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Losing Civilian Control of the Military

By Melvin A. Goodman
June 28, 2010

Editor’s Note: It has become a third rail of American politics for civilian leaders to question the military judgments of field commanders, unless ironically the generals are pushing a less belligerent approach than is favored by Washington's armchair warriors, as occurred in Iraq in 2006.

Many politicians, including President Obama, also seek to protect themselves by surrounding themselves with ever more generals as well as hawkish civilian officials, eroding further the Founders’ principle of civilian control of the armed forces, as former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman notes in this guest essay:

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 also 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 appointment of General David Petraeus 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 influential people view Petraeus as the answer to the 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 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 doesn’t fit the political mold. He 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."

The ambassador, a former lieutenant general in the Army who had served two tours in Afghanistan, 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 strategy.

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. 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.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This story originally appeared at]

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