Another Perspective

Leaking for National Security

Why the Washington Post's publication of General McChrystal's Afghanistan assessment was a patriotic act.

By 10.5.09

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The publication of General Stanley A. McChrystal's confidential assessment of the situation in Afghanistan has precipitated much tut-tutting by the chattering classes. The consensus seems to be that the leak of this document (to the Washington Post's esteemed Bob Woodward) was an unconscionable violation of professional ethics, a hindrance to good government, and a threat to harmonious civil-military relations. Duke University political science professor Peter Feaver has well summed up the conventional wisdom:

It is not good to have a document like this leaked into the public debate before the President has made his decision. Whether you favor ramping up or ramping down or ramping laterally, as a process matter, the Commander-in-Chief ought to be able to conduct internal deliberations on sensitive matters without it appearing concurrently on the front pages of the Post. I assume the Obama team is very angry about this, and I think they have every right to be.

Feaver never explains why, in an advanced democracy with an educated citizenry, the commander-in-chief "ought to be able to conduct internal deliberations on sensitive matters [of public policy] without it appearing concurrently on the front pages" of a major newspaper.

This may be because Feaver is a former National Security Council official in both the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations. As such, he may be accustomed to wielding power behind the scenes without much public scrutiny or public accountability. He thus likely prefers secret government to public government.

But just because U.S. government officials are accustomed to doing things discreetly, behind the scenes, and without much public notice doesn't mean that that is the best way to conduct the affairs of state. In fact, a strong counter argument can and should be made: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," said the renowned Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

Indeed, would Iran-Contra, and its consequent marring of the Reagan administration, have occurred if the idea of engaging Iranian regime "moderates" had first been exposed to public scrutiny?

Would the CIA have made (as it did during the Cold War) ridiculous and wildly inaccurate estimates of Soviet and East European economic prowess had their analyses been subject to independent, outside peer review? Would Congress have permitted the surge if General Petraeus had not publicly testified about the situation in Iraq?

The answers to these three telling questions is likely, "No, no and no." This is important because, as Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman observes:

The way we have to make policy and get close to the truth is through the process of argument. And rather than arguing too much, which is the conventional wisdom -- you hear a lot of hand-wringing about it; 'oh, can't we all just get together and be nice' -- the fact is we can't; that's not the way we operate. And rather than argue too much, I don't think we argue enough about the fundamental things.

This is why General McChrystal welcomes a vigorous and robust public discussion about Afghanistan. He understands how American democracy works. He understands that informed and well-considered decisions are more likely to be wise and efficacious decisions.

"The process of going through a very detailed policy level debate is incredibly important and incredibly healthy," the general said during his speech last week at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Publication of the general's confidential Afghan assessment greatly facilitates this debate because it makes this debate accessible to the public. In fact, it involves the public in the debate. And, in an advanced democracy with an educated citizenry, this is as it should be. No one, after all, has a monopoly on wisdom; and so, truly, there is wisdom in numbers.

Sure, public deliberation can complicate things for government officials. No government official, after all, likes to be second-guessed or preempted. "Leaks like this make it harder for the Commander-in-Chief to do deliberate national security planning," Feaver whines.

Too bad. That's what democracy is all about: empowering the public and giving people a voice in the public policy process. In the immortal words of President Harry Truman, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Indeed, if a president and his team cannot handle the heat of public scrutiny and public involvement, then they are not fit to preside over the executive branch of the United States government. Our republican form of government, after all, is based on democratic self-rule, or rule by the people.

In fairness to President Obama and his team, they are not complaining about the leak of McChrystal's Afghan assessment to the Washington Post; the chattering classes, led by people like Feaver, are.

Feaver, for instance, complains that "the leak makes it harder for President Obama to reject a McChrystal request for additional troops because the assessment so clearly argues for them."

Yes, it does, but that's not because McChrystal is engaged in some Washington political game of the kind that preoccupies the chattering classes along the Potomac. Au contraire: McChrystal is faithfully reporting the facts on the ground in Afghanistan, which lead to one inescapable conclusion: If you want to stabilize Afghanistan and drive out from that country the Taliban and al-Qaeda, then you must employ a classic counterinsurgency campaign, which will necessitate tens of thousands of more troops.

