THE commander in chief of the US Southern Command in Panama, Gen. Frederick F. Woerner Jr., is being forced to retire because he made a speech in February warning that a vacuum in United States policy for Latin America was a dangerous thing. So state press reports to which the Department of Defense offers no strong denial. Such vacuums exist in other areas of US foreign policy. The Bush administration has been roundly criticized in the press and in Congress for having waited months for completion of an intra-governmental strategic review before initiating effective action anywhere. It's hard to believe that anyone as familiar with the bureaucracy as George Bush would have expected meaningful results from such a review. Indeed, there were none.
Very few people in the US government know Latin America as well as General Woerner. Over a period of 21 years, prior to being posted to Panama in 1987, he earned a master's degree in Latin American history, served tours of duty in Columbia, Guatemala, and Uruguay, and spent four years as the Latin America specialist on the faculty of the Army War College.
His extensive experience taught him to be careful of how the US uses its military power. That did not sit well with people in and out of Congress who, quite understandably, want to bash Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and his thugs. But as Woerner's speech indicates, it also produced great impatience with the failure of US officials to comprehend and address the vast problems of Latin America in a timely manner.
Woerner also served as an adviser to South Vietnamese forces and as a US battalion commander in Vietnam. He is of the generation of Army officers who are haunted by the memory of what transpired when the senior US military leadership failed to make known to the public that it had warned the President and the Secretary of Defense that it would take 800,000 men - almost twice the maximum force committed - at least 10 years to accomplish the stated US goals in Southeast Asia.
Shortly after he took office, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney publicly chastised Air Force Chief of Staff Larry Welch for dealing directly with Congress to achieve a compromise over deployment of strategic missiles. With the Woerner dismissal, Mr. Cheney has once again thrown down the marker to the generals.
How, then, is the clash between professional integrity and civilian control of the military to be resolved?
``I had thought,'' says an Army colonel now serving at West Point, ``that one of the great lessons of the Vietnam war was that the American people expected their generals to be ... professionally involved, even outspoken, in the process by which national security policy is made.''
There is a law that requires the senior military leadership to respond to questions from Congress. Less clear-cut is the opportunity for the senior leadership to address strategic and policy issues in the professional military journals.
So far, Cheney has not been charged with muzzling the generals and admirals in appearances before Congress. What instructions he has given to his board of censors remains to be seen.
There remains the avenue that many generals and admirals feel the Vietnam-era military leadership should have taken - resignation, accompanied by an explicit public statement of warning that the targeted policy or strategy could end in disaster.
President Lyndon Johnson could have shrugged off one batch of resignations. But threatened with a second set of resignations, he could not have avoided changing the course of the Vietnam war.
A clear set of rules will never emerge. It seems a safe bet, however, that with the sight of those 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial ever before their eyes, Americans expect to be warned before they are led unknowingly into another such disaster.