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Reclaiming Civilian Control: How to Keep Generals as Warriors, Not Politicians

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout) Sometimes history and circumstances offer us solutions to centuries-old problems and tensions within our long-lasting government. Even though we feel like a young nation

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Sometimes history and circumstances offer us solutions to centuries-old problems and tensions within our long-lasting government. Even though we feel like a young nation, our Constitution is one of the oldest in history. One of the most original parts of our Constitution is that we made the president the chief of the executive branch, commander of chief of the military. Ultimate civilian control over the military has the goal of keeping the military from running the government, taking control through a coup or pushing us into wars that should not be fought.

Even so, our history is replete with generals working to push presidents into troop commitments and money that, in hindsight, could have been disastrous for the country. In this day of instant media and numerous outlets, it is much easier for the commanding generals to push back politically through selective secret leaks of documents. These leaks are fashioned to make a president look “weak on defense” and force their hand politically to make the commitment to war or to increase the troops and money for the war. It often works and the president weakens his own political power to control the Pentagon. One only has to revisit President Lyndon Johnson’s acquiescence to the military to escalate the war in Vietnam and the destruction of his presidency after embracing that losing proposition that took over 50,000 lives. (Johnson did fire warmongering Gen. Curtis LeMay, but continued to listen to other generals to escalate the war.)

A few presidents in history have pushed back on the military and gone as far as relieving a commanding general of his duty. Ironically, at the time, many were seen as new and weak presidents, and their dramatic pushes to assert control over the military surprised the military brass. In recent history, these generals have been nailed for leaking counter information to the press, often because they perceive that the president was weak and would be forced to go along with their military plans once they were made public.

These factions of generals who have pushed the envelope to manipulate presidents into war are also usually larger-than-life personalities (think Gen. Douglas MacArthur) who have visions of grandeur of their mission in the world. The most recent story of President Obama’s firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal is the subject of a new book by Rolling Stone’s reporter Michael Hastings called “The Operators: the Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.” In a peak of confidence and arrogance, General McChrystal’s aides allowed Hastings to have on-the-record and unfettered access to McChrystal during crucial decision points in the Afghanistan war. They also let him party with them and, while well lubricated with booze, let him know what they really thought about their civilian bosses from Richard Holbrooke of the State Department; Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan; Vice President Joe Biden; and President Obama himself.

When Hastings’ story appeared in Rolling Stone, McChrystal had already leaked reports to get his way for a troop surge in Afghanistan, setting the stage for Obama to relieve him from duty within days after the article appeared.

I remember those earlier leaks from McChrystal and others early into the Obama administration while it was clear that major troops decisions were being made in this war. I also remember feeling uneasy about these generals using back-door leaks to politically manipulate this new president into a corner to do their bidding and send in more troops into a dubious military situation. According to Hastings book, McChrystal and others thought Obama was weak and unschooled in foreign policy so they could pressure him in the press through leaks and get what they wanted. At first, Obama seemed to be going along with the gag, but then they pushed too far.

President John Kennedy was also seen as a young president who could be pushed around by the military when he came into office. He was seen as a rich kid whose “appeasement” former ambassador father bought him the election. One of his very first tasks of his presidency was to execute the “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba that had been planned by the previous administration. The top military brass insisted that it was all planned and pushed the new president into approving it. According to Chris Matthew’s new book on Kennedy, “Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero,” Kennedy realized his mistake in the middle of the mess:

To his credit, Kennedy kept disaster from becoming calamity. He decided at the most critical moment to cut his losses, refusing to send in U.S. forces and that may have been the crucial decision of the entire episode. He took charge – far too late, admittedly – but with executive firmness …

The American people decided they liked the fact that Kennedy, whatever his failings heading into the disastrous mission, had acquitted himself as the true commander in chief at its conclusion. The record shows that he gained his highest job approval rating – scoring 83 percent in a Gallup pool – in the weeks thereafter.

This unfortunate foreign policy debacle helped set the stage for Kennedy to overrule the aggressive generals, especially Gen. Curtis LeMay, from going over the brinkmanship of war in the Cuban missile crisis. LeMay and many of the civilian advisers who went along with him tried to manipulate Kennedy to do an airstrike against those Cuban missiles, an act that could have started a nuclear war.

Matthews wrote that this was a crucial decision to be made by a civilian commander in chief:

Here was a perfect affirmation of the Founding Fathers’ reasoning, which had led them to place ultimate constitutional authority in the hands of the person elected by the American people. As French statesman George Clemenceau more recently had observed, “War is far too important to be left to the generals.” Thus, even after hearing the expert arguments, Kennedy rejected the air-attack option, ordering instead a blockade on all offensive weapons headed to Cuba, a suggestion earlier made by Dean Rusk.

Kennedy didn’t relieve any general from his command, but by his civilian actions and his stern pushback on them in meetings, he let the generals know that there was real civilian control over the military. He prevailed despite their attempts to manipulate the system not from a military view, but from a political view.

From accounts in Hastings’ book and other news accounts, the top generals didn’t have much respect for Obama when he first came into office. What probably made that situation worse was that they were so used to President George W. Bush’s rubber stamp of what they wanted in the war, once the war started. (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushed back hard and severely before the Iraq war when some generals were concerned that we didn’t have enough troops and no exit strategy. But once we were in the war, Bush claimed that he was going to listen to the generals on the ground.)

In the end, the generals underestimated Obama’s civilian resolve, which was hardened like Kennedy’s when he saw that they were trying to undercut and go around his authority. Jonathan Alter’s book, “The Promise,” illustrates Obama’s first round of attempted hazing by the military brass. Hastings describes in his book the contempt that the top generals had when Obama said that he was going to honor the troop withdrawal agreement with Iraq and have troops leave at the end of 2011. (There is plenty of controversy surrounding the State Department’s 5,000-person army of hired mercenaries, but they are small compared to the troops that Obama pulled out.) The generals and some hawks in the administration leaked like crazy to the press that this was a “soft” date and insisted on the caveat that it depended on the old phrase of “the situation on the ground,” as the date neared.

