11/22/2014 09:40 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2015

Should General Dempsey Resign?

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Listening to Martin Dempsey speak over the past months, one might conclude that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is uncomfortable waging war in Iraq under the White House banner of 'No Boots on the Ground.'

Time and again this fall, Dempsey has said U.S. ground troops may be required to take on the Islamic State militias in Iraq, perhaps in offensive operations with Iraqi forces as forward advisers or spotters for U.S. airstrikes ("I'm not predicting," he temporized at a congressional hearing Nov. 13, but added: "We're certainly considering it"). The White House has drawn a seemingly harder line against recommitting Americans to combat in Iraq.

If Dempsey, a soldier with a long and distinguished career, cannot in good conscience preside over a military campaign he feels will be ultimately doomed, should he quietly (or noisily) resign?

The question is already being raised as the officer corps once again struggles to define a professional soldier's responsibility in a democracy. Military officers swear allegiance to the Constitution, not to any particular administration. They are expected to offer advice to civilian leaders, then smartly execute whatever decisions are made. The idea is enshrined in Samuel Huntington's classic 1957 book, The Soldier and the State, and codified in military regulations such as this one from the Army: "Army professionals properly confine their advisory role to the policymaking process and do not engage publicly in policy advocacy or dissent."

But it's not that simple, argues Don M. Snider, a senior military ethicist, in a new essay published by the prestigious Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. A three-tour combat veteran of Vietnam who's held staff positions at the Joint Chiefs and White House, Snider is a retired professor emeritus at West Point who now teaches ethics at the War College, and has wrestled with the issue of professional military responsibility for decades.

Snider frames the issue like this: How should military professionals "maintain the necessary trust of the American people, while at the same time disagreeing in an appropriate manner with civilian leaders who, by our Constitution, rightly exercise authority over them?"

The issue is resurfacing now, Snider writes, as military leaders express frustration with the Obama administration's airpower-only strategy against ISIS. But is it okay, Snider asks, for military professionals to "dissent in a public way -- including resignation or retirement -- from an administration's policy that they believe to be so incorrect as to be ineffective, potentially endangering the Republic's security?"

There is precedent, including the 2007 "Revolt of the Generals," when some two dozen retired general officers broke with President George W. Bush over the Iraq war. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta issued stinging criticisms of President Obama's national security policies, but only after they retired from office.

Yet the perils of waiting until retirement were underscored in 2006, when retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold wrote an article for Time magazine explaining his deep regret for having failed earlier to openly challenge the Bush administration and Pentagon officials over the Iraq war.

Newbold had been operations officer for the Joint Staff during the planning for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and fought with then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and top generals for what he considered an unnecessary and poorly planned military campaign. He quietly resigned in late 2002 and kept silent for four years -- "long enough," he finally wrote in the 2006 article. "I regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined" to launch the war in Iraq. "I am driven to action now by the mistakes and misjudgments of the White House and the Pentagon, and by my many painful visits to our military hospitals.

"A leader's responsibility is to give voice to those who can't -- or don't -- have the opportunity to speak," he concluded.

Bad idea, writes Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver in an essay last month in Foreign Policy. "Advocating resignation and protest like this is bad counsel and would do much to undermine healthy civil-military relations if it ever became accepted practice among senior officers."

Indeed, for a White House that has had uneasy relations with the uniformed military, a principled, public resignation by Dempsey would detonate in the superheated political atmosphere of the capital like a nuclear warhead.

Dempsey, of course, has not publicly shared his deepest convictions about the best way to deal with ISIS. He has gamely supported in public the Obama's policy of seeking to "destroy" ISIS over the long term with a combination of coalition air strikes, training and arming Iraqi and other fighters, and international pressure to shut down the militias' access to money, resources and recruits. U.S. military leaders have sometimes chafed at that sort of indirect approach, preferring instead to use sufficient force for a decisive victory with minimal risk to American forces.

While Dempsey has said he would recommend U.S. ground combat troops if necessary, the White House suggests that no such recommendation would be accepted ("That's a no," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on the PBS documentary, The Rise of ISIS, which aired in late October). Last week President Obama did say he would consider using ground troops but in dire circumstances -- if, for instance, ISIS was discovered to have "gotten possession of a nuclear weapon..."

As true professionals, military officers must be able to exercise moral autonomy to do what's right, not merely to practice blind obedience, Snider concludes. But when it is permissible to use that moral authority remains unclear.

Are senior officers required to support policies with which they disagree? Can there be official dissent without insubordination? The question is not an easy one. But it persists.