TAKING THE FALL?
JULY 31, 1997
Moves against an Air Force general for what happened in a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia may have caused more than just his downfall. After a background report by Charles Krause, a panel discussion.
JIM LEHRER: More now from Thomas Ricks, Pentagon correspondent for the "Wall Street Journal." Welcome. Is it the feeling that Sec. Cohen had no choice but to punish Gen. Schwalier, was this a difficult decision?
THOMAS RICKS, Wall Street Journal: I think he, himself, said it was a very difficult decision. The Air Force certainly thought he had a choice, and that's I think what made it so difficult is there was a long argument over the course of almost a year about exactly what sort of punishment needed to be meted out here.
JIM LEHRER: Because the Downing report came out a year ago and it said there should be punishment, but inside the Air Force Gen. Fogleman, who was the chief of staff, and others were saying no. What was their argument for "not" punishing Gen. Schwalier?
THOMAS RICKS: It's a strong argument. They said that the field commander had done all he could reasonably do from their perspective, based upon their own two inquiries. Given that, they said, to go ahead and punish him would be to second guess the tactical decisions made by a field commander.
And this is something they'd all come out of Vietnam as junior officers, vowing they would not do, the second guess the decisions made in the field. And they were very worried about the message this would send to future commanders in the field. In many ways this was an argument about future--what sort of message will we send by doing this?
JIM LEHRER: And so let's contrast the messages. One argument that Gen. Shalikashvili said, one message we want to send is we don't circle our wagons here. In other words, generals don't protect other generals. And the other argument was, wait a minute, you've got to give an independent--you've got to give a commander in the field on the ground some independence to make a decision and then leave him alone, right?
THOMAS RICKS: Exactly. And that's what makes it so tough.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. All right. Now, Fogleman, he--he felt so strongly about his that he retired early in a very public way. Why did he feel so strongly about it--I mean, other than what you just said--was there something personal? Did he have something involved in this as well?
THOMAS RICKS: I think there was a sense of accountability. He had made his name as the chief of staff, as the general who wanted--the chief, who wanted to ensure accountability. But he saw accountability as having two sides on one coin. If somebody does something wrong, you fire that general.
And he had fired several Air Force generals, going back to the Ron Brown crash and several other incidents. But he felt if he has not done something wrong, then you must support him; you must show loyalty downward. And he felt strongly that he'd given his best military advice; his judgment had been overruled; hence, he was no longer needed.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Now this has been a tough time for the Air Force, Tom.
THOMAS RICKS: I'll say.
JIM LEHRER: We've had the Kelly Flinn case. There was the General Ralston, who was vice chairman of the Chief of Staff--of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--was supposed to get the number one job, and adultery problems arose; he didn't get it. Now, this. Is there something wrong with the Air Force, or this is something--something systemically wrong?
THOMAS RICKS: And reaching back even further, this is the second time in recent years that the Air Force chief has basically come to a direct clash with the Secretary of Defense. Don't forget that Sec. Cheney fired Michael Dugan back just before the Gulf War.
JIM LEHRER: That's right. For insubordination. Refresh our memory on that.
THOMAS RICKS: Cheney apparently felt that Gen. Dugan had inappropriately discussed the U.S. air strategy if it came to a war.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
THOMAS RICKS: It's striking, though, that the Air Force has lost the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs.
JIM LEHRER: It was kind of their turn, wasn't it?
THOMAS RICKS: Not having had it for years.
JIM LEHRER: It was kind of their turn, wasn't it?
THOMAS RICKS: They kind of thought so. And it's been about 15 years. They've lost that. They've had two of the last three chiefs basically butt heads up against the Secretary of Defense, and they feel they have a Secretary of Defense now who really is not an air power fan, who is a big fan of the Navy and the Marines, understands it, does not understand air power, in their view, and this just kind of confirms it all.
JIM LEHRER: So what is--is there any way to predict what the fallout from this particular thing is, how does it fit into this, and what the fallout is going to be for the Air Force?
THOMAS RICKS: In the short-term it's going to be interesting to see the narrow Pentagon politics. There have been rumors all week that at least one more Air Force general will resign. I don't know. It struck me today that Sec. Cohen tried to reach out and say these are good men and let's kind of end this fight right now. So in the short-term it'll be interesting to see just how many resignations we do have. In the long-term, the question is going to be what kind of message has been sent to field commanders.
JIM LEHRER: Not just in the Air Force but in all, all the services.
THOMAS RICKS: Really, across the board. Are they going to be so concerned with force protection and avoiding casualties that they become what one officer I know calls a self-licking ice cream cone, where they go out and basically all they do is protect themselves?
JIM LEHRER: Don't do anything, except protect themselves.
THOMAS RICKS: Exactly. What kind of message does this send to the troops in Bosnia, to the commanders in Bosnia?
JIM LEHRER: Well, that was already raised in Bosnia, remember, that they were so busy protecting themselves, they weren't doing anything?
THOMAS RICKS: At a time when they're being forced to take more risk, at a time when they're being told to go out and capture a few war criminals, is the message also, yes, but if you lose anybody, lose any of your soldiers, your career is going to be over; you're going to be publicly pilloried and maybe, as Gen. Schwalier was, hung out to dry for about 11 months.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. All right, now, Gen. Ryan, he's the new Air Force chief of staff, appointed today, or nominated today to replace Gen. Fogleman. How does he fit into all this? What's he been up to?
THOMAS RICKS: He's been happily running the Air Force in Europe, and I'm sure quite happy. The Pentagon is not a fun place for senior officers right now. Nobody signed up to fight the gender wars. That is not what they became officers for. Nobody signed up to salami-slice the military every couple of years, as you've had now three times. It has not been a fun tour, and I think--
JIM LEHRER: You mean, cutting down the size, right?
THOMAS RICKS: Yes. Cutting down. You go through the Bush bottom up review, the Clinton review, and then the latest one they're calling generally a defense review. They're not a bunch of happy campers over there right now. So I think General Ryan is probably feeling like he's going to do one of the--for the service here and not for himself by becoming chief.
What's interesting about General Ryan is that he presided over the air campaign in Bosnia, that brief air campaign against the Bosnian Serbs, in August and September of ‘95, that was very efficient, very precise, and had absolutely no collateral damage, no--
JIM LEHRER: It worked too, didn't it?
THOMAS RICKS: It worked, and it brought the Bosnian Serbs to the Dayton Accord. Very unpublicized by the Air Force but a fascinating use of gunboat diplomacy from the air.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. It's also interesting General Ryan's father also had this job, was it ‘69 to ‘73?
THOMAS RICKS: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: So he knows what he's getting himself in for as well?
THOMAS RICKS: Except I think this is not his father's Air Force. It's interesting to see that General Ryan is a little bit like General Shelton, the nominee to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and that both are familiar with the post Cold War uses of force, the use of force for political ends peacefully invading Haiti, or using a few bombs to bring the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table. This is not the military of conquest; this is the military of deterring aggression and compelling a diplomatic agreement.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. What is Ryan's reputation within the Air Force?
THOMAS RICKS: Well liked, sober, calm, quiet. I haven't heard a lot of funny stories about him, which is--I've heard some funny stories about other officers, so he must be very quiet out there.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, Tom Ricks, thank you very much.
THOMAS RICKS: Thank you.