Debating Admiral Mullen’s Performance

Korb Responds to Criticism of His Washington Post Op-Ed

On January 13, 2010, I published an op-ed in The Washington Post that took exception to a column that David Ignatius had written on December 26, 2009, praising Admiral Michael Mullen’s performance as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The op-ed generated a lot of e-mails and letters to me, most of them favorable. In fact, one retired field grade officer said this was the first time he had ever agreed with me. The Post did publish two letters complaining about my article. With its permission, here are the letters and my responses.

Original article: Generals should be guided by truth, not politics

Letter from S. Ward Casscells
Response from Lawrence J. Korb to S. Ward Casscells

Letter from Steven T. Corneliussen
Response from Lawrence J. Korb to Steven T. Corneliussen

Generals should be guided by truth, not politics

By Lawrence J. Korb

January 13, 2010

In his Dec. 27 column, ["An admiral who found the center," op-ed], David Ignatius distorts the proper role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He glosses over Adm. Mike Mullen’s professional failures, particularly on Afghanistan and his handling of the firing of Gen. David McKiernan.

Ignatius is wrong to argue that any military officer, especially a member of the Joint Chiefs, is supposed to find the center of the political spectrum. An officer has a responsibility to give the president and Congress his or her best military advice, whether that is embraced by the right or the left, whether it is popular or unpopular.

In 1965, Gen. Earle Wheeler infuriated President Lyndon Johnson when he told him that winning the Vietnam war would take a million troops and a decade of combat. Gen. Colin Powell similarly annoyed the Clinton national security team in 1993 by pointing out the high costs and risks of military intervention in Bosnia. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, irritated his civilian superiors in the Pentagon in 2003 by publicly recommending at least twice as many troops as the Bush administration was planning to send to stabilize Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown.

What about Mullen? In late 2007, when Congress asked him about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Mullen shrugged it off. "In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must," he told the House Armed Services Committee. Was that his professional opinion, or was it the policy of President George W. Bush, who gave short shrift to Afghanistan because of his obsession with Iraq? Is that what the combatant commanders were telling him? The answer is no.

About the same time, according to reports, Gen. Dan McNeill, then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told President Bush in a videoconference that he needed at least 30,000 more troops to stem the advance of the Taliban, particularly in the south. This position was endorsed by Adm. William Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command. Did Mullen support this? In fact, when the White House told McNeill not to go public with the request, Mullen did not complain, nor did he tell Congress. We learned about this because journalist David Sanger interviewed McNeill for his book "The Inheritance."

Ignatius wrote that Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended replacing David McKiernan as U.S. commander in Afghanistan because McKiernan did not answer an important question during a video briefing for the secretary of defense. Really? What was the question? According to The Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran," front page, Aug. 17, 2009], the questions concerned reconstruction and counternarcotics, and they were asked before the Obama White House completed its first review of the war in Afghanistan. How could McKiernan answer the question satisfactorily when he did not know whether he would receive the 30,000 additional troops he had first requested in April 2008 and did not know where President Obama was going to come down on the issue? Mullen wanted McKiernan replaced because he wanted someone to take the fall for the fact that he and Gates had been derelict in their duty on the situation in Afghanistan for several years.

Ignatius is right that this country needs more Mullens in our national life than Rush Limbaughs. But that’s a low bar. What this country needs even more are generals like Shinseki, McNeill and McKiernan, who speak truth to power regardless of the consequences and take responsibility for their actions, even if it means getting fired.

This article was originally published in The Washington Post.

Letter from S. Ward Casscells

Adm. Mike Mullen deserves high praise for work as head of Joint Chiefs of Staff

January 16, 2010

Regarding the charge of a lack of candor on the part of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen by former assistant defense secretary Lawrence Korb [op-ed, Jan. 13], I have to ask Mr. Korb: "Candidly, why are you using hearsay reports of meetings you did not attend to launch an apparently personal attack?"

