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 reappointment of General David Patraeus 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 influence people view Petraeus as the answer to our Afghan problems; he isn't.
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 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." He 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, and 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.
Originally published on Truthout.org