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Modly Has Resigned

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Sarah Villegas)

The many demands for the acting Secretary of the Navy’s resignation appear to have worked. Multipleoutlets are reporting that Modly has submitted his resignation to Defense Secretary Esper. Jack Detsch reports:

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly offered his resignation to Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a meeting on Tuesday, a source familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, after the Pentagon chief ordered the Navy’s embattled top civilian to apologize for a profanity-laced speech slamming the fired captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

It was not immediately clear if Esper accepted the offer, first reported by Politico, or if Modly was asked for his resignation.

Resigning was the only way that Modly could avoid doing more damage than he had already done to the Navy and the crew of the carrier, and it is good that he offered his resignation right away. The Navy was being harmed by his poor leadership, and it will be much better off without him in this role. It would be extremely foolish for Esper to refuse to accept the resignation under the circumstances. It is remarkable how rapidly the situation on the carrier led to the scandal that has now forced out another Secretary of the Navy. It was just eight days ago that the captain’s letter became public, and in that short time Modly wrecked Crozier’s career and torpedoed himself in the process. In sharp contrast to the man that Modly replaced when he took over as acting Secretary, he will be leaving his position in disgrace and failure.

We should remember that this is something that Modly brought on himself by insisting on Crozier’s immediate removal over the objections of senior naval officers and then going out of his way to trash Crozier and his crew in a bizarre rant yesterday. Modly initially defended his outrageous behavior, and he even fired off an insulting rejoinder to Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson, but then deleted the response and apologized for his speech under duress after the backlash grew more severe. Modly put on quite the one-week clinic in how not to lead.

A Washington Post report from yesterday reminds us just how absurd the decision to remove Crozier was:

On March 30, Crozier sent his letter to Navy officials. While Modly described it at one point as a “blast-out email” to 20 to 30 people, a person close to Crozier said many of the people who received it were on the captain’s staff. Notably, Baker and at least one other admiral were not on it.

“The characterization that he did not go through the chain is not accurate,” the friend of Crozier’s said. “He did not route it to them for distribution because they were not buying in on the plan.”

Relieving someone from command because he copied his own staff on a letter about conditions on the ship in the middle of a pandemic was ridiculous overkill, and it should never have happened. It is good that Modly won’t be around to mess anything else up, but the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt has needlessly lost a fine commander. Ideally, Modly’s resignation would clear the way for reversing the terrible decision he made to remove Crozier last week, but that is probably not going to happen. Proving how right he was to worry about the spread of the virus on the ship, Capt. Crozier has since tested positive for COVID-19 and is in isolation. We wish him and all of the other infected members of the crew a swift and full recovery.

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A Pandemic Is Not a War

Ishaan Tharoor comments on the rhetoric likening the coronavirus pandemic to a war:

Still, there are many ways in which the “war” analogy falls short. “War metaphors call for mobilization, for action, for doing something,” Veronika Koller, a linguist at Lancaster University in England, told the Atlantic. The current situation poses an altogether different demand — where the bulk of the world’s population is being asked to simply do nothing.

A pandemic is not a war, and thinking of it in these terms is likely to lead to the wrong responses. We saw some of this in the early weeks of the outbreak as many people reacted to the spread of the virus as if they were responding to a terrorist attack. People in many cities crowded into public places to show that they were not intimidated by the threat, but of course in doing this they exposed themselves to greater risk than they would have if they stayed at home. Perhaps it is unavoidable that people revert to the behavior that they used to cope with an earlier trauma, but in this case it was exactly the wrong way to respond to a pandemic. Viruses don’t care about our shows of defiance. A virus does not seek political victory or demand changes in our policies. To the extent that these things are ever “beaten,” it is through the ingenuity of doctors and scientists whose goal is to preserve as many lives as possible. The right response to a pandemic is to do all we can to protect the most vulnerable. Few things are less like war than this.

