Speaking Up About Afghanistan When It Counts

In what appears to be an indirect upbraiding of Gen. McChrystal for speaking publicly on Afghanistan at a prominent think tank in London last week, Defense Secretary Gates on Monday said that any official taking part in the current White House debate on Afghanistan should provide his advice to the U.S. President "candidly but privately." While following chain of command is important for any public servant, it is simplistic to criticize Gen. McChrystal, or any other senior official inside the Obama Administration, for choosing to express his/her views publicly on an issue as weighty as the war in Afghanistan.

War is a time of consequence. Individual decisions and judgments, especially of military commanders on the ground in the war zone, involve matters of life and death and personal conscience. The American public deserves the benefit of hearing from the top U.S. military commander on the ground in Afghanistan. This is especially true when the debate in Washington over the war has become particularly muddled and confused and statements from President Obama have shifted so drastically and so quickly.

Just six weeks ago President Obama rightly told a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that the war in Afghanistan was "fundamental to the defense of the American people." Now we read that he is considering scaling back in Afghanistan and shifting the strategy from a focus on counter-insurgency to counterterrorism. Close observers of the region are scratching their heads wondering why, all of a sudden, Mr. Obama is questioning the strategy in Afghanistan. But no one is likely more mystified than Gen. McChrystal, who was tasked by the president to assess the situation and provide his advice on the way forward.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also must be incredulous at the rehashing of the Afghanistan debate. She has apparently been arguing all along that the U.S. needs to follow through on its commitment to the Afghan people. She has also been clear that allowing Afghanistan to return to Taliban rule is equivalent to allowing Al Qaeda to regain its safe haven there. While she has undoubtedly made her case to the president privately, she is being scrupulous with her public statements. Her joint appearance with Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday was aimed at showing unity within the cabinet, even as the debate continues.

Showing respect for the president and his authority is smart politics. However, there are risks to remaining quiet. What if President Obama refuses to properly resource the war effort and the situation begins to deteriorate rapidly? In that case, it would be difficult for a cabinet member to say, "I told you so," without looking like a Monday morning quarterback.

It's important for Cabinet-level officials and senior military commanders to be as candid as possible about their views in public. The president needs experienced and authoritative advisers and that's why he has appointed a cabinet. There are ways for senior officials to make their positions clear, without undermining the authority of the president. General McChrystal has done just that. And the American people are better off for it.

Lisa Curtis is a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Prior to joining the Heritage Foundation she worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a professional staffer. She has also worked as a CIA analyst.