Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Harding discussed his experiences as Judge Advocate General during the annual Cherry-Price Lecture on Monday at Westminster College.
He also offered his thoughts on the traits leaders need.
Harding played an integral role in the decisions made at the highest level on Sept. 11, 2001 — the day the United States was attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists.
On that day, the military and Bush administration initially believed as many as 10 airplanes had been hijacked. One of the airplanes, United Flight 93, was being tracked after planes had already been flown into both of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
Vice President Dick Cheney had given an order to "take it down," Harding said, rather than be used as a weapon at yet another target. Although passengers famously fought back against the hijackers, for three days Harding and his staff thought it had been shot down by Air Force fighters scrambling to intercept the plane.
As Harding noted, 9/11 was a day without precedent, and as the Air Force's top attorney, he was asked if taking the plane down was legal. Much of his support team had been evacuated from the Pentagon and other high priority sites thought to be targeted, so he was essentially alone in making his decision.
Harding's first lesson in leadership: "Sometimes, all you have is what you brought." Sometimes difficult decisions must be made — with little to no time — and the only assets you have are the experiences and knowledge you have accumulated up to that point.
Harding dedicated a great deal of his lecture to discussing the "Global War on Terror," the George W. Bush administration's counterterrorism efforts in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11. He noted when the United States declares "metaphorical wars," there is no way to win them. Wars on poverty, crime and drugs — and terror — are destined to fail. Without a clear mission, success is rarely possible, he said.
On the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan, Harding posits there has been a long-term "perfect storm of apathy" that prevents the war from being won, or from ending. Presidents, regardless of party, do not want to end the war for fear of being perceived as weak. Congress has repeatedly failed to re-examine the war, Harding added. And the public, with a draft to bring the war to them, find it too easy to send others to fight. Yet, the elected leaders also have failed to plan for success.
Harding said, to pacify the battlefields and build the institutions necessary to democratize, the United States may need to send 100,000 troops for a decade or more. No one has the political will to plan for this success, nor to admit error and end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, he added.
Harding also discussed the legality of the United States' targeted killing program, in particular the Obama administration's decision to place Anwar al-Awalki, an American citizen and Muslim cleric responsible for inciting several terrorist attacks, on the so called "kill list." His father argued to U.S. courts that al-Awalki was denied due process of law.
Six weeks later, his son was killed in a "signature strike," a controversial type of strike in which the U.S. government believes that observed patterns of behavior are enough evidence to kill suspected terrorists.
Harding concluded by explaining the United States used to be the global leader and protector of human rights. He suggested throughout its legally and morally questionable actions in the pursuing the Global War on Terror, the world has been watching.
This is important, he said, because when the world views the United States extra-judicial killing of its own citizens, there should be little surprise when other countries learn this lesson. He said this has perhaps led to the Russians' and Saudis' recent high-profile killings of their citizens.
Quoting President Ronald Reagan, Harding noted the United States has long been a "shining city on a hill," an exemplar for the world about what is possible when we fight to end evil. But, he added, ending evil best accomplished when we follow our moral compass.
"We win when we fight with our values," he said.
Harding said this is perhaps the most important lesson a leader can learn. Difficult decisions must be made, but when America brings trusted and established values to those moments, it will bring the best outcome, he added.