Tuesday, February 17, 2009

General Orders

Two Washington Post articles and one in Asia Times last week present a disturbing picture of military-civilian relations in America. We all know, of course, that the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces; he is senior every general and admiral. What is less well understood is that the military leadership is not fully under his command, that the generals and admirals have their own bases of support which give them leverage that can challenge even a president’s authority or convince him that they have the answer he needs. The military brass are as adept at fighting for bureaucratic turf and influence as their front line subordinates are in real combat.

Exactly how the influence flows depends on the president. A fearful president like Lyndon Johnson will accede to the military demands lest he be seen as weak on national defense. He will not want to look like he is letting “our boys” down even as he does just that. A clever president like Richard Nixon or Dick Cheney will play to the military’s ambition and self-interest. No post-WWII president ever really challenged his military. Carter and Clinton made some isolated attempts but soon quickly surrendered to the combined forces of Congressional patrons, retired officers and bureaucratic warriors

James Carroll has thoroughly and eloquently documented the dominance of the American military in the American Constitutional system since WWII. The generals may not always win overseas but they’ve certainly done well in the corridors of power in Washington. All this was well-known when I was a political science major in the 60’s and nothing I’ve seen since gives me any reason to think otherwise.

So the efforts of Generals Ray Odierno and David Petreaus to work around their chain of command and play to CheneyBush’s desperate wish for a “victory” in Iraq shouldn’t surprise me at all. Like Lyndon Johnson, wanted something that could show success for a mission stalemated and far more chaotic than the “cakewalk” that would liberate Iraq. Odierno and Petreaus gave him what he needed. The conventional wisdom is that the surge succeeded (it’s right there in the 8th paragraph), that the additional troops and change in tactics pulled Iraq from teetering on the brink of civil war.

On its face the claim is plausible. Iraqis are no longer killing each other on a large scale, al Qaeda in Iraq has been marginalized and a nascent political process is slowly emerging. On further investigation, much of the change has more to do with the interests of the various Iraqi factions and the fact that the nation underwent extensive ethnic cleansing in the years prior to the surge—the bloodbath went on right under the noses of American troops that were supposedly in place to prevent a bloodbath. Odierno and Petreaus managed to pull off a tactical victory and laid the basis for continued and extended American involvement in Iraq despite a growing public desire to be done with that war.

What these two articles tell me is that generals will pursue the policies they believe in regardless of larger national interests. I won’t question their motives. They believe in their mission and the capabilities of their men. They are trained in the application of force in the national interest and are capable of employing that force. More than anything, they want to succeed. So it is natural for them to want to use their commands in service to the nation. That’s what they are there for.

What I question is these—and all—generals’ influence in directing national policy. It’s one thing for a president to reject popular will in the name of the greater good (theoretically, the president is directly accountable to the electorate). Abraham Lincoln certainly did that during the American Civil War. It’s quite another, however, for an unelected career officer to challenge that will. And that’s just what Odierno and Petreaus did. When the American people clearly demonstrated in 2006 their interest in ending a poorly-thought out policy that damages this nation both militarily and economically, the generals provided CheneyBush with the means to ignore that interest and to extend America’s deployment in Iraq indefinitely.

The Asia Times article demonstrates that the process is still going on, with Petreaus maneuvering to prevent Obama from keeping his promise to draw down US forces in Iraq. The story attributes Petreaus’ motives to presidential ambitions but it could easily be the general representing his institution. Either motive is dangerous to Constitutional government, which is why ending the 61 year military-corporate stranglehold on government and policy is a critical long-term issue facing this country.

Generals shouldn’t be in a position to direct policy. Advise, yes, but not decide. They are the instruments for policies chosen by elected representatives. The Framers knew that when they established civilian control of the military in the Constitution. A real commander-in-chief would know that.

I hope Obama learned that lesson when he studied Constitutional law and that he is strong enough to do something with it.

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Blogger rangeragainstwar said...


Both Odierno and Petraeus used back channel communications that violated the military concept of chain of command.

They did so with the concurrence of the deputy chief of staff of the Army, and The VP and the C in C. They should have been relived for this violation, but who would do it?

The boss was complicit. One would even question why we have a chain of command if it's not followed. It is intersting how the press id framing Odierno as a maverick, when in fact, he is a colossal ass-kisser.

I can't add much to your lucid entry.

9:38 AM  

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