[Marxism] Bacevic: battle grows with Petraeus over civilian control of war

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Aug 20 13:13:15 MDT 2010

The New Republic (online)
Civilian Control? Surely, You Jest.

    * Andrew J. Bacevich
    * August 18, 2010 | 12:00 am

The principle of civilian control forms the foundation of the American
system of civil-military relations, offering assurance that the nation's
very powerful armed forces and its very influential officer corps pose no
danger to our democracy. That's the theory at least, the one that gets
printed in civics books and peddled to the plain folk out in Peoria.    

Reality turns out to be considerably more complicated. In practice, civilian
control-expectations that the brass, having rendered advice, will then
loyally execute whatever decision the commander-in-chief makes-is at best a
useful fiction.

In front of the curtain, the generals and admirals defer; behind the
curtain, on all but the smallest of issues, the military's collective
leadership pursue their own agenda informed by their own convictions of what
is good for the country and, by extension, for the institutions over which
they preside. In this regard, the Pentagon's behavior does not differ from
that of automakers, labor unions, the movie business, environmental groups,
the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Israel lobby, or the

In Washington, only one decision is considered really final-and that's the
one that goes your way. Senior military officers understand these rules and
play by them. When the president or secretary of defense acts in ways not to
their liking-killing some sought-after weapons program, for example-they
treat that decision as subject to review and revision.

To overturn or modify a policy they judge objectionable, military leaders
forge alliances with like-minded members of Congress, for whom the national
interest tends to coincide with whatever benefits their constituents. Senior
officers also make their case by working the press, not infrequently by
leaking material that will embarrass or handcuff their nominal superiors.

Sometimes, the military strikes preemptively, attempting to influence
decisions not yet made. A classic example occurred in 1993: Led by General
Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior
uniformed leadership mounted a fierce and very effective campaign to prevent
President Bill Clinton from acting on his announced intention to allow gays
to serve openly in the military. Powell and his confreres prevailed. A
humiliated Clinton beat a hasty retreat and, thereafter, took care not to
court trouble with an officer corps that made little effort to conceal its
lack of fondness for him.

A more recent example occurred just a year ago. With President Obama
agonizing over what to do about Afghanistan, The Washington Post offered for
general consumption the military's preferred approach, the so-called
McChrystal Plan. Devised by General Stanley McChrystal, who had been
appointed by Obama to command allied forces in Afghanistan, the plan called
for a surge of U.S. troops and the full-fledged application of
counterinsurgency doctrine-an approach that necessarily implied a much
longer and more costly war.

The effect of this leak, almost surely engineered by some still unidentified
military officer, was to hijack the entire policy review process,
circumscribing the choices available to the commander-in-chief. Rushing to
the nearest available microphone, members of Congress (mostly Republicans)
announced that it was Obama's duty to give the field commander whatever he
wanted. McChrystal himself made the point explicitly. During a speech in
London, he categorically rejected the notion that any alternative to his
strategy even existed: It was do it his way or lose the war. The role left
to the president was not to decide, but simply to affirm.

The leaking of the McChrystal Plan constituted a direct assault on civilian
control. At the time, however, that fact passed all but unnoticed. Few of
those today raising a hue-and-cry about PFC Bradley Manning, the accused
WikiLeak-er, bothered to protest. The documents that Manning allegedly made
public are said to endanger the lives of American troops and their Afghan
comrades. Yet, a year ago, no one complained about the McChrystal leaker
providing Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership with a detailed
blueprint of exactly how the United States and its allies were going to
prosecute their war.

The absence of any serious complaint reflected the fact that, in
Washington-especially in the press corps-military leaks aimed at subverting
or circumscribing civilian authority are accepted as standard fare. It's
part of the way Washington works.

Which brings us to the present and to what is stacking up to be an episode
likely to reveal a great deal about how much or how little actual civilian
control currently exists. In adopting the McChrystal Plan, Obama added this
caveat: U. S. troops will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan by July 2011.
Before the president or anyone in his administration had explained exactly
what that July 2011 deadline signifies, General McChrystal departed the
scene, having violated the dictum that calls on senior officers to sustain,
in public at least, the pretense of respecting civilians.

To replace McChrystal-and to forestall the growing impression that things in
Afghanistan are falling apart-Obama appointed General David Petraeus, an
officer possessing in abundance the finesse and political savvy that
McChrystal lacks. Having now sacked two successive commanders in
Afghanistan, Obama can hardly afford to fire a third, least of all someone
of Petraeus's exalted stature. It would be akin to benching Tom Brady or
trading Derek Jeter. You might be able to pull it off, but not without
paying a very severe price. You might even find yourself out of a job.

Within the past week, complaints dribbling out of Petraeus's headquarters in
Kabul-duly reported by an accommodating press-indicate growing military
unhappiness with the July 2011 pullout date. Now, Petraeus himself has begun
to weigh in directly. This past weekend, he launched his own media campaign,
offering his "narrative" of ongoing events. Unlike the ham-handed
McChrystal, who chose a foreign capital as his soapbox, Petraeus sat for a
carefully orchestrated series of interviews with The New York Times, The
Washington Post, and NBC's "Meet the Press," each of which gratefully passed
along the general's view of things.

In the course of sitting for these interviews, Petraeus placed down a
marker, one best captured by the headline in the Times dispatch: "Petraeus
Opposes a Rapid Pullout in Afghanistan." Or, as The Daily Beast put it,
adding a twist of hyperbole, Petraeus told "David Gregory that he has the
right to delay Obama's 2011 pull-out target for troops in Afghanistan." A
bit over the top, but you get the drift.

Dexter Filkins of the Times interpreted Petraeus's comments as "a preview of
what promise[s] to be an intense political battle over the future of the
American-led war in Afghanistan." The operative word in that statement is
"political," with the stakes potentially including not only the ongoing war,
but an upcoming presidential election.

At the center of that battle will be a very political general, skilled at
using the press and with friends aplenty on Capitol Hill, especially among
Republicans. To have a chance of winning reelection in 2012, Obama needs to
demonstrate progress in shutting down the war. Yet it is now becoming
increasingly apparent the general Obama has placed in charge of that war
entertains a different view.

One, but not both, will have his way. Between now and July 2011, when it
comes to civilian control, even the folks in Peoria will have a chance to
learn what the civics books leave out.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston
University and author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.

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