Is it time for General Dempsey to resign?
By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.) - Best Defense guest columnist
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, knows that the Obama strategy for dealing with the self-proclaimed Islamic State is doomed to fail as currently structured; he has done as much to speculate in public that it will have to be altered. Without American combat troops on the ground to physically clear the cities and towns that the forces of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have occupied, we are in for a long and frustrating open-ended conflict that the American people will quickly tire of. Dempsey is too good a tactician not to know differently; having served with him briefly on a fact-finding tour for the deputy secretary of defense in Iraq in 2003, I found him to be one of the best commanders in the field. If he slaps his four stars on the table and tells the president to find somebody else to pitch the next inning, it will make a real difference.
In a telling study of the Vietnam War, H.R. McMaster, now an Army general officer himself, castigates the military general-officer class of that era for quietly carrying out orders that they knew to be wrong. In 2003, many generals strongly disagreed with President George W. Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq, but none resigned in protest. How does this happen?
General officers have offered a number of rationalizations for lack of moral courage over the years. The most often heard is that they feel they feel compelled to stay on because only they can do the job and mitigate the worst of the senior leader's decision. This is tripe; no one is irreplaceable. I would bet that 80 percent of the serving military cannot remember who the last JCS chairman was.
The reality is that the very private threat of a resignation might well change a bad policy. No president in his right mind wants to see the very public resignation of a top general on principle. If his policy fails, and the Islamic State strategy surely will, President Obama would alone shoulder the blame for the debacle. The threat of a resignation itself might cause the president to reconsider his ill-advised action in taking American troops in a ground role off the table. Rather than be remembered as the failed implementer of a strategy that he knew to be fatally flawed, Dempsey would be an example to generations of future West Point cadets as a soldier who put honor and professionalism above career concerns.
In my own small way, I found that the threat of resignation can be a powerful tool over a decade ago. As a colonel commanding a camp on Okinawa in Japan in 1998, I became upset with a policy banning Okinawans from using the only recreational beach in the town neighboring the camp when we were not using it militarily; the policy was venal, and it came at a time when then Marine Corps was trying to improve relations with the Okinawans in the wake of a rape the year before I became commander. I asked for a private meeting with the base commanding general and handed him a draft e-mail requesting my relief and resignation explaining the reason; the commandant of the Marine Corps was an information addressee. I had been recently designated to be the chief of Staff of Marine Corps experimentation at the commandant's direction, and the general and I both realized that my quitting over a seemingly trivial matter would reflect badly on the general himself. He tore up the e-mail and told me that the Okinawans could use the "damned beach" if it meant so much to me. I realized that the incident was not a career enhancer, but I slept well that night.
This is not to say that officers should threaten to resign lightly when they don't get their way or when their advice is not taken, but honest differences in critical policy matters that have potentially disastrous strategic consequences as well as issues of moral conscience should at least make service professionals consider the option.
Resignation would have even greater impact if all of the joint chiefs ask for a closed-door meeting with the president The political and strategic miscalculations that led up to the rise of the Islamic State came because the president ignored the advice of his highest national-security advisors. General Dempsey could save the nation from further strategic folly and perhaps save this president from himself.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.