Friday, February 09, 2007

It Comes Down to Mission

By accident, it seems, Congress is beginning to untie the Gordian knot of policy, mission, troop morale, and support for the troops.

During confirmation hearings for General Petraeus, the new commander of all coalition forces stationed in Iraq, one senator asked if troop morale was suffering (or could suffer) if soldiers “in harm’s way” heard about it from relatives, friends, or just on CNN. (The CNN part I made up in this context, but I did on occasion hear “breaking news” with military import on television before it filtered down military “channels.")

The first time the subject was broached, Petraeus responded to the effect that dissent could have a negative effect. Senator John Warner, a World War II and Korean War combat veteran, former Secretary of the Navy, and long-time Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, cautioned the coalition force commander-nominee to stay clear of answers to questions that address political, not military, issues. When another committee member tried to elicit a further comment on morale changes because of congressional action, the general sidestepped the question.

On Wednesday this week (February 7), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Peter Pace, were asked to give their candid view on the same topic by members of the House Armed Services Committee. Obviously this question posed no restrictions on the answer by the Defense Secretary because he represents the President and the administration in a policy making position – that is, in a political post. General Pace, currently the senior uniformed member of the armed forces and the senior advisor to the president and Secretary of Defense, has a foot in each camp as his advice carries both military and policy consequences

It was refreshing to hear both Gates and Pace refute the idea that congressional debate and votes in general have no adverse effect on troop morale. At the basic level, soldiers are too busy and need to be attentive to circumstances around them to become engrossed about what Congress is doing 8,000 miles away. The very fact that Congress is debating and voting ought to strengthen morale, for this freedom, which extends to the whole body politic, is ostensibly one of the reasons there are 150,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq.

Gates and Pace did say that if the debate and vote were about cutting off money for the mission before it was completed, this could adversely affect morale. Their explanation for this position was that cutting off funding represented a “no-confidence” vote in the troops and the mission. And if this were the case, then the question that would weigh on the minds of the troops is why were they sent to fight in the first place?

Although Gates and Pace did not make as clear-cut a distinction between supporting the troop while opposing the mission as they had between policy debate and troop morale, they did separate the obligation of government to provide for the welfare of those it sends to do battle and the mission assigned to those troops. That is to say that one can object to and vote against the mission given the forces by the commander-in-chief and, without contradiction, vote to provision those sent to fight with what they need to survive in a hostile environment.

Were these elements – debate and vote, policy, mission, and “supporting the troops” – so conjoined as to restrict or deny the right to the first, insist on the orthodoxy of the second and third, and require the uncritical acceptance of the fourth as defined by the commander-in-chief, there would be no reason to call Congress into session once fighting began. The only way out of the situation would be obliteration of one side or the other. (This is especially true when the president dispatches the troops without congressional approval)

At the same time, it seems to me that Congress, as the prelude to cutting war funding, ought to unambiguously register its disapproval of the existing mission and redirect it through the power of the purse. Under a new mission, Congress could restrict, cap or otherwise direct that funds made available are for a new mission: to bring the troops home.

I can’t imagine that a mission that says to troops in the field, “Come home,” would not boost morale out of sight.


Blogger rasphila said...

The argument that criticizing the mission shows lack of support for the troops seems to surface every time an Administration has blundered and put troops where they shouldn't have been in the first place—Vietnam and Iraq being the two most recent examples. I agree that Congress is beginning to see that you can support the troops while criticizing or rejecting their mission. I find this a welcome, if late, development.

I've always thought it was pretty obvious that if you put soldiers at risk in a situation where they can't achieve their goal and will take a lot of casualties, the best way to support them is to acknowledge the mistake and set up an orderly withdrawal. My fear about Iraq is that an orderly withdrawal is likely to get more and more difficult the longer the government refuses to acknowledge reality. And of course, if the withdrawal becomes a rout, it's the troops who will suffer.

9:41 AM  

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