As much as I may agree with Gen. Stanley McChrystal when it comes to Afghanistan, I must say that my old friend Jim Jones was correct when he told CNN’s John King that “it is better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.” We can all agree that the president’s handling of Afghanistan has been deficient at best. Officers on the ground in Afghanistan wonder why, after having declared the conflict there a “war of necessity,” the president has not provided the necessary means to fight it properly. Having selected General McChrystal to turn things around in Afghanistan, one wonders why Obama has not supported him the way that President Bush supported General Petraeus in Iraq. Obama’s recent actions seem to indicate that he is not willing to take on his political base, among whom the war in Afghanistan is unpopular.
But the response of certain members of the uniformed military illustrates that U.S. civil-military relations remain problematic. First there was the leak of General McChrystal’s strategic assessment of Afghanistan to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Then there was an article picked up by McClatchy that quoted officers claiming that General McChrystal would resign if the president did not give him what he needed to implement his preferred strategy. These actions and others like them are symptoms of a serious problem: the widespread belief among military officers that they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serve in their traditional advisory role.
I have less of a problem with General McChrystal’s remarks at a forum in London. He may have seen this as an opportunity “to pressure the president in public to adopt his strategy,” as Bruce Ackerman argued in a Washington Post op-ed, but the fact is that his comments in London had been reviewed by the White House — and no objections were raised.
The cornerstone of U.S. civil-military relations is simple and straightforward: The uniformed military is expected to provide its best advice to civil authorities, who alone are responsible for policy. While reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of military action against Iran or any other adversary, the decision to take such action lies with civilian authorities, not with a military commander.
Of course, uniformed officers have an obligation to stand up to civilian leaders if they think a policy is flawed. They must convey their concerns to civilian policymakers forcefully and truthfully. If they believe the door is closed to them at the Pentagon or the White House, they also have access to Congress. But the American tradition of civil-military relations requires that they not engage in public debate over matters of foreign policy, including the decision to go to war. Moreover, once a policy decision is made, soldiers are obligated to carry it out to the best of their ability, whether their advice is heeded or not.
What is really interesting about this whole affair is the reversal of elite opinion. When leaks indicated that the some of the uniformed military were critical of the conduct of the Iraq war under George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, those critics were seen as necessarily speaking truth to power. David Ignatius of the Washington Post argued that the military needed a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who would “push back” against Rumsfeld and the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. The always entertaining Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wondered why Bush refused to take advice from his much more experienced and clear-headed uniformed officers. And one genius at the Huffington Post even called upon the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “relieve” Bush as commander in chief for dereliction of duty. Only Bush hatred could get the lefty blogosphere to call for a military coup.
– Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.