Declaring war on abstractions and inanimate objects has become a bad habit for our government in particular. We have had almost twenty years of the “war on terror,” which has trapped us in a futile cycle of militarized responses to a problem that cannot be solved by military means. Employing wartime language to describe a public health threat shows the extent to which our imagination has been impoverished by decades of pointless conflict, and it also shows how many of us have lost the ability to talk about the common good and social solidarity without falling back on the language of regimentation and mass mobilization.

Paul Pillar comments on the use of war metaphors:

Moreover, the COVID-19 “enemy” is even farther removed from the human volition involved in warfare than terrorism is. Bluster and shows of determination therefore don’t work. In referring to World War II, McChrystal cited Winston Churchill’s “we will never surrender” declarations, which served not only to sustain the morale of his countrymen but also to help deter Germany from attempting an invasion of Britain. Viruses, however, are not deterred.

One of the most curious things about the response to the pandemic here in the U.S. is that a federal government that has been addicted to threat inflation has struggled to take one of the more deadly threats to the country seriously enough. Unlike the typical overkill in response to small, manageable threats on the other side of the world, the federal government has responded to the pandemic sluggishly and with insufficient urgency. The U.S. launches invasions, turns entire countries into killing zones, and commits itself to open-ended conflict at enormous expense supposedly to thwart the very small threat from terrorist groups, but when it comes to taking the much cheaper, simpler precautions for coping with an outbreak it is like pulling teeth to get the government to fulfill its most basic functions.

Comparing the pandemic to war is also somewhat demoralizing when we reflect on our government’s record of waging war over the last half-century. There are scarcely any true successes in that record that we can point to that would give us confidence that the government can “win” now. Unfortunately, the only things that the government’s response has in common with previous war efforts is that the U.S. was badly unprepared for what came next and the president had an unrealistic expectation of how quickly the problem would be taken care of.

Pillar cautions us to recognize that the pandemic will not be resolved with a clear-cut victory:

Even those experts who are optimistic about development of a vaccine are not talking about eradication of COVID-19 in the way smallpox has been eradicated. Shoving aside other principles and priorities for the sake of “winning” a current “war” is inappropriate when what is needed are sustainable, long-term arrangements that accommodate interests of public health, economic prosperity, and political rights and liberties.

Some of the important changes that the U.S. will need to make include bringing our endless wars to an end, reducing the bloated military budget that was built around fighting the wrong threats, and allocating far more resources to providing hospitals and health care workers with the equipment, funding, and support that they need.

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After Crozier Comments, Navy Secretary Modly Must Resign

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly (U.S. Navy photo by MC1 Sarah Villegas)

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly just made things much worse for himself and the Navy by delivering an attack on Capt. Crozier in a speech to the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. It will come as no surprise that the contents of the speech have become public:

“It was a betrayal. And I can tell you one other thing: because he did that he put it in the public’s forum and it is now a big controversy in Washington, DC,” Modly said, according to a transcript of remarks Modly made to the crew, copies of which have been provided to CNN by multiple Navy officials.

There is a rough transcript of the speech here, and both Task & Purpose and The San Francisco Chronicle obtained an audio recording of the speech.

Modly’s speech was an attempt to justify his unpopular and outrageous decision to remove Crozier from command, and by giving such an inflammatory speech so soon after that decision he showed remarkably poor judgment. The “big controversy” that he complains about just became even bigger. Lecturing the crew about Crozier’s supposed “betrayal” is not going to persuade anyone, and it is bound to stir up even more discontent than there was before. It is deeply insulting to Crozier and his crew to cast the captain’s actions in such derogatory terms. Even if Modly genuinely believes Crozier to have been in the wrong, it is destructive and demoralizing to attack a well-respected officer this way. He was lashing out at the crew as much as Crozier because the crew gave the captain such a rousing sendoff. That’s unacceptable, and it proves that there needs to be someone else in charge of the Department of the Navy.

Modly’s original decision to relieve Crozier of command was a serious mistake, and this tone-deaf exercise in self-justification compounds the first error. Incredibly, Modly criticized Crozier for being either “too naive” or “stupid” for circulating his letter to maybe 20 people, and then he delivers a speech to a crew of thousands and somehow doesn’t think it was going to leak the minute after he finished. Whatever he hoped to achieve by berating the crew for their devotion to their captain, he has pretty much destroyed whatever credibility he might have still had with them.

