My original timetable called for President Obama to retire Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the highest ranking uniformed military commander) on Jan 20 at 12:01 pm -- as quickly as possible after the new president took his oath of office. I then considered that one must first find a suitable replacement. President Obama should make it clear that he will not tolerate military officers publicly denouncing his policies, not to mention undermining an agreement the United States and the Iraqi government just worked out of after agonizing negotiations.
Mullen told reporters on November 17 that that the withdrawal must be driven solely by conditions on the ground, and that the soonest all US forces could be safely withdrawn from Iraq is "two to three years." (The next day Mullen indicated that he would carry out any directions from the new president once he takes office.) Officers like him need to be reminded of a basic lesson of democracy -- that the military is there to carry out the civilian authority's orders, not to publicly pressure the president to follow the Pentagon line.
Wait a moment; I am not saying that if the generals have professional reasons for holding that a given policy or order about to be issued is best not followed, they should keep mum. In such cases, they should surely inform the president of their views, but through meeting with him and his staff, not via the press.
Admiral Mullen's speaking out of turn is especially offensive because instead of taking his misgivings first to the president, he went first to the press and the public, calling on the people to oppose a newly elected president even before he took office.
If the president issues an order that truly violates an officer's conscience, he should resign. Then he will be free to protest it all he wants, but not while in uniform. One may say that serving in the military does not negate one's citizen rights, including freedom of speech. This is true in all matters but those concerning the military. Here, the officers' duty is to carry out orders, not to seek to sabotage them.
Obama would hardly be the first president to be undermined by the generals. President Truman had to fire General MacArthur when he repeatedly publicly disagreed with the president's Korean war policies. Clinton was weakened from day-two of his first term when military leaders let it be known, to one and all, how unwise, and, in effect, dangerous they found his suggested policy on allowing gays to serve in the military. Clinton's timing was surely off, and the policy that was actually implemented is a sort of mind boggling compromise, but that is for the electorate to judge. Nor is there any shortage of voices, from retired generals to Rush Limbaugh to Fox News, expressing contrary views. Thus, there is no danger if the military will keep its place, the issues at hand will not be properly aired.
The overwhelming majority of Americans now think that most anything that President Bush has done, whether overseas or at home, is wrong-headed, and they have plenty of reasons to judge him so harshly. However, regarding the matter at hand, he got it right, and set a good example: in early 2008, after public statements highly critical of the President's policies on Iran and Iraq, Admiral William "Fox" Fallon, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, was resigned this post, ending his military career early.
The fact that President Obama does not have a military pedigree only enhances the point: he needs to establish early and firmly who is in charge, and who is to follow orders.
Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Security First (Yale, 2007) www.securityfirstbook.com