A "secret" U.S. policy shift away from the threat to use immediate military force against Iraq left U.N. inspectors exposed. And it raises the question of whether the U.S. government could be tempted to place its own military personnel in a similar situation of carrying out a less-than-supported policy.
The U.S. government has an ethical and practical requirement to ensure that members of our armed forces are informed accurately on the national policies they are ordered to defend. Similarly, the American people must be kept appraised of policies that might lead to the use of our military power. That is why the controversy surrounding last year's public remarks by former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter has left behind a chilling element of uncertainty, which has not been dispelled by the ongoing operations against Iraq.
The uncertainty is not whether Iraq is engaged in covert weapons development. The Iraqi government repeatedly has indicated its desire for weapons of mass destruction, and routinely has blocked the execution of an effective inspections program. Recent U.S. strikes on potential weapons development sites may have put a dent in the Iraqi program, but not necessarily in this desire. Anyone who trusts the word of Saddam Hussein—who, just days before the 2 August 1990 invasion, assured Arab leaders that he would not attack Kuwait—is more than a little foolish.
No, the uncertainty lies in the recognition that a significant shift in U.S. policy occurred in 1998 in a fashion that left the arms-control inspectors—admittedly U.N., not U.S., employees—exposed and off balance. As far as the weapons inspectors and the American public knew, the United States was committed for more than seven years to the very brink of war to ensure that Iraq would not interfere with the U.N. efforts. But suddenly, and without announcement, the "threat to use immediate military force to ensure unconditional and unrestricted Iraqi cooperation with inspections" ended.'
The end was not pretty, coming to light only after the resignation of former-Marine Captain Ritter, multiple denouncements from all sides of both Ritter and the Clinton administration, and a loss of international respect for U.S. policy. Even U.S. officials "acknowledged that the State Department blundered by failing to prepare Congress and the public for a policy shift away from a threat to use immediate military force."'
Now we are faced with the lingering question, How many other policies, particularly those tasked to the armed forces to carry out, might also be subject to revision without public notice—leaving our service members to defend, with their lives, policies that no longer are supported by their leaders?
Secret Policy versus Public Mission
On the surface, this issue may seem esoteric. Legally, the U.S. government owes no explanation or direct support to Americans working as employees of the United Nations. If the government chooses to change or modify its policies, it is within our sovereignty to do so without notice. But the replacement of apparent support with a "secret" policy goes to the very heart of trust in our leaders through three separate veins.
The first is the issue of credibility in world politics. Throughout its history, the United States has prided itself on being a straight shooter that disdained secret treaties and covert policies. Our founding fathers warned against them. Our entry into World War I was provoked, in part, by potential secret treaties against us. Most Americans believe that secret policies are incompatible with democracy, and we routinely admonish other nations to live up to their promises.
Thus, it is more than a little embarrassing to be forced to admit that a policy most of the world thought we were pursuing—military support for the inspection regime had become an elaborate bluff. Even more embarrassing was the revelation of an apparently secret behind-the-scenes policy that substituted for the widely trumpeted public stance.
The second issue is the fact that lives—those of the U.N. inspectors and, ultimately, our own—could have been, and still could be, at stake. If the United States was not willing at that time to press Iraq fully on inspections, but intended only to ensure that sanctions remained in place, that decision should have been announced and discussed publicly. The threat of weapons of mass destruction is serious enough to warrant such a debate.
The U.N. inspectors are carrying out one of the more dangerous—and critical—missions of the post-Cold War, post-Gulf War world. The United States itself has made countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction one of its primary national security missions, even reorganizing the staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense to sharpen the focus on this area. The inspections are, in fact, an implementation of one of the primary U.S. objectives of the Gulf War: to ensure destruction of the potential Iraqi arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
The United States had been the most vocal and vociferous supporter of the U.N. Special Commission inspections, a mission that just as easily could have been tasked to U.S. military personnel to carry out. It is a mission that one could expect to find among today's operations other than war. It is a mission that we identify as critical to the security of Americans. Surely, the fact that there may be limits to our support to this mission is worth discussing.
The third issue—and the biggest chill of all—is whether the U.S. government could be tempted under the right (or, rather, wrong) circumstances to place its own military personnel in a similar situation of carrying out a less-than supported policy.