The calls for Modly’s resignation began as soon as the speech became available:

It is worth remembering that Modly chose to remove Crozier over the objections of Crozier’s superior officers, including the chief of naval operations. He insisted on doing this despite their preference that they handle it themselves, and he owns the fallout from it. Modly has handled all of this about as badly as he could have. It is time for him to do the right thing and resign.

Update: There is enormous anger at Modly among lots of veterans because of this speech:

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The Open Skies Treaty Is Worth Keeping

Russian President Vladimir Putin By Harold Escalona/shutterstock And President Trump By Drop of Light/Shutterstock

The Trump administration is still determined to destroy the last vestiges of arms control:

The Trump administration is determined to withdraw from a 28-year-old treaty intended to reduce the risk of an accidental war between the west and Russia by allowing reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has put off a full national security council (NSC) meeting on the Open Skies Treaty (OST), the secretary of defence, Mark Esper, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have agreed to proceed with a US exit, according to two sources familiar with administration planning.

A statement of intent is expected soon, with a formal notification of withdrawal issued a few months later, possibly at the end of the fiscal year in September. The US would cease to be a party to the treaty six months after that, so if a new president were elected in November, the decision could be reversed before taking effect.

The Open Skies Treaty has been in the administration’s sights for some time. The president already signed a statement of his intent to withdraw from the treaty last year, and the administration is going to move ahead with ripping up another successful treaty in the next few months. It can’t be stressed enough that the case against the treaty is as flimsy as can be. Opposition to the treaty is not based on any real flaws in the agreement. It is driven by an ideological hostility to arms control agreements as such. Hard-liners seek to use minor Russian violations that have already been corrected to justify scrapping the entire treaty, and then they trot out an absurd fiscal argument that replacing the planes used for surveillance flights under the treaty is too costly:

One of the reasons Esper has cited for US withdrawal is to save money by not replacing the two Boeing OC-135B planes the US uses for its Open Skies reconnaissance flights.

Congress appropriated $41.5m last year for the cost of replacement but the Pentagon spending request published in February contained no budget for the new planes. Esper told Congress he was awaiting a decision from the president.

At the same time that this administration is throwing billions more at the nuclear arsenal itself, it is ridiculous to suggest that the U.S. cannot afford the modest sum required to replace these planes. The money is not the real issue. The treaty allows all parties to know what the others are doing, and that reduces the chances of escalation and misunderstanding that could lead to war. Leaving the treaty is the same as intentionally blinding ourselves. It will leave us with less information than we could have, and it will leave many of our allies in the dark as well since many of them do not have the capabilities to carry out these surveillance flights.

Beyond that, the treaty has a stabilizing role by ensuring that there is some ongoing cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. Kyle Mizokami writes:

The Open Skies Treaty is a symbol of cooperation between two distrustful countries, and in that respect, is a model for behavior. It’s also a calming mechanism: the act of allowing a potential adversary to overfly one’s territory is a clear and reassuring sign to the rest of the world that tensions between the two countries are low. Finally, participants on both sides get to know one another during the process, leading to more interaction and greater communication at the inspection level.

Hard-liners complain about Russian violations, but Russian violations aren’t the real issue, either. Russia briefly restricted flights over Kaliningrad in the past, but they have since allowed them to take place:

Russia imposed the limitation over Kaliningrad after a prolonged zigzagging Polish overflight in 2014 closed down aviation for a day. Russia allowed an extended flight over Kaliningrad in February.

When Russia has imposed restrictions over certain areas, the U.S. has responded with reciprocal restrictions. The U.S. has ways of responding to Russian restrictions that don’t involve scrapping the treaty. Hard-liners aren’t interested in making sure that the treaty is working well. As they always do, they just want to set it on fire. That is why leading opponents of the Open Skies Treaty have also been the ones in favor of leaving the INF Treaty and letting New START die. Hard-liners like Sen. Tom Cotton don’t want to replace these treaties with “better” agreements. They simply want to be rid of all of them. Any bilateral or multilateral agreement that requires the U.S. to cooperate with adversaries is anathema to them, which is why they are consistently opposed to real diplomatic engagement with adversaries.

