Retired General Discusses Leadership at Cherry Price Lecture on Campus

by Dr. Tobias T. Gibson

Retired United States Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Harding delivered the annual Cherry-Price Lecture at Westminster College on Monday evening, Nov. 26, in the  Coulter Lecture Hall.  Harding discussed his experiences as the Judge Advocate General of the Air Force, and offered his thoughts on the traits that leaders need.

Harding played an integral role in the decisions made at the highest level on September 11, 2001—the day that the United States was attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists. On that day, the military and the Bush administration believed that as many as ten airplanes had been hijacked. One of the airplanes, United Flight 93, was being tracked after 26 planes had already been flown into both of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. According to Harding, Vice President Dick Cheney had given an order to “take it down” rather than be used as a weapon at yet another target. Though passengers famously fought back against the hijackers, for three days Harding and his staff thought it had been shot down by Air Force fighters that had scrambled 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 is that “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 that you have accumulated to that point.

Harding dedicated a great deal of his lecture discussing the Global War on Terror, the George W. Bush administration’s counterterrorism efforts in the wake of the attacks on September 11. He noted that 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.

On the seventeen year war in Afghanistan, Harding posits that there has been a long term “perfect storm of apathy” which 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 reexamine the war. 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. According to Harding, 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. Yet, no one has the political will to plan for this success, nor to admit error and end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

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.” Although his father, argued to U.S. courts that his son was denied due process of law, al-Awalki was killed in a drone strike in 2011. 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 with his belief that the United States used to be the global leader and protector of human rights. He suggested that through its legally and morally questionable actions in the pursuing of the Global War on Terror, the world has been watching. This is important, 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. This has led, perhaps, to the Russians and Saudis recent high profile killing of their citizens.

Quoting President Reagan, Harding notes that 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, Harding notes that ending evil best accomplished when we follow our moral compass. “We win when we fight with our values.”

This is perhaps the most important lesson that a leader can learn. Difficult decisions must be made, but when we bring trusted and established values to those moments, it will bring the best outcome. 

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