Leak and Load

Politics and policy.
April 10 1999 3:30 AM

Leak and Load

In Kosovo, the Pentagon covers its behind.

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Nostradamus apparently works in the Pentagon. According to the April 12 U.S. News & World Report, this is what the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded before the Kosovo operation: "If we bomb ... we will eliminate Milosevic's domestic opposition, and he will become a hero. He will go into Kosovo and slaughter thousands of Kosovar Albanians and create thousands of refugees. Air power or bombing cannot stop any of those things."

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The front page of Monday's Washington Post confirmed the prophecy, revealing that the Joint Chiefs had "expressed deep reservations" in advance of the proposed bombing. The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had warned the administration that "Milosevic was likely to strike out viciously against Kosovo Albanians."

These wise men who saw in their crystal ball exactly what would happen in Kosovo are truly prophets without honor. These prognostications--divulged anonymously by "senior military officials" and "Pentagon planners" and "officers who know [the Joint Chiefs'] thinking but decline to be named"--represent a particularly demoralizing aspect of modern war-making: leaking as Pentagon policy.

Covering your ass is, of course, a time-honored military tradition, enshrined with its own acronym. But what is remarkable about the Kosovo leaks is that they are covering something that is not being shot at. No one--literally no one--is blaming the U.S. military for the shortcomings of the Kosovo mission. All fault has been deposited on the doorsteps of the White House and the State Department. Politicians, not generals, made the risky decisions, and politicians, not generals, are getting reproached for them. But no matter. As soon as it became clear that the mission had gone awry, Pentagon brass began leaking profligately: In the span of a few days, anonymous quotes appeared in the Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, and all three newsweeklies. The gist of the leaks: The Joint Chiefs knew this would happen, they told the administration this would happen, so don't blame them.

The leaks stem from a basic military practice: worst-casing. During Vietnam, generals insisted to their civilian bosses that we could win if we just had a little more time and firepower. Today's armed forces won't make the same mistake. "They don't want to be put in a hopeless position and get blamed for it. This is a product of Vietnam," says George Washington University military historian Ronald Spector.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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So even as the brass announces incessantly that "America has the finest fighting force the world has ever known," it responds bleakly to any presidential proposal to actually deploy that force. A top Pentagon officer from the Gulf War describes the generals' standard procedure: "They tell the White House, 'You are going to need an overwhelming amount of stuff. It's a bad idea. There will be terrible casualties. We recommend you don't do it.' "

"You always make sure you have protested before," says American University Professor Amos Perlmutter. In Kosovo, for example, the generals said that a ground invasion would require 200,000 troops (a number they knew was impossibly high) and that bombing wouldn't work. This worst-casing has two results: 1) The politicians are left wondering whether to believe the generals, since they say this every time; and 2) the military assures itself a victory in the war that matters in Washington, the PR war.

If the pols overrule the generals and the mission goes sour, the generals are safe, on-the-record with sensible objections that can be leaked at an opportune moment (as with Kosovo). If the pols overrule and the mission succeeds, the generals still harvest the credit. No one remembers their poor-mouthing. Who recalls that Gen. Colin Powell predicted horrible casualties in the Gulf War?

It's worth noting that the Joint Chiefs probably did not warn against the mission as emphatically or prophetically as the leaks claim. Clinton, after all, is incredibly deferential to his Joint Chiefs because of his own history of nonservice: It's impossible to believe that he would have overruled the chiefs if they were as absolute as the leaks suggest. Most experts also doubt the Joint Chiefs were unified in the view that bombing wouldn't succeed: It's Air Force doctrine that bombing will succeed in such circumstances, so Air Force advisers almost certainly predicted a bombing triumph. Moreover, the generals' public behavior casts doubt on the claim that they foresaw what Milosevic would do if we bombed. The only public concerns the generals voiced before bombing were that pilots would be vulnerable to Yugoslavia's missile defenses: They did not discuss the possibility that Milosevic would respond by accelerating his slaughter of Kosovars.

There is nothing wrong with the Joint Chiefs warning the administration privately that bombing was folly. In fact, it would be derelict for the generals not to warn the administration of that. But after-the-fact anonymous leaks are corrupting. The military is (theoretically) a nonpolitical institution, but as soon as the operation went south, the military abandoned its nonpolitical façade to protect itself. From four-stars to privates, the armed forces loathe and distrust Clinton, and the generals certainly weren't going to risk being associated with his Kosovo mess. So they leaked to guarantee that they would not be blamed for a quagmire or be punished at budget time--and to ensure that Clinton would suffer. The backdoor sniping has become so pernicious and prevalent that even retired Gen. George Joulwan, NATO's military commander in the early '90s, pleaded on CNN's Crossfire for the Pentagon to stop leaking and "pull the team together."

The principal reason the leaks are troubling is not that they sabotage the relationship between the administration and the Pentagon; that relationship is always shaky. They are troubling because they may sabotage the mission itself. The leaks suggest to our NATO allies that the U.S. military isn't seriously engaged in the operation. And the leaks suggest to our own troops that their commanders secretly believe their mission is dangerous, useless, and possibly doomed. No inside-the-beltway PR victory is worth that kind of demoralization.

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