The U.S. and our allies benefit from this treaty, and the benefits that we get from the treaty cannot be replaced by other means of gathering intelligence. Anna Péczeli mentions this as one of the advantages of staying in the treaty:

From an intelligence perspective, another advantage of observation flights is their promptness. Observation flights can be conducted on 72-hour notice, while it can take days to get satellites in place.

Our allies want the U.S. to remain in the treaty. Dana Struckman explained why last year:

The United States should stay in the Open Skies Treaty because it’s about much more than the competition with Russia. The world is watching the rapid erosion of numerous long-standing agreements including important nuclear arms control accords. Pulling out of Open Skies will put the European members on edge, and rightly so; European members view it as one of the last formal, active accords allowing for transparency and dialogue between two nuclear superpowers where they are stuck squarely in the middle. It’s no wonder numerous European signatories to Open Skies have made desperate pleas to the United States to salvage the treaty.

Having overflight rights over Russia gives the U.S. and our allies a much clearer picture of what Russia is doing than we would have otherwise. The OST makes Europe more secure, it reduces the chances of war between the U.S. and Russia, and it maintains a level of stability in the U.S.-Russian relationship that wouldn’t be possible without it. Abandoning the treaty doesn’t serve any American interests, and the only people that want to abandon it are ideologues that have never seen a treaty they didn’t want to kill.

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Crozier Was Punished for Doing His Duty

Navy Capt Brett Crozier (Department of Defense)

Andrew Bacevich comments on Capt. Crozier’s removal from command:

Today, of course, many Americans are dying unnecessarily through the negligence of leaders at all levels. In the weeks to come, negligence will claim the lives of many more. Crozier stands out as one leader who was quick to assess the danger at hand and to recommend prompt and decisive action.

For this he was fired. Needless to say, his letter leaked. Navy officials were thereby embarrassed. While eventually taking the actions not unlike those that Crozier had recommended, they gave him the axe. According to acting Navy secretary Thomas B. Modly, himself a Naval Academy graduate, Crozier lost his job because the Coronavirus outbreak “overwhelmed his ability to act professionally.”

That’s one opinion. Mine differs. Faced with a perplexing leadership challenge, Crozier made a very tough call: This was one instance, he concluded, where Men should come before Mission, while he unhesitatingly placed his own career interests last. His superiors, up to and including Acting Secretary Modly, ought to have applauded his actions. That they did not calls into question their own good judgment.

If Crozier hadn’t pushed for the evacuation of his crew in order to protect their lives, he would still be in command today, but because he called attention to the Navy’s mishandling of the situation he was relieved. That is what makes the decision to remove him so perverse and dishonorable. He did his duty by his crew, but he did it in a way that embarrassed the higher-ups and so in Modly’s view he had to go. Crozier’s willingness to risk his command for his crew demonstrated precisely why he is an excellent commander. If the acting Secretary of the Navy had been wiser, he should have commended the captain instead of getting rid of him.

It is instructive to recall the other times that the Navy relieved captains of their commands in the Seventh Fleet in the recent past. The commanders of the USS John McCain and the USS Fitzgerald were relieved after they presided over disastrous accidents in 2017. In those cases, the ships suffered terrible, avoidable collisions with civilian vessels. Seventeen sailors lost their lives, and the two destroyers were severely damaged and rendered inoperable for a long time. The captains had failed in their duty to keep their ships and crew safe, and so it was absolutely right that they were removed. In Crozier’s case, he was given the same punishment that they were because he was determined not to risk the lives of the people under his command. An outstandingly conscientious captain has suffered the same penalty as the derelict ones. The message being sent by Crozier’s removal is unmistakable: don’t make waves and don’t call attention to problems even if it means putting your crew at risk.

