.

    Comment by pahoben — April 2, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  3. I think the Jews closer to the action would have a better idea than some wapo “columnist”. Now what do they think?

    Comment by So? — April 2, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

  4. What amazes me is how much power of persuasion Obama has over the Republicans. He can change their political views at will.

    Just a few weeks ago, the Republicans were vehemently demanding that Obama must use force to remove Qaddafi and were indignant that he wasn’t.

    So, what does Obama do? Oh he is so sly! He does exactly what the Republicans want and send the military to Libya. And he immediately accomplishes his mission: he converts all Republicans to pacifism. Now the Republicans demand that Obama must stop the military action in Libya and will continue to demand it until Obama obliges them, at which point they will demand immediate military action and blame Obama for not providing it. And so on… Obama can play them any which way he wants. 🙂

    Take, for example, a gentleman named Streetwise Professor aka SWP. When Obama was talking about economic sanctions against Libya, SWP took Obama’s head off for not being decisive enough:
    March 11, 2011
    The Obama Sanction
    But I can say with near metaphysical certainty that sanctions will have no effect whatsoever, and that even to suggest that they would have the slightest possibility of forcing Khadafy’s ouster, or preventing a bloodbath is either a lie or a delusion, and a mockery of the people who will be on the receiving end of Khadafy’s wrath.

    It would be leadership to send in the Marines. It would be leadership to say, frankly, it’s not in America’s interest. It’s the inversion of leadership to pretend you’re taking strong action when you are in fact doing nothing that will have the slightest impact.

    But now that Obama is decisive, he is too decisive for SWP. Too much leadership… Obama is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — April 3, 2011 @ 1:28 am

  5. Man is not rational. Man rationalises. (Heinlein)

    Comment by So? — April 3, 2011 @ 4:25 am

  6. @Ostap. I am perfectly consistent. The post which you link to says that if you’re going to act, act decisively, and criticizes Obama for his indecisiveness, and his use of military means that are completely inadequate to achieving the stated ends. He is “doing nothing that will have the slightest impact.”

    Obama is not being decisive now. He is being less than half-assed: quarter-assed? Eighth-assed? How you can say he is being decisive is beyond me. But such inanities from you are not beyond me–they are expected. Similarly, your routine mischaracterization of my views is all too familiar.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 3, 2011 @ 9:43 am

  7. @SWP: You are constantly being ambivalent on this issue. You criticize Obama for what he is not doing, and yet, you refuse to say what you would do yourself.

    What would you have done in the first place? Completely ignored the Libyan crisis or intervened?

    If you choose to intervene – what would you do exactly? Would you commit land forces or conduct only an air campaign?

    If you commit land forces, what will you say and do about Gates who refuses to do so?

    And what is it that Obama doing that is inconsistent with what you would do?

    Comment by Ostap Bender — April 3, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

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