Ditch the Status Quo; Elevate the Reformers

By Daniel L. Davis

National Security Advisor Michael Flynn resigned Monday when it became apparent he not only held diplomatic discussions with a Russian ambassador before Donald Trump was sworn in, but also misled senior U.S. officials about the nature of those conversations. RealClear Defense is reporting that the White House is considering Vice Adm. Robert Harward and Gen. David Petraeus as the leading candidates to replace Flynn. Let us hope these reports prove to be unfounded, as either of the former flag officers would bring their own clouds of controversy into the position even before the Flynn fiasco has fully cleared the air.

Harward once served on the National Security Council for the Bush administration, was the Deputy Commander of U.S. Central Command, and a long-time Navy Seal. He does, however, have a significant drawback: he is the current Chief Executive Officer of defense industry giant Lockheed Martin’s UAE operation. 

Harward may well be an accomplished defense expert, but it is nearly impossible for him to separate himself from his senior role with the defense industry. There is no doubt Lockheed Martin would not expressly ask Mr. Harward to influence buying decisions. They wouldn’t have to. For the last three years the retired Admiral has made it his business to focus his energies on expanding the business of Lockheed Martin. It is unreasonable to expect that Mr Harward will disregard the interests of Lockheed Martin in his position with the U.S. Government.

But undue business influence isn’t the only concern for President Trump’s potential picks. Some have shown questionable judgment in key national security matters.

Mr. Petraeus also looks good on paper. He was the commander of the Iraq surge, the Afghan surge, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Though many in the media routinely credit him with great accomplishments, an examination of the record clearly shows major errors and questionable judgment in each of the three positions. The scandal that ended his tenure as CIA Director have been well chronicled. His military failures, however, are less well-known.

For years following the 2007-08 Iraq surge, a popular myth arose that claimed the violence in Iraq was quelled by superior tactics employed by then-General Petraeus.  The surge of troops did contribute to the reduction of violence, but without question was not the causal factor. Al-Qaeda in Iraq inflicted such barbarity on the Sunni insurgency that the latter turned to US troops for help, commanded by then-Colonel Sean MacFarland, more than six months before the surge was even announced.  MacFarland, now a Lt. Gen. in command of III Corps at Fort Hood, TX, told me in a 2010 interview that “if the Iraqi Sunnis had remained allied with al-Qaida against us, we would not have been able to achieve anything lasting or of strategic consequence.”

The tactics that Petraeus claimed reduced the violence in Iraq only contributed to the reduction in violence because the insurgents independently believed it in their interests to seek U.S. help.  When President Obama placed Petraeus in charge of the Afghan surge in 2010, he tried to apply the same tactics. 

Yet he failed to recognize that the conditions in Afghanistan were dramatically different than those of 2007 Iraq, and thus the surge failed to knock out the insurgents. The political failure of the Iraq surge led to the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, and the strategic failure of the Afghan surge laid the groundwork for the revival of the Taliban—which today has limited the Kabul government to control of only 57 percent of the country.  Michael Flynn, Robert Harward, and David Petraeus were all products of the status quo defense establishment that has, at best, produced questionable results. 

President Trump has an excellent opportunity to reverse these trends and nominate new, outside-the-box thinkers with proven track records of success that haven’t become enmeshed in the defense industry. President Trump defeated a dozen well-known and well-funded GOP rivals for the Republican nomination and beat the decidedly-mainstream candidate Hillary Clinton in the general election precisely because he was not a status-quo candidate. If there was one clear message the voters sent last November, it was that they were sick of business-as-usual. 

During the campaign, Trump said, “Decades of failure in Washington, and decades of special interest dealing, must come to an end. We have to break the cycle of corruption, and we have to give new voices a chance to go into government service.” Thus far, Trump has elevated mostly conventional candidates to senior posts. Now is the time to back up his words with actions nominate qualified “new voices” who have distinguished themselves by succeeding in non-conventional ways.

The President should elevate at least some of these qualified people if for no other reason than to breathe new life into stale organizations, infuse innovation into future development, and limit the stifling influence of the defense industry. The last thing the country needs is to replace the old status quo personnel with new status quo candidates who are indistinguishable from their predecessors.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on February 14, 2017. Read more HERE