Tuesday, March 30, 2010

General Sheehan demonstrates the fine art of apologizing when all you're really sorry for is getting caught


Retired Marine Gen. John Sheehan, testifying
before the Senate Armed Services Committee

by Ken

You remember Marine Gen. John Sheehan, right? He's the clod who in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee two weeks ago on Don't Ask, Don't Tell blamed the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica on the "socializing" of the Dutch army -- meaning allowing openly gay soldiers and unionization. In view of the latest development, it's important to be clear about what exactly he did or didn't say. Here is the start of Philippe Naughton's March 19 report in the Times of London:
A retired American general has blamed the UN's historic failure to protect the Bosnian "safe haven" of Srebrenica on the fact that there were openly gay soldiers in the Dutch peacekeeping battalion assigned to it.

The comments from former Marine Corps General John Sheehan prompted outrage in the Netherlands, where the humiliation in July 1995 of 400 armed Dutch peacekeepers and the subsequent massacre by Serb forces of 8,000 Muslim men and boys remains a subject of acute national sensitivity.

General Sheehan, one of two Nato "supreme commanders" at the time of the massacre, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee against a proposal to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the US military.

He told the senators how the Armed Forces of various European countries had lost their combat focus after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and turned to peacekeeping because "they did not believe the Germans were going to attack again or the Soviets were coming back".

The general said that Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and other nations all took the decision that there was no longer a need for an active combat capability in the military.

"They declared a peace dividend and made a conscious effort to socialize their military -- that includes the unionisation of their militaries, it includes open homosexuality. That led to a force that was ill-equipped to go to war," he said.

"The case in point that I’m referring to is when the Dutch were required to defend Srebrenica against the Serbs: the battalion was under-strength, poorly led, and the Serbs came into town, handcuffed the soldiers to the telephone poles, marched the Muslims off, and executed them.

"That was the largest massacre in Europe since World War II."

Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, chairman of the committee, was incredulous. He asked General Sheehan: "Did the Dutch leaders tell you it was because there were gay soldiers there?"

"Yes, they did. They included that as part of the problem," he replied.

"That there were gay soldiers?" the senator asked.

"That the combination was the liberalisation of the military; a net effect was basically social engineering."

Okay, there's already a bit of weaseling there at the end, when Senator Levin was trying to make sure that General Sheehan actually was saying what he had just said.

The good news is that the general's "testimony" indeed caused an uproar, more in Europe than in the U.S., not surprisingly, but even here this turned heads in a way that it wouldn't have ten or even five years ago. Enough of an uproar that the general has been forced to do some damage control, in the form of a letter dated yesterday to his Dutch counterpart, retired Marine Gen. Henk van den Breemen. It begins with a paragraph that actually sounds like an apology -- for possibly misrecollecting what General van den Breemen may have said in their conversations, and especially for dragging him into the current mess:
Thank you for our much appreciated conversations of the past week. During the mid-1990s, you and I discussed a broad range of issues and policies that reflected the social, political and financial pressures under which NATO Alliance members struggled. I am sorry that my recent public recollection of those discussions of 15 years ago inaccurately reflected your thinking on some specific social issues in the military. It is also regrettable that I allowed you to be pulled into a public debate. As a fellow Marine, I have the deepest respect for you personally and professionally. NATO and the Netherlands were well served by your leadership.

So far, not so bad. But now there's a somewhat more opaque paragraph, which ironically begins, "To be clear":
To be clear, the failure on the ground in Srebrenica was in no way the fault of the individual soldiers. The corporals and sergeants executed their orders based on the priorities of the political authorities. Unfortunately, the rules of engagement were developed by a political system with conflicting priorities and an ambivalent understanding of how to use the military. As we know, the consequences of those compromises were devastating.

And that's it. General Sheehan writes, "I wish you the very best during this Easter season," and signs off.

When I glanced quickly at the letter, I thought General Sheehan was apologizing to General van den Breemen for misrepresenting comments made in their conversations in the '90s, and was explaining that all those conflicting political priorities and that ambivalent understanding of how to use the military, all of that had just slipped his mind during his original testimony. 

Then I read it a little more carefully, and it occurred to me that just possibly what he's saying is that those political "compromises," that "ambivalent understanding of how to use the military," which led to such "devastating consequences" -- what all that is, is the very "socializing" of the Dutch military he was whining about in the first place. You know, with the inclusion of gays, as Senator Levin had made certain he was testifying, and unionizing of the army, all of which added up, you'll recall, to "a force that was ill-equipped to go to war."

