Management by Spokesperson Doth Never Prosper

General Post reportedly labeled some of his fellow service members traitors for talking to Congress. The service's top leaders have not commented, and started an investigated only when prodded by legislators. Do they agree with the 2-star's comments?
General Post reportedly labeled some of his fellow service members traitors for talking to Congress. The service’s top leaders have not commented, and started an investigation only when prodded by legislators. Do they agree with the 2-star’s comments?

After more than a week of obfuscation and stonewalling, the Air Force proclaimed on January 26th that it had opened an Inspector General (IG) investigation into recent comments by Major General James Post. A spokesman, apparently one with a future in stand-up comedy, called the investigation “timely.” The only thing timely about it is that it was undertaken after Senator John McCain (R-AZ) urged the Secretary of the Air Force to conduct an inquiry.

Post reportedly told an audience at the annual Weapons and Tactics Conference in Las Vegas that speaking in critical terms about the service’s budget priorities with members of Congress would be tantamount to treason. If the reports are accurate, his comments potentially violated federal law and almost certainly betrayed the ethics and values the Air Force ingrains – or purports to ingrain – in its membership.

No matter what the IG finds in the Post case, his remarks promise to loom large in the ongoing debate about the future of the A-10. This debate is certain to intensify as the service chiefs prepare for Senate testimony later in the week concerning the impact of sequestration on military readiness. The Air Force position is that the A-10 must be retired to free up budget tradespace for the F-35, which is significantly over budget and will never be capable of Close Air Support at nearly the level of effectiveness routinely attained by the A-10.

McCain, newly established as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has taken the Air Force to task on the subject of CAS in years past, and this latest series of events sets the stage for another charged debate in the new Congress.

Whatever the character of that debate, it promises to be more difficult than necessary for the Air Force because of its grotesquely inept response to General Post’s comments. This is a sequence of events worth carefully registering. It demonstrates institutional preferences and tendencies that have the Air Force on a collision course with future defeat absent a fundamental re-direct. That re-direct should come from General Mark Welsh, its Chief of Staff, and should come without further delay.

The Air Force response can be summarized as four sequential missteps: initial silence, reluctant acknowledgement, baffling rhetoric, and obligatory action. Of the many ways the Air Force could have responded in the wake of Post’s comments, its chosen reaction represents the worst.

Post works for General Hawk Carlisle, the Commander of Air Combat Command (ACC). Upon hearing a credible report that his deputy had made such statements, Carlisle should have immediately recognized the seriousness of the issue and made a personal commitment – expressed in a personally delivered statement – to get the bottom of the issue. No spokesmen, no delays, and no scripted releases.

He should have then spoken with Post, determined what he said and how it was perceived, and either dispatched Post to a pasture to await retirement or stood behind a microphone and explained why he wasn’t going to do so.

This is the kind of direct, genuine leadership we should expect of a 4-star general. They wield tremendous kinetic and political power. They lead massive organizations. They have their own jets and their own servants, and live in larger and better-appointed houses than the civilians to whom they report. They have their own drivers. They are doted upon by administrative and executive support staff, and at the slightest whim, can summon a band to provide music for dinner. With all of this power and prestige comes (or should come) great expectations. This episode got out of hand because Carlisle shirked his responsibility to take charge in the wake of a serious mistake by his subordinate. He managed the situation through a spokesperson rather than leading it himself.

Of course, Carlisle’s involvement wouldn’t be necessary at all if Air Force 2-star generals were empowered and expected to publicly take account for their own conduct. Post has worn the uniform for three decades. He has issued orders, exacted punishments, enforced laws, and commanded organizations possessed of gargantuan combat power. He’s a decorated fighter pilot and accomplished tactician. Why does the service insist he shield himself behind a spokesperson and avoid publicly confronting the reports of his words as a public official should? Is there no concern within the Air Force of looking as inept and unaccountable as the Department of Veterans Affairs?

The Air Force’s habit of insulating its leaders – of handling them with velvet gloves and insisting the rest of the world do the same – explains in part the growing divide between the service and the society it is charged to protect. People don’t respond to limp rhetoric in warmed over press releases. They respond to leadership, which includes personal accountability for mistakes. By not allowing generals to answer for themselves, the service also cripples their ability to learn the lessons of public leadership that come to mean so much more at the very top of the rank scale. This helps explain any number of political missteps by Air Force 4-stars over the past decade. They’ve never been allowed to deal with their own mistakes, and are dumbfounded when this is expected of them.

The real explanation for this chicanery, however, lies not so much in service chauvinism or infantilization of generals so much as a generic allergy to meaningful response of any sort. On issue after issue, the Air Force chooses terse and useless press releases over out-front leadership. This disheartens legislators, members of the media, citizens, and airmen themselves. It’s not leadership. It’s the management of self-inflicted crisis by spokesperson.