But Obama prevailed despite the leaks, most likely helped by his firing of McChrystal and overruling his generals on the Bin Laden raid by insisting that there were backup helicopters.

Part of this story is how these presidents and other presidents stuck to the Constitution and insisted that the generals were there to lay out military options, and not tolerate the generals inserting themselves into the politics and foreign policy part of the system. As I have mentioned in the past, one of the ways that these top generals curry favor in the press and the public is by sticking like glue to the “troops” so that any criticism of them is considered an attack on the troops. Knowing the military as I do, I am sure that some of the top brass are infuriated that Obama and his wife are seen as big supporters of the troops, their families, their well-being and mental health while going so far as to fire generals for leaking to the press.

But the other part of this story is the concern that I have that these generals continue to try to take advantage of a new president, or any president, manipulate the facts to their liking, and when that doesn’t succeed, leak to the press. Political leaking is sport in Washington among politicians in all branches, but it becomes a dangerous game when the generals assert themselves into what should be a uniquely civilian political game. I have seen this leaking to save unworkable weapon systems and to manipulate civilian and political decisions on war. The generals have used their lofty positions to protect themselves from attack from Congress and play upon their special position with the public. While these generals bureaucratically mess up the same as other bureaucrats running departments in the federal government, they use their rank to warn members of Congress from sternly questioning them in public.

As a person who has helped military and other whistleblowers for years, I am not against members of the military speaking up or even leaking information about bad acts going on in wars or in the Pentagon. Right now, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis is speaking out about the lack of candor on how the Iraq war is going. The military so far has restrained from direct retaliation for him speaking to the Congress and the public, but he has realistically stated, “I’m going to get nuked,” to a reporter last month. I myself have even advised lower-level military men to anonymously leak to the press to prevent fraud or malfeasance.

But Davis is not a top general who is presenting options to a decision-making president and then leaking to the press when they don’t like the answers. These generals have to be pressured or even brought up on charges when they step out of their warrior role and work the system to get their way. It has been going on for years, but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted. Obama and Kennedy helped the country by showing that behavior would not be tolerated, but the examples are too few and too many decades apart. Unfortunately, the generals who are the best at politically manipulating the system are the same generals who use that system to get promoted to the top. Hastings’ book is full of this type of political intrigue, and this should be a wake-up call to anyone who values civilian rule to start drawing lines in the sand.

Here are several solutions to start this process that will ultimately only change when the politicians and public become intolerant of generals acting like politicians to get their way:

  • If a general and his close aides are caught leaking reports or information to undercut a policy choice that should be left to civilian control, whether it is about war or a poorly functioning weapon system, these officers should be brought up on charges in civilian, not military courts (which would have the immediate bias of protecting their own). The generals should know that, in this system of government, they will face the same peril as their civilian counterparts running other parts of the government. They should be accountable to the system as warriors who are laying out options for national security, not playing political games. President Truman sent one general to jail for going along with a defense contractor who was degrading their weapons, but based on what I have seen in the system, there should be dozens and dozens more that should have met that same fate since World War II.
  • If a general truly believes that the civilian leadership is doing something disastrous for the country and especially the troops, he should warn the civilians about how strongly he feels. If he believes that the ultimate decision is dangerous to our national security, he should publicly resign and state his reasons in his resignation letter. I am not saying that generals should resign easily if they can live with the civilian decision and carry it out. But it is a coward’s errand to disagree with a decision and then secretly leak it out to put political pressure to change the decision. If these generals are people of honor, they will know when it is time to resign or carry out the civilian will.
  • The president or a commander above him should fire a general if he has a public relations campaign with the press to portray himself as a warrior hero. Hastings’ book has several disgusting exposés of generals, including McChrystal, working to make themselves legends similar to Patton or McArthur. The other downside of this is that they begin to believe their own propaganda and become legends in their own mind and lose perspective as a warrior. Their self-aggrandizement is dangerous to the country.
  • Washington should resist having top generals move on to top civilian jobs. If they have spent their entire careers thinking like a military man (as they should instead of being politicians), they are not suitable to be in top civilian power. General Petraeus recently was sent to the CIA, a sensitive post that should not be commingled with military thinking. There is also a trend in the Pentagon to replace civilian decision makers with retired military. That blurs the wall of thinking by civilians and by military, and we need perspectives from each side not to be confused by hybrids – it doesn’t work and we need to bolster true civilian control of the Pentagon. A good example of this problem was pulling Gen. Colin Powell from the top military position to being secretary of state. Powell was well meaning, but when he thought that the invasion of Iraq and the planned execution of the Iraq war would be disastrous for the country and the troops, he just told President Bush that if he broke it he would own it. He said that it was his job to salute and execute the president’s orders. That would have been true if he were still operating in a military capacity, but he was then the civilian secretary of state, who could have resigned and laid out why the war would not work and thereby prevent a monumental presidential mistake. If we want our generals to be true warriors and carry out the civilian orders, we can’t then expect them to recreate that role in the civilian world. It won’t work and the line needs to be drawn clearly.

It would be hard to try to legislate a solution to this. I believe that it has to be a cultural change in the governance of our country to have no tolerance at all for military men who play the political game to get what they want. If enough of them are discovered, punished and made into a dishonorable outcast, the rest will think twice before following in their footsteps. And the younger officer corps, often disillusioned by their politicking superiors, will learn a newer and more honorable way to become a general.

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