In other words, it just may be that, even as General Sheehan is apologizing to General van den Breemen for misrecollecting the exact words of their conversations, what he's actually saying is: "What I said before." Only without actually saying it, 'cause you get jumped on if you dare to tell God's honest truth about, you know, those people, and I don't mean people who join unions.

Here's how my colleague Jim Burroway summarized his reading of the letter at Box Turtle Bulltetin:
This is a climbdown from Sheehan’s placing blame on individual gay soldiers in Srebrenica, but it is not a complete disavowal of Sheehan’s position. In this letter, he now shifts his blame to “a political system with conflicting priorities and an ambivalent understanding of how to use the military.” This echoes accusations hurled by opponents to DADT that allowing soldiers to serve with honesty and integrity — two core values of all branches of the armed services — somehow represents a political meddling in the conduct of military affairs. (I would also hasten to add that civilian control of the military is also a core value insisted upon by our founding fathers and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.) So while media outlets and DADT repeal advocates may celebrate over this climb-down, I have a feeling that Sheehan’s position hasn’t changed one bit.

I have a feeling that Jim's feeling is exactly right. It seems clear that General van den Breemen isn't satisfied, because the letter was clearly released at his end. However, even if you accept that General Sheehan has genuinely changed his position in some substantive way, there remains the rather important question of General Sheehan's committee testimony, assuming his testimony had any importance. My colleague Chris Geidner reports at Metro Weekly:
The letter to Breemen, however, did not alter the testimony given by Sheehan. In a response from the Senate Armed Services Committee, a spokesman told Metro Weekly via e-mail, ''We have not received any communication from Gen. Sheehan, at least not yet.''


Am I the only one who's coming to think of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs as just the next in succession to the line of odious Bush regime press secretaries? Does the guy ever actually answer a question? And is it my imagination that there's a tone of mockery, or even scorn, when talking about anyone who isn't in lockstep agreement with an administration policy from the left?

A colleague provides this transcription of an exchange at today's press briefing:
Q: Over successive weeks, Congressman Barney Frank has asked the White House to clarify whether it would like to see legislative action taken this year on “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  He’s said that direction from the White House has been muddled, and then at one point said that you guys were actually sort of ducking whether or not you wanted to see legislation action taken on repeal.  Would the President like to see that law --

ROBERT GIBBS:  Well, Carol, I would just say this. I don’t think what Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates have enunciated on this appears muddled to anyone. I don’t -- there is a process that’s in place to move forward on the President’s commitment to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

I don’t -- Admiral Mullen is the first chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to sit up in front of Congress and say that the law ought to be repealed -- not somebody who is retired, not somebody who is long past their commitment of serving their country, but somebody who sat up there and said that. And Secretary Gates and the commission at the Pentagon have taken some important steps.

We’re following that process.  We’ll see where the legislative road takes us as we continue to build support to keep the commitment that the President has made.

Well, excuse me, Mr. Press Secretary, but this still seems to me kind of muddled as to what the president actually wants to happen and what he might be prepared to do to make it happen. And you may have noticed that you didn't address Congressman Frank's unanswered question at all.

The one thing that's kind of new is the cavalier dismissal of all the high-ranking former military offices who have come out for DADT repeal. Granted, it could be viewed that you are speaking of the potential impact on the process of testimony from the sitting chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but you'll forgive me if the reference to "not somebody who is retired, not somebody who is long past their commitment of serving their country" sounds sneering if not outright contemptuous of a lot of distinguished retired officers who probably don't think of themselves as "long past their commitment of serving their country."

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At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Balakirev said...

Ken, as long as the WH press corp, made slavish during the looong Bush years, continues to pull its forelock and acknowledge its role as stenographer-to-the-president, that's how long the press secretaries will get away with such patronizing, equivocating crap. If they were called on it on a routine basis, then like a dog getting hit with a rolled up newspaper, they'd soon realize a new approach was in order.

Or maybe a new press corps. That was, after all, Bush's solution to anybody that got annoying.

At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoa, lets not compare Scottie McClellan to Gibbs, Snow, Perino, or Fleischer. He was like our own Bagdhad Bob without the confidence.

I think the Press Secretary should be a lifelong position for Scotty myself.


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