Al Qaeda won a major battle in the war on terrorism recently. Not on the battlefield but in Washington, where politicians often squander the hard-earned victories of U.S. forces. The defeat received only cursory attention from the media, which is surprising given its appetite for second-guessing any administration once U.S. troops are committed abroad.
The “defeat” stems from the sudden resignation of Army General (ret.) Wayne A. Downing as President Bush’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Counter-terrorism. Downing brought years of experience fighting terrorism and a reputation for candor with him when he joined the administration after the September 11 tragedy. His replacement, Air Force General (ret.) John Gordon, comes out of the strategic missile forces, lacks hands-on experience in fighting terrorism, and is a “political general.”
Downing rose through the ranks to become the commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCCOM); he served two combat tours in Vietnam and ran special operations during the Gulf War. Downing was highly respected by his men at SOCCOM; young officers enthusiastically recounted Downing jumping out of airplanes with them or joining their morning runs. After his retirement, he ran an assessment of command mistakes prior to the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. Downing’s report blew the lid off the Air Force’s coverup of the failure of the local commander to heed intelligence warnings and beef up security for his men. Nineteen Air Force enlisted men were killed in that attack.
When he came to the White House, the press reported that Downing would “break some china” pushing his initiatives to win the war on terrorism. At the White House announcement of his appointment, Downing said that Americans needed to understand that this war is “going to be a long fight.” So why did he suddenly resign? Bush administration spokesmen claim that the general had completed his assignments and was returning to private life. That explanation rings hollow. Are we so well along in defeating terrorism that the President could dispense with Downing’s advice and assistance? If so, why does the administration regularly warn the American public of ever more insidious domestic terrorist threats? We have vanquished the Taliban, but if media reports are to be believed al Qaeda is regrouping in Pakistan and elsewhere readying more terrorist attacks on America.
The more likely reason for Downing to leave was his frustration with the White House and President Bush’s national security apparatus. The New York Times cited a number of reasons for his departure, including the administration’s unwillingness to follow his plan for disposing of Saddam Hussein. The Times reported that he was particularly disgusted with the “begrudging response” from the FBI to his request for intelligence support and with CIA’s resistance to some of his counter-terrorism initiatives. Obviously, Downing is not a “yes man” and likely became increasingly marginalized by political operators at the CIA, the FBI and in the White House.
General John A. Gordon will present no such challenge to authority. Gordon earned his stars in a series of political jobs inside the Beltway during the first Bush and then Clinton administration. He is an arms control expert, but his last military position was as George Tenet’s CIA Deputy. Gordon’s CIA role was to provide intelligence support to Sandy Berger, Clinton’s National Security Advisor. Tenet once said of Gordon, “Berger likes him, Gordon tells them what they want to hear.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
But it gets worse. Gordon retired to become the first chief of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, set up in the aftermath of the Department’s nuclear espionage scandals. Gordon’s tenure at Energy did little to improve Energy’s security posture; in fact, he became part of the problem with his defense of the status quo. Recently, one of his Air Force colleagues, a retired major general, resigned in disgust from Gordon’s administration. He wrote a scathing e-mail, circulated within the department, criticizing Gordon for his indecisiveness and refusal to make needed reforms. The reforms were bitterly opposed by the labs and their sponsors on Capitol Hill and Gordon apparently had no appetite for rocking the boat.
Historian Eliot A. Cohen has recently published a book entitled Strategic Command, which describes how four great statesmen selected and managed their wartime generals and cabinets. He writes, “It is an easy thing for a politician to find docile, second-rate subordinates who will serve him loyally; it is a far more impressive achievement to mold fractious, ambitious, even disloyal but first-rate subordinates into a winning team.” Will someone please send Cohen’s book to President Bush…quickly.