Generals should be guided by truth, not politics

In his Dec. 27 column, ["An admiral who found the center," op-ed], David Ignatius distorts the proper role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He glosses over Adm. Mike Mullen's professional failures, particularly on Afghanistan and his handling of the firing of Gen. David McKiernan.

Ignatius is wrong to argue that any military officer, especially a member of the Joint Chiefs, is supposed to find the center of the political spectrum. An officer has a responsibility to give the president and Congress his or her best military advice, whether that is embraced by the right or the left, whether it is popular or unpopular.

In 1965, Gen. Earle Wheeler infuriated President Lyndon Johnson when he told him that winning the Vietnam war would take a million troops and a decade of combat. Gen. Colin Powell similarly annoyed the Clinton national security team in 1993 by pointing out the high costs and risks of military intervention in Bosnia. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, irritated his civilian superiors in the Pentagon in 2003 by publicly recommending at least twice as many troops as the Bush administration was planning to send to stabilize Iraq after Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown.

What about Mullen? In late 2007, when Congress asked him about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Mullen shrugged it off. "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must," he told the House Armed Services Committee. Was that his professional opinion, or was it the policy of President George W. Bush, who gave short shrift to Afghanistan because of his obsession with Iraq? Is that what the combatant commanders were telling him? The answer is no.

About the same time, according to reports, Gen. Dan McNeill, then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told President Bush in a videoconference that he needed at least 30,000 more troops to stem the advance of the Taliban, particularly in the south. This position was endorsed by Adm. William Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command. Did Mullen support this? In fact, when the White House told McNeill not to go public with the request, Mullen did not complain, nor did he tell Congress. We learned about this because journalist David Sanger interviewed McNeill for his book "The Inheritance."

Ignatius wrote that Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended replacing David McKiernan as U.S. commander in Afghanistan because McKiernan did not answer an important question during a video briefing for the secretary of defense. Really? What was the question? According to The Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran," front page, Aug. 17, 2009], the questions concerned reconstruction and counternarcotics, and they were asked before the Obama White House completed its first review of the war in Afghanistan. How could McKiernan answer the question satisfactorily when he did not know whether he would receive the 30,000 additional troops he had first requested in April 2008 and did not know where President Obama was going to come down on the issue? Mullen wanted McKiernan replaced because he wanted someone to take the fall for the fact that he and Gates had been derelict in their duty on the situation in Afghanistan for several years.

Ignatius is right that this country needs more Mullens in our national life than Rush Limbaughs. But that's a low bar. What this country needs even more are generals like Shinseki, McNeill and McKiernan, who speak truth to power regardless of the consequences and take responsibility for their actions, even if it means getting fired.

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.