According to his fellow officers, Crozier’s actions in the last week were consistent with the character of the man they knew:

“This is the last guy to go and seek attention. He’s not a glory hound — not that guy,” said Brett Odom, who roomed with him in flight school in Florida and watched him take command of the Roosevelt just six months ago at a ceremony in San Diego. “When he took command, I thought, ‘Wow, the Navy got something right here.’”

“Brett is not somebody who would go outside the chain of command to glory-seek or press-seek, that’s just not him,” said Mark Roppolo, who has known Crozier since they entered the Naval Academy together in 1988.

It seems clear that the Navy wasn’t taking the outbreak on the ship seriously enough until the captain forced them to pay attention. The captain would have been in the position to know what the situation was better than anyone in Washington, but it seems that top officials weren’t listening. If they hadn’t been forced to respond to the worsening conditions on the carrier, does anyone think that the evacuation would have started so quickly? Crozier was faulted for using poor judgment, but under the circumstances speedy action was more desirable than slow deliberation. Officers that show quick thinking and resourcefulness are supposed to be rewarded, but avoiding embarrassment seems to be a higher priority for the current leadership.

The display of admiration and support that the crew gave him as he departed the ship spoke volumes about the quality of the commanding officer that they were losing:

Several sailors filmed the moment Crozier departed and posted it on social media. The carrier’s former commanding officer walked alone off the ship with a backpack, saluted a sailor onshore and gave a brief wave to his crew before being driven away.

“And that’s how you send off one of the greatest captains you’ve ever had,” one sailor narrated as he filmed the send-off, the chants echoing on the Roosevelt’s massive hangar deck. “A man for the people.”

Many people have marveled at how there is no accountability in our government for the many failures and blunders that have occurred over the last two decades, and so it is particularly disheartening when “one of the greatest captains” is relieved of command for doing his job too well. Presidents can launch illegal wars, abuse their power, and fail to protect the country from attack and pandemic, and absolutely no one at the top pays a political or professional price for any of it. There are no consequences for top political and military leaders for their failures and crimes, but when an officer causes his superiors some public embarrassment while trying to save lives he is gone so fast that it makes your head spin.

Tweed Roosevelt, a great-grandson of the president for whom the aircraft carrier is named, had this to say about Crozier and the decision to remove him:

In this era when so many seem to place expediency over honor, it is heartening that so many others are showing great courage, some even risking their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, in his time, chose the honorable course. Captain Crozier has done the same.

The contrast between Crozier’s integrity and the complete lack of it in the White House couldn’t be starker or more revealing. The captain put the good of his ship and crew ahead of himself, as all good leaders should. The president has always put advancing his own personal interests ahead of the interests of the country for more than three years, and the results have been as bad as one would expect. While the president dithered and minimized the danger from the virus for months and wasted precious time needed to prepare for the outbreak, the captain acted swiftly and protected his sailors. If we had a president half as conscientious and dutiful as Crozier was as a captain, we would not be in such a dire situation as we are today.

David Ignatius describes the story behind the decision to remove Crozier from command, and he found that the decision has gone over very badly among retired Navy officials:

A half-dozen former top Navy officials said in interviews Saturday that Modly’s intervention was a mistake that they feared would have a chilling effect on commanders and encourage them to suppress bad news that might upset political leaders.

“I think the firing was a really bad decision, because it undermines the authority of the military commanders who are trying to take care of their troops, and significantly negatively impacts the willingness of commanders to speak truth to power,” said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview Saturday.

There appears to be a broad consensus among former officials and retired officers that it shouldn’t have happened, and it is likely to make other commanders unwilling to speak up about poor conditions in the future:

One retired four-star officer said he was worried about “undue command influence” by Modly. The acting secretary had the authority to sack Crozier but in doing so undermined the uniformed officers who normally oversee such personnel decisions. “This is much bigger than the CO of the Theodore Roosevelt,” he said. “We’ve been working for years to make our commanding officers feel free to speak out about problems.” That openness might now be quashed.

