There is a lively debate among theorists of civil-military relations about the appropriate levels of political activity in which the military may engage. Some advocate fairly tight restrictions, even encouraging soldiers to emulate Gen. George C. Marshall who famously refused to vote so as to demonstrate his apolitical professionalism. Others allow for greater leeway, and encourage the military to speak out more regularly in policy debates, even when those debates have a partisan overlay.
I tend towards the restrictive end of the spectrum. I do not discourage the military from voting, for instance, but I do think it is a mistake for prominent retired senior generals and admirals to campaign actively for political candidates (I do not see a problem with veterans of whatever rank running as candidates in their own right. When they do that, they clearly cross over to the pure political side. The problem is trying to maintain the authority, even deference, that comes with professional distance while simultaneously politicking for a candidate).
For a good introduction into the complexities of this debate, I recommend reading Risa Brooks survey of the topic: her chapter on "Militaries and Political Activity in Democracies," an excellent chapter in a recent compendium. (Full disclosure: I have a chapter in that same book, which I co-authored with a brilliant graduate student. I got permission to present and publish that article while still on the NSC staff because, when my superiors reviewed it, they declared it so academic and abstruse that no one would read it, and thus it would neither constitute a conflict of interest nor expose the White House to any risk of embarrassment -- or words to that effect. Sometimes, there is utility in academic irrelevancy.)
It is also clear that there is a spectrum of opinion within the ranks. A first-rate Georgetown U. dissertation by Heidi Urben (more full disclosure: I was on her dissertation committee) documents that Army personnel have some difficulty in determining where to draw the line -- is it acceptable to encourage fellow military comrades to vote? How to vote? To demonstrate the same with bumper stickers in the barracks?
So I accept that there are gray zones in the area of military and politics and that it is especially difficult to draw clear lines for reservists who have feet planted firmly in both civilian and military worlds.
However, I am hard-pressed to think of a specialists who would tolerate this: an Army reservist, Corp. Jesse Thorsen, speaking to a campaign rally before the Iowa caucus while in uniform. Perhaps there are lawyers who will try to argue that because the corporal was not on active duty at the time he may avoid the harshest punishment. And most people will point out that a corporal is very close to the bottom of the totem pole so hardly on his own capable of destroying our democratic institutions. But this seems a pretty clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of the Department of Defense regulations.
Of equal importance, it is corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. The corporal may believe he is speaking only for himself, but the reality is that if he is wearing his uniform, his audience seems him as speaking on behalf of the institution. For that matter, almost no one is interested in what civilian Jesse Thorsen has to say; the primary reason he was invited to speak was that the campaign knew that folks would be interested in what a corporal had to say. It was his military status, in other words, that gave his political views cachet. That makes it a matter for civil-military relations and a matter for public rebuke.
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The Iowa results probably indicate that there will not be a big crack-up within the Republican party on foreign policy because the caucus returns are likely to be the high-water mark for the candidate with the most distinctive foreign policy platform in the field: Ron Paul. He did well enough to gain another week of press attention. But in the one contest best-suited to his unusual political operation, Paul did not beat expectations. He would have to really surprise in New Hampshire in order to remain relevant in the later primaries, and those are likely to be even tougher terrain for him.
Paul is no longer likely to be a spoiler within the party. He can still play the spoiler in the general election, if he runs a Ross Perot-style third party campaign and siphons off enough of the anti-incumbent vote to re-elect President Obama. There will be many Obama supporters cheering him on to do just that, but at least one influential Paul supporter argues compellingly against it.
Jon Huntsman is the other candidate who tried to capitalize on foreign policy divisions within the party, but he avoided Iowa altogether, thus delaying his moment of truth until next week's primary in New Hampshire. Predictions in this campaign season have been notoriously unreliable, but I am willing to bet that New Hampshire will be more of a Waterloo than a surge for Huntsman.
That means that Romney will very likely be the nominee, and whichever runners-up remain in the race to challenge him through a few more primaries will be doing so on the basis of domestic or economic policies or personality, not national security and foreign policy. Romney already had the strongest foreign policy platform of the field, and, if I am right about the fading of Paul and Huntsman, any remaining rivals -- even a surprise new not-Romney drafted from the bench -- will largely echo him on foreign policy.
There had always been a chance that the primaries would exacerbate the within-party divisions on national security, which are wider today than they have been since Reagan. A majority of Republican voters continue support the traditional "peace through strength" posture of muscular internationalism that characterized the tenures of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush (yes, there were differences across those administrations, but I would argue far more continuity than is popularly credited). A sizable minority shows more sympathy for steps ranging from retrenchment to neo-isolationism. Paul was the candidate that resonated most effectively with the latter group, but his positions were probably too extreme to serve as the foundation for a new Republican consensus. In any case, he would have to be considered a plausible candidate to win the nomination to further that debate, and I think that moment has passed.
There are still policy divisions: some Republicans think there should be essentially no cuts in defense spending, while others are willing to live with the first round of Obama cuts; some Republicans want more of a populist message on Chinese trade policy, while others want more of a traditional free trade posture; and so on.
But I think the big intra-party fight over foreign policy is over, if it ever really began.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.