Shadow Government

If You Don't Want Generals to Speak Out, You Must Speak Up

Do senior military officers speak out too much when they disagree with the policies their commander in chief is considering?

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he thinks the military talks too much. He notes that this problem hasn't been unique to President Barack Obama's tenure. During George W. Bush's administration, Adm. William Fallon, for instance, clearly crossed Gates's line in airing his opinions about Iran policy, and he left his command abruptly as a result. But Gates, during his secretaryship, found Obama to be especially exercised about this issue, and Gates attributes much of the civil-military problems in the Obama era to the way that White House political advisors seethed at hearing military opinion, particularly when expressed in public.

Respected military historian Hew Strachan says these concerns are overblown. Author of a forthcoming book on civil-military relations in wartime, Strachan told the Daily Beast:

"The concern about the military speaking out shows a lack of democratic and political maturity. We're not facing the danger of a military coup. The professional experts, who deal with war all the time, should be able to express their views all the time, openly and coherently, just as you would expect a doctor or a teacher to express their views coherently about how you run medical policy or teaching policy."

This is a long-standing debate among civil-military relations specialists. At one extreme end are folks like Andrew Milburn who argue that the military has an obligation and duty to thwart civilians who are considering unwise policies; the most effective way to do that is to speak out to Congress, the media, and the general public whenever the president is tempted to err. My own academic work is closer to the other end of the spectrum: I have called doing end runs around the president in this way "shirking," a subversion of civilian control. 

But I would not muzzle the military entirely. Of course, the military's primary obligation is to provide its most candid advice privately to the administration. Nevertheless, the military does have a legitimate role in speaking outside the administration. For starters, senior military officers must testify before Congress. When they do, they are obliged to explain the administration's position and also, if asked, to give their independent military opinion, even if it differs from the administration's position. They cannot merely give their own opinion, however; they must also explain the administration's position if it diverges from their own. Moreover, the military can and should explain military policy to the general public, and the best way to do that is through the media.

This public role is tricky. The military must be wary lest it find itself carrying political water for an administration unwilling or unable to defend its own policies. The military also must speak without subverting the chain of command and the integrity of the internal policymaking process. That means that the military must be careful not to speak with the intention of mobilizing public opinion against administration policy; that was the line that Fallon crossed. And, of course, the military should not speak disrespectfully about the commander in chief, regardless of its private views; that was the line Gen. Stanley McChrystal crossed, which resulted in his early retirement.

If what Gates is saying is that the more often you speak to the media and the public, the more likely you are to inadvertently stray across one of these lines, then I have some sympathy with his position. I think the issue is less quantity than quality. Some military leaders are very good at staying within the lines and can speak for hours without crossing one; others cross the line within minutes of clearing their throat.

But what if Gates and other critics are making a more general point: that any speaking out by the military beyond the most banal statements about "God bless the troops" is a civil-military violation?

If so, I think that goes too far, even though I understand the impulse behind it. I think the military can rightfully speak out a bit more than that without crossing the civil-military line, though it must be very careful as it does so.

Here's the thing, however: If you are the secretary of defense and you want to muzzle the military that much, then you must unmuzzle yourself by a corresponding amount. And Gates did not do that. One of the most striking revelations in the book -- and now that I've thought about it for a week, perhaps the most striking revelation in the book -- is how many times Gates muzzled himself. Time after time, Gates records in his memoirs that he was dismayed at the attitudes expressed by the president and the other senior civilians, especially attitudes toward the military and on vital national security matters. And time after time, Gates records that he really wanted to say something but did not.

Gates failure to speak up was not a matter of l'esprit de l'escalier, like George Costanza's frustration with delivering a snappy comeback in a timely manner. On the contrary, it appears to be calculated: Time after time, Gates just chose not to speak up.

Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, a key shaper of the process that Gates is criticizing in the book, told National Journal that Gates did speak up: "I have to say I don't see anything that Secretary Gates says in the book that he didn't raise as an issue at the time." And according to the same National Journal story, Gates appears to confirm that, telling reporters, "there wasn't a single issue" he didn't raise in office that he addressed later in his book, whether about Afghanistan, Iraq, European missile defense, or the administration's program of "outreach" to Iran. Gates added: "I agreed with him [Obama] on all those things. My continuing concerns were more process concerns. I did raise those all the time with Tom Donilon, [former National Security Advisor] Jim Jones, and others."