That quashing of commanders’ willingness to voice their concerns will probably lead to more avoidable accidents and deteriorating performance, and that will do more damage to readiness than anything that Crozier said in his letter. Ignatius writes that it was the civilian leadership, including the president, that wanted to remove Crozier over the objections of the chief of naval operations:

By Wednesday, Modly told a colleague he was thinking of relieving Crozier and that Trump “wants him fired.” [bold mine-DL] He was advised by several current and former colleagues, reportedly including Gilday, that such a dismissal would be unwise, and that the matter was best left to the military.

The president’s recent comments on Crozier were predictably awful:

To be clear, the president thinks it is terrible that a captain in the U.S. Navy did everything he could to protect the lives of his crew. Given the president’s own lackadaisical and indifferent handling of the pandemic for the last three months, it comes as no surprise that he finds fault with someone who did what he should have been doing all along.

The reaction among the crew to Modly’s decision has naturally been very negative:

Many sailors and their parents were furious when they learned of his dismissal.

“Just can’t tell you how disappointed I am in the United States Navy right now. We got this one wrong,” one sailor said. “We would’ve ran through walls for him. Still would.”

Crozier’s superiors were embarrassed by his letter, but what should truly embarrass them is that they punished an admired, competent commander for doing the right thing in an extraordinary situation.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

COVID-19 outbreak in Iran exposes the twisted aims of Iran hawks. Ryan Costello takes leading Iran hawks to task for their ghoulish opposition to sanctions relief for the Iranian people.

A global pandemic is no time to maintain punishing economic sanctions. Kimberly Ann Elliott calls for sanctions relief for the countries targeted by “maximum pressure” in order to help them combat the spread of the virus.

The war metaphor and the coronavirus. Paul Pillar explains why the war rhetoric about the pandemic is misleading and potentially dangerous.

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The Intense Backlash to Firing Crozier

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley hold a joint press conference at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Oct. 28, 2019. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James K. Lee)

The backlash to the Navy’s punishment of Capt. Crozier has been intense, and some influential members of Congress are denouncing the decision to relieve him of command:

Some Navy veterans were disgusted:

David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel, had this to say:

“What signal does this send to the fleet?” said Lapan. “Relieving that commander under these conditions makes it appear to be retaliation. It makes it appear the Navy is more interesting in not being embarrassed rather than taking care of sailors.”

Especially, he said, when one day earlier Modly was calling for commanders to be honest about what they need.

“It makes it appear that you really don’t want them to be honest.”

Spencer Ackerman reported on the backlash among veterans:

For some post-9/11 veterans, Esper’s position was reminiscent of the disregard they remembered their old leadership displaying toward them. Trump has likened the response to coronavirus to a “war,” and they recognize this kind of war intimately.

“Rummy and Esper seemingly have a direct connection of indifference,” said Joe Kassabian, an Afghanistan war veteran, author and co-host of the Lions Led By Donkeys military podcast. “Like who the fuck are we prepping for war with that makes having a goddamn plague ship at sea a good idea? The captain of that ship clearly was worried about the health and welfare of his crewmates but the military doesn’t give a shit.”

Lapan also ridiculed the idea that the captain’s letter caused a panic among sailors and their families:

“The idea that it got out there and it created panic among families — you don’t think the families didn’t already know what was going on on that ship? You don’t think the sailors weren’t already telling their families what was happening on the ship? That’s ridiculous,” Lapan said.

“It’s more believable that the letter would cause the families to be upset that the Navy wasn’t taking the right steps to protect their loved ones.”

As we saw in reporting on Wednesday, many sailors and their families were thrilled that the captain was willing to stick up for the welfare of the crew despite the obvious political risks for his own career:

The letter also appeared to be a hit aboard the ship, as family members began sharing Tuesday on social media The Chronicle’s article, which included a copy of the correspondence.