This question sets off all of our alarm bells, because it is filled with echoes of the Vietnam War. Scholarly assessments, such as H. R. McMaster's recently published Dereliction of Duty (Harper-Collins, 1997), charge that key U.S. decision makers had determined midway through the conflict that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, and they chose, therefore, not to provide the level of support needed for our armed forces to achieve victory. Many U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen died during this "less-than-our-full-support" period, and the Weinberger Powell doctrine calling for employment of U.S. forces only in situations with complete governmental and majority public support was a reaction to this situation.
That is why any indication that the U.S. government is willing to put military personnel at risk to show "resolve" for policies to which the decision makers themselves are not fully committed is enough to cause concern—and deserves open, professional, public discussion.
Submerged Issues and Contending Views
Enforcing Iraqi compliance with U.N. weapons inspections is a political decision that deserves national attention. The administration once again is taking military action against Iraq, but that is only the surface issue. The submerged issue is whether U.S. administrations owe—to individual service members and the public alike—a forthright explanation of how far they are willing to go in using military force in achieving our foreign policy goals.
Supporters of traditional diplomacy are likely to say they do not. Diplomacy, they might say, is based on subtle persuasions and negotiations that are rendered ineffective by publicity and public debate. In this view, the fact that Scott Ritter and other members of the U.N. inspections team thought they had the absolute backing of America's might is irrelevant. They were but one facet of an intricate design subject to shifting policy. It is the process of diplomacy, rather than any one instrument, that produces results.
Self-described realists also are likely to say not. National interest, they might say, outweighs any explanation owed to individual service member. Dangers are too great; time is too short; the problems are too big. As the old expression goes, If you take the king's coin, you do the king's mission. The ends are what are important, and security and secrecy may prevent full disclosure of the means. An extreme version of this approach would be commandos sent on near-suicidal missions as diversions or feints without ever being told the true nature of their missions.
Fortunately, the United States does not have a tradition of deceiving its own service members as to their missions or objectives. Memoirs of major conflicts seem to indicate that we are honest with our own troops. Most Americans sent on near-suicidal diversionary missions during World War II, for example, were aware that they were being used to draw enemy attention from critical action elsewhere. They went about their missions without illusion that they were backed to the hilt. The specter of Vietnam, however, still looms large in our memory, and with it is the issue of trust.
Military Success Follows Trust in Leadership
Leadership is based on the trust of followers. No reward—in money, praise, or prestige—can overcome a lack of trust in the honesty and integrity of a leader. Whether volunteer or conscripted, America's armed forces are built on patriotism and leadership—two commodities that are highly sensitive to mistrust.
Unfortunately, the perception that the nation's leaders deceived U.S. troops during the Vietnam conflict is a wound that time has covered over but not completely healed. If current scholarship on the war is correct, American heroes were throwing themselves on grenades to save the lives of their comrades even as their top leaders had given up on the war. Medals of Honor were awarded even as resources were being held back or diverted. The success of the Gulf War ameliorated only a part of this legacy of mistrust.
Thus, when U.S. administrations indicate that they are willing to go to the brink of war to achieve a foreign policy aim, the troops who are destined to fight it listen carefully and watch for signs of true commitment. The unspoken question remains: When the bullets fly and my life is on the line, will they back my efforts?
The supporters of traditional diplomacy and the realists are wrong. Democratic government and our contemporary history require a clear-cut commitment to openness on policies that threaten the use of military force. It is the only way to maintain the military and public trust required in such situations.
In addition, it simply is not effective to lie to, deceive, or manipulate our service personnel into carrying out their efforts. All military plans require an individual's spiritual commitment to put his life in deadly peril—and such commitment does not survive exposure to deception or manipulation. Today's U.S. military personnel may be voluntary, but they can never be treated as mercenary.
The chant, "No More Vietnams," means no more secret or less-than-supported military policies. If we commit the lives of our service members to a cause, it should be one for which their leaders also would be willing to fight and die. Anything less exposes us to the chill of deceit and breaks the trust that ensures the sanctity of command. Trust in this case has but a simple requirement: If you give us the mission, tell us the facts, explicitly and completely.
Commander Tangredi holds a Ph.D. in international relations and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.