Tuesday was a good day for candor. Which made Tuesday unusual, and in many ways encouraging.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley dodged nothing in answering questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Head of Central Command General Frank McKenzie was equally forthright and direct. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was somewhat more guarded, but not openly evasive.
Yes, General Milley said. I talked with my Chinese military counterpart in the closing days and weeks of the Trump Administration. It’s part of my job. Nobody needed accidents, misunderstandings or surprises.
Yes, I agreed to be interviewed by some of the authors of recent books about Trump’s presidency.
No, I can’t tell you if I was quoted accurately in the books, because I haven’t read them.
General McKenzie, responding to questions about the loss of 13 American military personnel during the frenetic exit from Afghanistan, said, essentially, that sometimes the bad guys slip one through on you.
From my perspective, I did not find that response to be flippant, dismissive, insensitive or disrespectful to the memories of our lost heroes.
I found it to be an accurate reflection and description of the realities of armed conflict, offered by a professional soldier.
What was remarkable, and even historic, about the hearing was the witnesses’ willingness to directly address recent and highly inflammatory issues that are still open questions and still the focus of national debate.
General Milley on the final stages of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul. “It was a logistical success, but a strategic failure.”
While I do not totally agree that the evacuation was even a logistical success, General Milley’s bluntly calling an obvious strategic failure a strategic failure was a refreshing departure from the evasive doublespeak we have come to expect during Congressional hearings. There can be no doubt that the fiasco in Kabul lowered the global standing and damaged the national interests of the United States. That, by definition, is a “strategic failure.”
Yes, many of the questions from the Senators were predictably purely partisan (both ways), but there did frequently appear to be an honest effort to get to the truth.
And I frankly found much of the criticism directed at the Biden Administration by GOP Senators to be fair and on-point.
Tuesday was a good day for candor.
But the next person we need to hear from is the President of the United States. He said in a nationally televised interview back in August that he received no direct military advice that the U.S. should have left a standing force of 2,500 troops and advisers, that he “remembers.”
The generals said Tuesday that they did give the president that recommendation. They went on to say, properly, that the president was then free to reject that advice.
But Biden has denied he received that counsel.
There’s a discrep here. And it is an important one. And Biden needs to clear it up, if indeed he can.