senior military officers speak out too much when they disagree with the
policies their commander in chief is considering?
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.
military historian Hew Strachan says these concerns are overblown. Author of a
on civil-military relations in wartime, Strachan told the Daily Beast:
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."
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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."
he raise it with the one person who mattered most, the president? According to
his memoir, he did not.
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
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
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.
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