The recent military episodes illustrate how even the military’s most seasoned four-star field commanders can fail to consider the broader political or strategic ramifications of their operational decisions.
WASHINGTON — When Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the military’s top commander in the Pacific, ordered the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson “to sail north” from Singapore this month, he was oblivious to the larger — and incorrect — impression that he was rushing a naval strike force to confront an increasingly belligerent North Korea.
Four days later, when Gen. John Nicholson Jr. dropped the most powerful conventional weapon in the U.S. arsenal on Islamic State group fighters in a tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan, he not only seized headlines around the world but also unintentionally signaled to dictators in Syria and North Korea that they might be the next target of what the Defense Department called the “mother of all bombs.”
Instead of simply achieving tactical objectives, the timing of their actions surprised their bosses at the Pentagon, upset edgy allies and caught the Trump administration flat-footed. Taken together, the episodes illustrate how even the military’s most seasoned four-star field commanders can fail to consider the broader political or strategic ramifications of their operational decisions, and it prompted some current and former senior officials to suggest that President Donald Trump’s decision to unshackle the military from Obama-era constraints to intensify the fight against terrorists risked even more miscues ahead.
“There are lots of decisions that military commanders make every day on their own without asking ‘Mother, may I?’” said Robert Scher, a former senior Pentagon official. “But they have to realize and take into account that their actions can have strategic impact outside of their areas of responsibility.”
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U.S. officials said Thursday that Nicholson did not request permission from Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before dropping the giant bomb, a GBU-43B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or MOAB.
It does not appear the administration was aware of the location of the carrier group when the press secretary, Sean Spicer, or the national-security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, made their public comments about it. White House officials said both men were relying on talking points supplied by the Pentagon.
Nicholson already had the necessary authority to bomb the tunnel complex and also had it during the Obama administration, U.S. officials said.
But current and former Defense Department officials said that it was likely that if President Barack Obama were still in office, Nicholson would have checked with his bosses before calling in what is the country’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb because the Obama White House…