As the commander on the ground who is responsible for the safety and well-being of young American servicemen and women who are now risking their lives in a combat zone, General McChrystal has a solemn obligation to report the facts as he sees them -- and to do so without favor or prejudice, and without fear or concern for any potential political ramifications back home. McChrystal, remember, is a general, not a politician, and thank goodness for that.

Feaver's argument, then, is with the facts on the ground, not General McChrystal. His complaint is with the message (or reality), not the messenger.

Yet, Yale University Law Professor Bruce Ackerman insists that McChrystal is engaged in a "characteristic [Washington] power play... to pressure the President to adopt his strategy. This," Ackerman writes, "is a plain violation of the principle of civilian control" of the military.

No, it's not -- and it's disconcerting that a Yale Law professor would try to justify squelching the thoughts and insights of a top military leader at a time of momentous national and international significance. Ackerman confuses free speech and open debate with executive control and authority.

General McChrystal clearly is not questioning the President's authority; quite the contrary. He explicitly recognizes that, as Commander-in-Chief, President Obama has the final say about what U.S. policy and objectives will be in Afghanistan. But General McChrystal also recognizes that before the President makes his decision, the President, the Congress and the American people all ought to hear from the troops on the ground -- and especially from their lead commander on the ground.

Far from somehow "boxing in" the President, McChrystal instead is informing the American people and their elected representatives about the facts on the ground and what, in his judgment, must be done in Afghanistan. This is a public service that warrants praise and commendation, not rebuke and scorn.

As for the President, well Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it well: "The President always has a choice; he's the Commander-in-Chief."

Policymakers like Feaver often don't like public dialogue and debate because it can make their jobs more difficult; but again, that's too bad. Welcome to America. Welcome to democracy. Welcome to self-rule, civic argument and civic discourse. Here the people rule, and thank goodness for that.

Thus, what some allege is a "breakdown in civil-military relations" is, in fact, a pure fiction. Conflict and disagreement are endemic to the American way life and to the American form of government. "We were born and bred to argue," Fineman explains.

We were born and bred to argue because the American founding fathers recognized that argument is not insubordination, and disagreement is not disloyalty. Yet, we too often lose sight of this reality and thus sometimes try to censor dissent and free speech. Censorship is what happens when, for instance, government officials try to stamp out "leaks" -- aka the sharing of information with the American people.

Stifling dissent and free speech is unwise because it denies us the free thought and analysis that are integral to sound decision-making. Again, none of us has a monopoly on wisdom; and so, truly, there is wisdom in numbers. There is wisdom in the cacophony of voices that result from free and open dialogue and debate.

Thus, the President will make his decision about what do in Afghanistan. General McChrystal will accept and salute the President's decision, because that is what American Generals always do. However, if General McChrystal believes that he cannot execute the President's policy with the troops and resources given to him, then the right and honorable thing for him to do is to resign.

The reason to resign is not to cause the President political difficulties, though political difficulties may result from the General's resignation.

The reason to resign is that, as the commander on the ground, General McChrystal has taken a solemn oath to lead young men and women in battle. And if, as their commander, he truly believes that he cannot achieve victory with the resources given him, then it is unconscionable for him to send his young charges into battle under-resourced and under-manned.

In short, a decision to resign is about honor and integrity, not politics and partisanship. Civil-military relations in America, moreover, are fine. Our military and civilian leaders are big enough, mature enough and wise enough to handle dissent and disagreement.

Our republican system of government allows for, and even encourages, dissent and disagreement. General McChrystal understands this, and it seems that at least some of our civilian leaders in the Obama administration do as well. Here the people rule.

As for Bob Woodward and the Washington Post, they are to be commended for publishing General McChrystal's confidential assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. Doing so was a public service which has aided and abetted American democracy. We need more such leaks, more such newspaper reports, and a more robust and better informed public discussion about the great issues of our time. Bring it on.

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About the Author
  John R. Guardiano blogs at www.ResCon1.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @ResCon1.