The Corner

Teflon Decision-Making from Our Military

Sunday was quite a day for Benghazi and the U.S. military. At the platoon level, you are expected to admit errors in firefights in order to correct mistakes and do better the next time. We all make mistakes. But as we saw on yesterday’s talk shows, once you reach the top level, whether retired or not, you deny any possibility of error and label any question about military performance idiotic. This is not the behavior of a healthy organization, and if it persists, we are in for a nasty shock in a future crisis or conflict.

On CBS, former secretary of defense Bob Gates launched an impassioned defense of the Obama administration, sneering at critics for holding a “cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces.” He staunchly defended the administration’s high-level decision-making surrounding Benghazi, citing four reasons.

First, he said sending fighter jets “ignored the number of surface to air missiles that have disappeared from Qaddafi’s arsenals. I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft, over Benghazi.”

How many aircraft has the U.S. lost in hundreds of thousands of combat flights since 2001? Zero. The former SecDef is so afraid of an unknown risk that he would not send an aircraft capable of destroying a mortar site while Americans died? This is the pinnacle of risk avoidance.

Second, he said, ”To send some small number of special forces or other troops in without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on on the ground, would have been very dangerous.”

Let’s do a quick review: The CIA did send in seven fighters; four special-forces soldiers in Tripoli were ordered not to pitch in; the Marines on Sigonella wanted to help; and there was nothing more to face than a mob inspired by a video (accoridng to the administration). But for the Pentagon, the risk was just too great.

Message to those who were already fighting on the ground in Benghazi: You are on your own. SecDef believes it’s “very dangerous” to go into combat.

Third, Gates argued, “We don’t have a ready force standing by in the Middle East, and so getting somebody there in a timely way would have been very difficult, if not impossible. The one thing that our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm’s way, and there just wasn’t time to do that.”

Message to warfighters: Forget all those who, like Generals Mattis, Patton and Marshall, claim that in combat the ability to improvise is the mark of a true leader. The Pentagon will simply refuse to fight if we have not had the time to plan and prepare as we see fit.

Fourth, Gates explained, “my decisions would have been just as theirs were.”

Sadly, I believe him.

Meanwhile, over on ABC, George Will and retired general James Cartwright were excusing the military by saying ten hours was not enough time to react. The general said it takes up to “a day or two” to arm an F-16, file flight plans, arrange for refueling, etc. Therefore the solution is to pre-stage the right kinds of forces, which requires a much larger military and a knowledge beforehand about the location and severity of the threat.

By the reasoning of Will, Cartwright, and Gates, we do not have general-purpose forces; we have special-purpose forces. Do we need more forces staged around the world, or do we just need senior officers who can respond to emergencies outside their normal checklists?

Appearing on CBS and NBC, retired ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, who led a review of Benghazi, said in the process he posed no questions to Secretary Clinton. “I don’t think there was anything there that we didn’t know,” he said. “I don’t see yet any reason why what we did at the Accountability Review Board should be reopened.”

It was the review board that asserted the U.S. military could do nothing to help. The review made no mention of evacuating the embassy at Tripoli because of the risk of a terrorist attack, presumably because there wasn’t “anything there that we didn’t know.”

In fact, the congressional testimony by Mr. Hicks did include at least three new revelations.

First, very senior State Department officials reprimanded Hicks for bringing up the idea of a terrorist attack, rather than a mob enraged by a video.

Second, four special-forces soldiers, en route to Benghazi to help our wounded, were ordered by an officer in Stuttgart to stand down. Not only did that suggest unwillingness to take risks for beleaguered comrades, it also raised the question of misplaced authority in the chain of command during battle. What authority permits an officer thousands of miles away to override the commander on the ground?

Third, Mr. Hicks testified that Secretary Clinton approved, at about 8 p.m. Washington time, the evacuation of the embassy in Tripoli due to terrorist threats. That was a dramatic, escalatory decision, and it’s unknown whether the president or the Secretary of Defense was notified.

In the event, the U.S. military took no new, immediate action, even though the embassy was being evacuated, as a result of the chaos at Benghazi. That is big news. The military has justified itself by saying the battle was over by the next morning, but no human being could predict when the battle would end. Had the embassy in Tripoli been overrun, the military would not have rationalized its non-actions by saying, “well, the battle was over.”

The lack of military action reflects a failure to improvise, a basic test of leadership in battle.

One question illustrates the inertia of our top generals and staffs: Had it been President Obama who was missing in Benghazi, would the military still have done nothing?

— Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written seven books about ground combat. 

A former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, Bing West embedded with dozens of platoons in Afghanistan and wrote three books about the course of that mismanaged war.


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