Threat to the Republic
By: Melvin A. Goodman | June 28, 2010
The New York Times' David Brooks minimized General Stanley
McChrystal's remarks in Rolling Stone magazine as "kvetching."
For the Times' Maureen Dowd, McChrystal and his "smart-aleck
aides" were merely engaging in "towel-snapping"
jocularity. The Washington Post editorial board noted that
Afghan President Hamid Karzai called McChrystal the "best
commander of the war," and concluded that the general
should be retained as the Afghan commander. The Post and
Times' editorial boards have called for the replacement
of President Obama's key civilian advisors on Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, these papers and many others have downplayed
the critical issue that dominates this sad affair - the
fundamental importance of civilian supremacy in military
policy and decision-making.
There is no more important task in political governance
than making sure that civilian control of the military is
not compromised and that the military remains subordinate
to political authority. Unfortunately, President Obama has
demonstrated too much deference to the military, retaining
the Bush administration's secretary of defense as his own;
appointing too many retired and active-duty general officers
to such key civilian positions as national security adviser
and intelligence tsar; and making the Pentagon's budget
sacrosanct in an age of restraint.
The reappointment of General David Patraeus as commander
of forces in Afghanistan places the general on an extremely
high political plateau that makes it more difficult to discuss
alternatives to the failed counter-insurgency strategy,
and places too much influence in the hands of the Pentagon
on decisions involving war and peace. President Obama recognized
the McChrystal affair as a challenge to civilian control
and leadership, but the appointment of Petraeus enhances
the political power of the military and could become an
obstacle to the president's exercise of civilian control
in the near term. Too many influence people view Petraeus
as the answer to our Afghan problems; he isn't.
The imbalance in civilian-military influence is far more
threatening to the interests of the United States than any
developments in Afghanistan. President Nixon's ending of
the draft has created a professional military, which has
fostered the very cultural behavior that General McChrystal
demonstrated in his contempt for civilian leadership. The
Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 created regional commanders-in-chief
(CINCs) who expanded the martial reach of the United States
in the post-Cold War world; these CINCs have become more
influential than U.S. ambassadors and assistant secretaries
of state in sensitive Third World areas. The Act created
a powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, during
Desert Storm in 1991, the chairman often ignored the secretary
of defense and personally briefed war plans to the president.
It is noteworthy that the Act passed the Senate without
one vote of opposition.
The contemptuous remarks of McChrystal and his aides are
very familiar to anyone who has spent a great deal of time
around senior military officers, particularly special operations
officers. Upon arrival at the National War College in 1986
to join the faculty after a 20-year career at the Central
Intelligence Agency, I assumed that the major threats to
U.S. security emanated from the Soviet Union, China, and
various Third World trouble spots. I soon learned that the
typical U.S. military officer believed the major threats
to U.S. security were the media, the Congress, and liberal
Democrats. Since the end of the draft, the officer corps
has become increasingly conservative and libertarian, and
it is a rare officer who votes as a Democrat. In the 1970s,
more than half of all senior officers considered themselves
independents; currently, the overwhelming majority of senior
officers are registered Republicans, and there are very
few registered Democrats.
Special operations officers are even more conservative
than their traditional brethren, and it is noteworthy that
the nickname for all commanders of the Joint Special Operations
Command, like McChrystal, is "The Pope." Ironically,
McChrystal is a registered Democrat, a social liberal, and
an Obama supporter in the 2008 election.
Key congressional figures and influential journalists are
already calling for the resignation of the president's representative
in Afghanistan, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who provided
the White House with two important cables in November 2009
warning against any additional military deployments to Afghanistan.
Eikenberry's advice was lapidary: he warned that Karzai
was not an "adequate strategic partner" and that
his government lacked the "political will or capacity
to carry out basic tasks of governance;" he said that
we have "overestimated the ability of Afghan security
forces to take over by 2013...and underestimated how long
it will take to restore or establish civilian government;"
and he argued that "more troops won't end the insurgency
as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain...and Pakistan views
its strategic interests as best served by a weak neighbor."
He bluntly argued against a premature decision regarding
a troop increase, favoring "alternatives beyond strictly
military counterinsurgency efforts within Afghanistan."
Eight months later, the situation in Afghanistan has worsened,
and Eikenberry's diagnosis has become more prescient. Even
McChrystal has said that there's no way we can kill our
way out of Afghanistan. And there is no way that U.S. forces
will be able to build a civilian government in Afghanistan
and then mediate between the government and the Afghan people,
objectives that are central to the Petraeus-McChrystal counter-insurgency
It is time for President Obama to remind the Pentagon that
decisions regarding national security must be made by civilian
officials and that the service academies and the war colleges
must stress the central importance of civilian control.
During my 18 years at the National War College, various
commandants steadily cut back the number of hours devoted
to the U.S. political process, and made it more difficult
to introduce contrarian lecturers who understood the importance
of disagreement and diversity of perspective. The military
culture may require an authoritarian and hierarchical structure,
but it must understand the importance and sanctity of the
egalitarian and individualistic values of U.S. democracy.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower's profound and prophetic
Farewell Address in 1961 warned against the excesses of
the military-industrial complex, and he also expressed the
hope that his successors at the White House understood the
demands of the military and the necessity for limiting and
restraining those demands. Unfortunately, our most recent
presidents in the wake of the end of the Cold War have not
been willing to limit the influence of the military and
have placed too much power in the hands of the Pentagon.
President Obama must take note.
© 2010 truthout