But did he raise it with the one person who mattered most, the president? According to his memoir, he did not.

And so the Obama administration's fractious civil-military relations continued, observed but unaddressed, because no one would raise it with the boss. As Shadow Government contributor Kori Schake suggests, there were plenty of respectful ways Gates could have contributed the necessary corrective. To be sure, it must be conceded, even if he had, the political imperatives driving the behavior of Obama and the White House might have trumped anything Gates could have said. But at least he would have said it, and the fact that the secretary of defense spoke up on behalf of healthier civil-military relations would have resonated back with the rank and file -- and that, by itself, would have contributed to healthier civil-military relations. 

If you are Gates and you don't like the military speaking out in public, you have to be willing to speak up yourself in private. To the extent that Gates chose not to do that, important opportunities were missed.

Photo: Jamie Rose/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Thailand's Turmoil

No political force is acquitting itself very admirably in the current turmoil in Thailand, but at least the government is trying to preserve the system and institutions of democracy while the opposition wants to destroy them. Helpful commentary from the U.S. government has been woefully lacking. Barack Obama's administration should be speaking out for the preservation of democracy and decrying the threats of violence and actual violence being done to it.

For several weeks now, the opposition to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's elected government (now a caretaker government since she has scheduled new elections for Feb. 2) has been building from peaceful protest to incidents of violence. One policeman is dead, and about 40 civilians have died in shootings and a bomb blast today, Jan. 17. Very alarming, too, is the opposition's demands that the prime minister resign and that in her place a "people's council" should be installed so that "reform can come before elections."

Since 2001, the Pheu Thai Party of Yingluck and her brother (former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a prison term he says was meted out to him for political purposes after a military coup brought him down in 2006) have been winning at the polls. They win on the strength of the rural and poor vote located mostly in the north and the northeast. The opposition, which is close to the royal family, is made up of the wealthier classes in the big cities and in the tourism-rich south. So for 14 years Thai democracy has been roiled by this regional and class split. While some in Bangkok want to see Thais preserve democracy and avoid another coup, they are not numerous enough to overcome the massive protests that have been plaguing the capital's major institutions such as the customs offices and the stock exchange.

There is a pattern here: Via democracy, the majority of voters have been electing the Pheu Thai Party because it represents the interests of the poor and the rural and gives them state subsidies. The opposition Democrat Party cannot win at the polls, accuses Pheu Thai of corruption and vote-buying, and tries to provoke chaos in order to justify a military coup. Pheu Thai says it is doing democracy; the Democrat Party says it is trying to fix democracy. Last time Thais faced this dilemma, the military stepped in; currently, the military says it will not oust Yingluck and will preserve law and order. Who knows how long that stance will hold.

As I noted earlier, there are no beacons of democracy and liberal order here. The king, ailing and aging, does not appear willing or able to do much to restore order and defend his prime minister. The military is holding the line for now, but it certainly has a bad track record of ousting governments. The Democrats apparently want to destroy democracy with unelected interim councils in order to save it, but only because they cannot win a fair ballot (and probably resent those in charge whom they see as unfit to govern the natural elite). And Pheu Thai clearly buys votes.

But vote-buying, while distasteful and potentially damaging to a country's economy and the spirit of democracy, is a rather common occurrence among democracies and is a far cry from violent protest and demands for some kind of Thai version of a "Committee of Public Safety" (there is no good track record on that approach).

The future could be quite bleak: another coup or a long-lasting stalemate of protests and harm to the economy as in the late 2000s. None of this is good for democracy. The U.S. government should be speaking out on this matter, urging restraint on the military, applauding Yingluck's government for not releasing her own violent protesters (they have a bad track record too), and insisting that the United States will not look kindly on the use of violence to change governments.

One can surmise that the root cause of this conflict is the centuries-old hostilities and tensions between the haves and the have-nots, and such is not easily or quickly cured. So restraint on the part of the majority and patience on the part of the minority are sorely needed. Each side should seek earnestly to work together for the good of Thailand and recognize how much damage is done to all when the tourist and investment economy is harmed by political turmoil.

Photo: Ed Wray/Getty Images