DAVID IGNATIUS: Mullen retires with clear perspective, clear conscience

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – Talking to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his final week in the job, I found myself wondering if we are entering a “post-military” age, when our top officers understand that the biggest problems can’t be solved with military power.
Time and again, versions of this theme surfaced in my conversation with Mullen. He has been, by widespread assessment, a very effective chairman who restored the position to prominence in national security decision-making. But the problems he’s leaving unresolved lie at the periphery of the military space, where conventional weapons can’t reach. Military officers are by nature problem-solvers who like to fix things, or shoot them or get around them some other way. So what brings a smile to Mullen’s face, right off, is the feat of sheer military prowess in the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Mullen remembers the mess that was Desert One in 1979 – helicopters that didn’t work, aircraft that crashed, shortage of parts, bad training.
In the Abbottabad raid, it was obvious this problem of competence is largely fixed. Every night, U.S. Special Operations Forces conduct missions almost as complicated as the bin Laden assault. Mullen describes today’s military machine as fearsomely efficient, “a combat-hardened, combat-experienced, extraordinarily professional, competent, all-volunteer force.”
But what are the deeper, intractable problems facing Mullen’s generation of officers? They are about culture and governance and the subtle psychological factors that keep people from doing what’s in their interest.
The biggest frustration of Mullen’s four years as chairman was surely Pakistan. He decided early on to forge a personal relationship with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the chief of army staff, in the hope that it might be a solid bridge between the two countries.
Increasingly, it became clear to Mullen that Pakistan’s problems were embedded in the economic, political and cultural fabric of the country. They’re on “a declining glide slope,” Mullen explains, and this isn’t something America can fix.
Yet hope springs eternal in the military heart. I ask Mullen if Pakistan “blew it,” but the admiral insists the story isn’t over. And then there’s Afghanistan. Mullen insists that this isn’t just an expensive stalemate, that “the trends are good” and “it has moved in the right direction.” But he knows, too, that the definition of success is to transfer responsibility to an Afghan government enfeebled by problems of governance and corruption. In that sense, all the brilliance of the American military won’t be enough – not when the definition of victory is so interwoven with politics and culture.
What troubles Mullen is that this magnificent professional force has become a separate tribe in America, too little connected to the rest of the country: “They don’t know the depth and the breadth of what we have been through, the numbers of deployments, the stress on the force, the suicide issues, the extraordinary performance.” What America needs, he says finally, is the same requirement that makes the military work, which is “accountability for outcomes.” A political system that works – whether it’s in Islamabad or Kabul or Washington – is one that takes responsibility for solving the problems that do not yield to force of arms.
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius(at)washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.