The only ones who were panicked by the appearance of the letter were the captain’s superiors, who were being called out for their negligence.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran of the Iraq war still serving in the Army National Guard, suggested that an investigation was needed to get to the bottom of Crozier’s removal:

Crozier’s punishment sends a chilling message to other officers that they shouldn’t rock the boat even when lives are on the line. It shows that the top civilian leadership in the military is more concerned with the appearance of readiness than they are with the real thing. As Kassabian noted in the quote above, what is the value of having an aircraft carrier in service when many sailors are falling ill during a pandemic? The quickest and best way to get the Roosevelt back into normal service would be to address the problem of infected crewmen head on and take care of it instead of allowing it to fester. Crozier was right about that, and because he refused to shut up about it he was removed. Now there are many others speaking out very loudly in his defense, and the Navy and the Trump administration have not heard the last of this.

Update: Here is the joint statement from the members of the House Armed Services Committee:

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Captain Crozier Has Been Relieved of Command

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) is moored pier side at Naval Station North Island (2016) (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jimmi Lee Bruner/Released)

Reuters reports that the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Capt. Brett Crozier, has been relieved of his command following his request to evacuate most of the crew from the ship on account of the coronavirus outbreak spreading there:

The U.S. Navy announced on Thursday it had relieved the commander of the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote a scathing letter that leaked to the public asking Navy leadership for stronger measures to control a coronavirus outbreak onboard.

NBC News also reported on the decision to remove Crozier:

The move is expected to be announced in a briefing by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly Thursday evening. The official reason for Crozier’s relief of duty is a loss of trust and confidence, according to the officials who spoke to NBC News

When the story of the captain’s letter first broke on Tuesday, it was widely assumed that the captain had put his career in jeopardy. Even so, it is a disgrace that he is being penalized for speaking out on behalf of his crew. Relieving Crozier of his command in the same week that he acted to save the lives of the sailors under his command is just about the most dishonorable thing that the Navy could have done.

The official excuse for the decision that the acting Secretary of the Navy gave is not very compelling:

The Navy removed Crozier after becoming increasingly convinced that he was involved in leaking the letter to the media to force the service to address his concerns, a defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Modly said that Crozier showed “poor judgment” by sending the letter by email to a group of 20 or 30 people. He did not directly accuse Crozier of leaking the letter, which was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, but noted that it appeared in Crozier’s hometown newspaper.

I don’t know if the captain was involved in getting the letter to the press, but if he resorted to doing something that extreme I assume it was because his superiors were ignoring his legitimate concerns about the health and safety of the crew. Given the Defense Secretary’s own dismissive comments just this week, that would not be hard to believe. If the captain wasn’t responsible for leaking the letter, the Navy’s punishment is completely unfair. The acting Secretary faults Crozier for not acting “professionally,” but it is not hard to figure out that the real reason for his punishment is that his letter embarrassed the Navy by calling attention to a situation that they were not taking seriously enough.

There has been no accountability for the massive failures that have allowed the pandemic to spread all across the country, but when an officer raises an alarm that saves lives on his ship he is the one that pays a professional price. The only person in the government that has lost his job as a result of the pandemic is a military officer trying to keep his crew alive. In the Trump era, military officers that tell the truth and do the right thing by the people under their command are ridiculed and fired, and the war criminals are given a free pass. Integrity in our officer corps should be a cause for promotion and praise, but under this administration it is met with punishment. Meanwhile, dishonorable and criminal conduct is rewarded by the president. That’s shameful, and it sends a terrible message to the rest of the military and to the country.

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One War at a Time Is More Than Enough

Hal Brands and Evan Braden Montgomery object to the U.S. planning for fighting only one war at a time:

The most obvious risk of a one-war standard is that the United States could confront two or more conflicts at the same time. This is hardly far-fetched given that the United States currently faces at least five potential opponents — China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and several major terrorist organizations — across three separate theaters — Europe, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific — in addition to the possibility that unexpected events or crises, such as a massive chemical weapons attack in Syria, a civil war in Venezuela, or a natural disaster at home or abroad, could require the use of the American military.