Mr. Korb and I have never met, but unlike him, I worked closely with Adm. Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Gens. Dan McNeill and Stanley A. McChrystal. Still, I would not be able or willing to second-guess the advice they did or did not give to the president.

Adm. Mullen has pushed all the four-star officers and political appointees in a thoughtful—but candid—way to take the best possible care of our troops and their families. In the process, he has spent most of his time in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan with our troops and those of our allies, and he has earned wide respect in the Defense Department. As the USNS Comfort—armed only with medical personnel—steams toward Haiti, it is because Adm. Mullen recognizes it as "the most powerful ship in the Navy."

Mr. Korb owes Adm. Mullen an apology.

S. Ward Casscells, Washington

The writer was assistant secretary of defense for health affairs from 2007 to 2009.

This letter was originally published in The Washington Post.

Response from Lawrence J. Korb

Dear Secretary Casscells,

Thank you for taking time to write to The Washington Post about my article. I have spent most of my adult life engaging and debating critical national security issues, and I welcome and respect people who challenge my views. Let me respond to the five issues you raise.

First, my article was not based upon hearsay reports, but on Admiral Mullen’s testimony to Congress, as well as direct quotes by Mullen to Washington Post writers David Ignatius and Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

Second, as a citizen and as someone with 24 years of naval service and 17 years of government service, and as someone who has worked with, served under, and interviewed hundreds of flag officers, I have every right to second guess the advice that Adm. Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Gens. Dan McNeill and Stanley A. McChrystal did or did not give to their political bosses and the Congress. I have personally witnessed four star officers telling service secretaries, secretaries of Defense, and the president what these people wanted to hear rather than what they believed.

Third, I never said that Admiral Mullen did not take care of the troops. In fact, if you read General H.R. McMaster’s book Dereliction of Duty, you will find that some of the most thoughtful and caring military people let down the country and the armed forces during Vietnam by not being candid with their bosses.

Fourth, Navy hospital ships have participated in humanitarian missions long before Admiral Mullen became chief of naval operations or chairman, and will continue to do so long after he leaves.

Fifth, if anyone owes apologies, it is Admiral Mullen. He should apologize to Congress and the American people for his 2007 testimony saying that Iraq was not constraining us in Afghanistan and that the situation in Afghanistan was improving, and for recommending that General David D.McKiernan be fired when Mullen refused to support his request for the additional troops necessary to stop the Taliban from advancing.

Thank you for your service.

Sincerely,
Lawrence Korb

Letter from Steven T. Corneliussen

Adm. Mike Mullen deserves high praise for work as head of Joint Chiefs of Staff

January 16, 2010

As one who served as executive officer under then-Lt. Mike Mullen in 1973, when at age 26 he was commanding his first ship, I’d like to report that Lawrence J. Korb’s attack on the integrity of now-Adm. Mullen rings false.

In 1973, Vietnam discolored almost everything, including what went on aboard the tanker USS Noxubee. Even the most patriotic weren’t enthusiastic. But even the most cynical genuinely liked and respected the young skipper. On a small ship during a long deployment, you can’t fool a hundred sailors.

I’ll bet that if you polled that crew today, every single member would express gladness that it’s Mike Mullen sorting out the messy complexity of Afghanistan and other global hotspots. We know his integrity.

Steven T. Corneliussen, Poquoson, Va.

This letter was originally published in The Washington Post.

Response from Lawrence J. Korb

Dear Mr. Corneliussen,

Thank you for taking time to write to The Washington Post about my op-ed. I spent four years on active duty and another 20 in the Naval Reserve, and I admired and respected many of my commanders, as you did Admiral Mullen.

Yet I found that many of these lieutenants and commanders, who did so well in the field, acted differently in the halls of the Pentagon than they did when commanding the ships or squadrons.

I discovered this when I did research for my book on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in the five years I spent in the Pentagon dealing with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on an almost daily basis.

Admiral Mullen is not the first, nor will he be the last, officer to fail to display the same kind of courage in Washington that he did in the field.

Thank you for your service.

Sincerely,
Lawrence Korb