Whenever I write about civil-military affairs, and in particular the rise of “policy generals” — the term “political generals” fails to capture my concerns — I get pulled into a debate about who is to blame. There is a segment of informed opinion that argues essentially that there is no problem because, after all, the President could always fire any general who oversteps his bounds and hence if he does not do so he is implicitly supporting the general officer in his positions. A corollary is claim that we are not seeing anything new in civil-military relations, and again tacit civilian acceptance is seen as a sort of confirmation that nothing out of the ordinary is afoot. There are a huge number of problems with this argument, and I’ll address a few of them here:
First, it is absolutely true that senior military leaders have always needed significant political skills. Eisenhower is perhaps the most common example provided of this breed of military leader. But look, Eisenhower was rare and the situation was extreme. He was not the “norm.” Do we really want to argue that the model of theater commander of a multinational alliance in a total war should be the norm by which to judge any number of leaders operating in a what is, essentially, a permanent condition of counter-insurgent, counter-terror warfare?
Even more than that, Eisenhower’s “political” skills during World War II were largely about balancing the needs and demands of allies, showing respect to Churchill for instance while not allowing his armchair general flights of fancy to intrude into operational matters or keeping Patton and Montgomery from throwing down in public. Eisenhower, as far as I know, was not instrumental in key policy decisions such as whether we’d ever negotiate with the Nazis. He wasn’t involved in domestic efforts to convince the American public to support a continuation of the war. Yes, he was managing an alliance. That required political skills. It is akin of the ISAF commander’s role in ensuring that all the NATO forces in Afghanistan are working together effectively. But it has nothing to do with trying to box in a president or weighing in on policy decisions and it certainly has nothing to do with becoming, essentially, the key administration point person on war policy.
Second, I don’t really care who is to blame. Whether it is Petraeus (and before him McChrystal) overreaching or the president trying to bolster his position by seeking military cover for controversial positions, it is still wrong. Obama should not allow it because it erodes civilian control. Petraeus should not accept the role because it erodes military professionalism and raises concerns about the politicization of the military. They are both at fault, and arguments about assigning blame are red herrings. At best saying “It is Obama’s fault” is besides the point, at worst it reflects a fundamental confusion about the role and importance of durable norms of civil-military relations. It is simply not true that if the president supports it, it is okay, nor is it accurate to claim if the president is not bothered, no one else should be. Presidents are not philosopher kings. The neither unilaterally define democratic norms, nor to do always act according to long-term calculations. Obama is no more a defining authority on civil-mil relations than George W. Bush was on torture or Bill Clinton on perjury or Richard Nixon on burglary. The fact, in short, that neither Petraeus nor Obama seem to see a problem does not mean there is no problem.
Third, that said, the notion that the president could, in extremis simply fire an unruly general is both true and irrelevant. We still talk about Truman’s firing of MacArthur. We still talk about Bush’s treatment of Shinseki. We’ll be revisiting L’Affair McChrystal for years to come. Every time you fire a general publicly it inflicts scars on the military, potentially chills the provision of honest military advice, and causes resentment. It also weakens the president. Because of these consequences, it is something of a nuclear option, used rarely and regretfully. McChrystal should have been fired last year after his outrageous performance at the IISS. He should have been fired when he stacked his strategic assessment team with only like-minded thinkers and then allowed the findings to be leaked boxing in the president. But he wasn’t, not because those transgressions were not severe, but because deploying the nuclear option is something presidents are reticent to do. Claiming that the mere existence of the option to relieve a general demonstrates that there is no civil-military problem is a naive position. It ignores the costs of doing so.
Fourth, again, I don’t know if Obama is using Petraeus to float trial balloons, or if Obama has decided — like Bush before him — that selling an unpopular war requires a man in uniform. Regardless, there is a broader, and troubling pattern. It isn’t just Petraeus and McChrystal. It is also a matter of Michael Hayden’s role as NSA director in developing and implementing an unlawful domestic surveillance program. It is the willingness of military leaders to be complicit in criminal conduct against detainees. It is the increasing role of former military officers in various leadership positions in government. Even as the percentage of the population with military experience shrinks, the policy influence of serving and retired general officers is extremely high. Is this better than just appointing a president’s cronies or donors to important national security and foreign policy decisions? Maybe. Let’s at least have a discussion about it. But claiming that the line between policy and military leadership is as strong as in the past is, I think, not accurate. Old soldiers are not just fading away anymore, they are instead continuing their careers in sensitive and senior policy positions. Is that healthy?
Finally, I am not sure Obama is, in fact, wholly in charge on Afghanistan. I think a case could be made that he’s been maneuvered, step-by-step, through biased and incomplete military advice to his current position. He seems to have been surprised by McChrystal’s troop request, though it was implicit in the white paper on Afghanistan he approved in March 2009. Did no one mention that at the time? Proponents of a CT approach to Afghanistan could not get the DoD to properly staff out the option. At every step of the process, there has been an process bias in favor of escalation. Why? Who is driving that?
Anyway, long story short: We are witnessing dysfunction civil-military relations in the United States today and that dysfunction is a major reason for our incoherent and unrealistic approach to Afghanistan.