The problem that Brands and Montgomery describe here is not a failing of having a one-war standard, but of a grand strategy that tries to make every security threat around the world into a U.S. responsibility. What vital interests does the U.S. have in Syria or Venezuela that would require military action in either of these places? There appear to be none. If one goes looking for excuses to intervene all over the world, it will be difficult to avoid fighting multiple wars at once. If one is more disciplined and focuses only on what matters most for U.S. security, it becomes much easier to avoid fighting in more than one region at a time. Brands and Montgomery even acknowledge the need for discipline later in their essay:

Adapting for an era of great-power competition certainly requires stricter prioritization and the more judicious application of limited resources.

The trouble is that they aren’t really interested in sticking to that discipline. Discipline in this case would imply cutting back on extraneous and outdated commitments, but they don’t want to cut back anywhere.

If the U.S. has so many commitments around the world that a one-war standard is inadequate, that is an argument for reassessing the importance of many these commitments rather than insisting on defending all of them. If the U.S. faces five “potential opponents,” that is because the U.S. has far too expansive and ambitious of a role. To borrow a line from the great Londo Mollari, “Only an idiot fights a war on two fronts. Only the heir to the throne of the kingdom of idiots would fight a war on twelve fronts.” Along the same lines, pursuing a grand strategy that requires the ability to fight a two-front war is idiotic. The U.S. doesn’t have to pursue such a strategy. It can choose to practice restraint, and that will keep the U.S. from becoming ensnared in numerous avoidable wars in regions where we have few or no interests.

The authors continue:

A two-war scenario could occur organically, with two crises escalating to conflicts more or less independently, which happened in 1965 when the United States invaded the Dominican Republic to avert a feared Communist takeover at the same time as it was escalating its involvement in Vietnam. Alternatively, the fact that the United States has a one-war standard could actually make a two-war scenario more likely. If American troops were involved in a major contingency but the United States lacked sufficient reserves to fight other rivals, then revisionist actors might see a window of opportunity to alter the status quo in their favor and jump through it while they had the chance.

The examples they cite here make my point for me. They cite two separate unnecessary U.S. military interventions that Washington chose to launch at around the same time. In this example, the U.S. was not being forced to fight in two different places by opportunistic adversaries, but chose to use force when it didn’t have to. The authors’ objections to a one-war standard could just as easily be applied to the standard they are defending. If the U.S. found itself bogged down in two large wars simultaneously, that would also offer a “window of opportunity” if other governments wanted to take advantage. Preserving a two-war standard is mostly just an excuse for maintaining a much larger military budget than the U.S. actually needs to defend itself.

The two-war standard that Brands and Montgomery are defending is a relic of the so-called “unipolar moment” when there was no near-peer competitor that the U.S. had to worry about. Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, that is no longer the case. The old standard is a product of planning from the 1990s that applied to a world that no longer exists. Besides, the two-war standard has been something of a myth in the decades that followed. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved as much. Walter Pincus commented on this back in 2012:

But the suggestion that the country was ever braced for two wars at once was shattered over the past decade, beginning in 2001, when the George W. Bush administration had to establish a supplemental budget to pay first for Afghanistan and later for Iraq. A decade later, spending for “overseas contingency operations” in fiscal 2012 totaled $115 billion above the $525 billion allocated for the core Defense Department budget.

The military also didn’t have a big enough force for two wars. Beginning with the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had not only to increase the size of the existing active-duty force but make extensive use the National Guard and Reserves.

Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Pentagon official under Ronald Reagan, said: “The debate of the number of wars is not inherently ridiculous but it comes close.”

“We entered Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003,” Cordesman said, “and became engaged in long land-air wars that required so many resources that we could not provide the ground forces to fight in both conflicts at the same time, and had to starve Afghanistan of resources to surge in Iraq.”

The U.S. won’t always have the luxury of waging long wars of choice for the sake of peripheral interests, and it needs to start adapting to that new world. That will involve reducing U.S. commitments in some parts of the world, and it will mean working towards normalizing relations with the pariah states that the U.S. doesn’t have to keep as adversaries. Being able to fight one war at a time is more than enough, and that is one reason why we need to make major changes to our foreign policy to make sure that the U.S. doesn’t have more commitments than it can handle.

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