Not only is this reluctance to respond meaningfully a cultural liability, it’s tactically stupid as well. The entire Post issue would likely have been defused by a three-minute press conference or a directly worded statement released by either Carlisle or by Post himself. Instead, the service gambled that its oft-employed stone wall could provide sufficient defilade against the forces of public accountability. It was wrong. Now, instead of a brief moment of embarrassment (or perhaps even an opportunity for a flag officer to build credibility by answering personally for his actions), the service must endure a potentially damaging investigation while being closely scrutinized by its most important oversight body.

To say this was a dumb tactical response from a service that prides itself on tactical superiority would be an understatement. It backfired badly, with prominent accountability groups now calling for Post to be removed from his position.

But there’s another layer to this story, and it might be the most important. Recall that those initially pushing for the service to explain Post’s comments, including JQP, were concerned less about his use of use of hyperbolic brio than how his words fit within a pattern of creeping fascism in the ranks. In other words, no one was calling for Post to be relieved so much as they were looking for the Air Force to make an affirmative statement about the non-negotiable rights of airmen to engage in free expression and engage their legislators. Such a statement from Welsh or Secretary Deborah Lee James would have rendered the Post incident a non-issue while reinforcing he service’s commitment to reflecting the values it fights to uphold.

That didn’t happen. With scores of media reports now questioning whether the Air Force understands the rights of its members and the limitations on its leaders, neither Welsh nor James has made a single public statement about this issue.

Judging by the statements that have been released by various spokespersons, the absence of senior level comment is apparently attributable to the fact that the service believes its airmen and the public are too dumb to bore through the veil of obfuscation and understand how it is behaving deceitfully while discouraging its members from exercising their rights.

Let’s take a look at a few excerpts from statements the service has released through talking heads.

ACC told the Air Force Times it did not have a transcript of Post’s comments, but went on to say that his “use of hyperbole” was intended to help him make a point and not to restrict airmen from communicating with Congress. This statement is deceptive on its face. It implies there is no record of the comments, then pretends to understand how the comments were intended, which would require reference to and analysis of a record of those comments. This is arguing two mutually exclusive points as alternative justifications. It reeks of excuse making. It’s a textbook example of substituting public relations for actual leadership.

The command also remarked in an email: “certainly our role as individual military members is not to engage in public debate or advocacy for policy.” This statement is fundamentally incorrect, misguided, and heavy-handed. Individual military members are indeed free to express themselves publicly and in matters of policy so long as they distinguish their positions from those of the service and avoid representing themselves as military members when engaged in partisan political activity. They should be encouraged to do so rather than warned against it. The mind boggles to understand how this very basic idea could be mysterious to senior commanders or their spokespersons.

Perhaps the reality is that it’s not mysterious at all. They’re merely trying to make the chosen task of retiring the A-10 easier by quelling internal dissent, and are willing to softly threaten fundamental rights to make it happen. The Air Force obviously believes policy positions by airmen are just fine. It trotted out Colonel Rob Spalding and Dr. Adam Lowther (an Air Force employee) last November to scold A-10 advocates for being too emotional. The two airmen declared that the A-10 did not “fit into a strategy for the future.” They were making a policy argument in favor of investment in the F-35, even if it was a peculiarly toothless one. Clearly, these two airmen saw it as their duty to engage in public debate and to advocate for policy. And they were right, even if their argument was unimaginative and ultimately eviscerated.

These statements by Air Combat Command can be seen as just as damaging as the statements they were seeking to explain, and should be disowned by the service forcefully. A public debate about the future of airpower is essential, even and especially if it irritates those perched atop traditional power structures.

* * * * *

When aircraft engaged in tactical maneuvering sense the development of a dangerous condition during a training scenario, it is incumbent upon the first person noticing the condition to call “knock it off” over the shared radio frequency. This is a cue to the formation to cease maneuvering, attain safe separation from each other and the ground, and to terminate the activity. “Knock it off” is used when the situation is serious. It’s an attention-getter.

Mark Welsh needs to use it right now. No more say-nothing releases. No more delays. No more hiding behind process. No more excuses. No more management by spokesperson.

The Air Force doesn’t need a protracted investigation to determine what happened here, and it doesn’t need to barricade itself behind a bevy of pundits spouting misguided propaganda to maintain an appropriate public image. All it needs to do is account for the facts, make a decision based on those facts, and report that decision publicly so that various constituencies can understand the applied rationale. This would provide a perfect opportunity to remind airmen of their rights and limitations in public debate.

A wise, unattributed man once said, in describing the challenges of holding a public position, “never resolve politically what can be solved with leadership.” The General Post incident is a perfect opportunity for Welsh to actuate this idea and maneuver his service back toward the moral foundations without which it cannot effectively defend America.

That is, unless he is keeping quiet because he agrees with Post.

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