What is it that President George W. Bush’s memoirs and Bob Woodward’s book on decisonmaking in the Obama Administration on Afghanistan have in common? It is the extent to which both administrations confronted a “revolt of the generals.” Whether it was how to cope with the rising tide of violence in Iraq in 2006 or the need to develop a strategy for countering Taliban successes in Afghanistan, both Presidents Bush and Obama found themselves facing significant foot dragging, opposition and outright insubordination from the senior ranks of the military.
Both books essentially paint a picture of a president ill-served by their senior military leaders. President Bush makes repeated references to the unwillingness of senior military leaders to adopt his strategic objectives following the fall of Baghdad. The military — and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld — wanted the most expeditious withdrawal possible from Iraq. Primarily for this reason they resisted any efforts to reinforce the coalition presence in that country, even as the security situation deteriorated badly. Bush had to rely on a band of outsiders to help him develop the successful surge strategy.
Similarly, President Obama’s search for a full range of options in Afghanistan was met with obfuscation and downright opposition. Woodward quotes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen telling the Vice Chairman, General Cartwright that “we are not providing that” when the latter presented him with analysis to support a so-called counterterrorism plus option for Afghanistan. To read the book is to be witness to the amazing picture of a President being boxed in by his senior military advisors.
In addition, the military had increasingly behaved as if they were a co-equal branch of government when it comes to waging war. Whether it was then-JCS Chairman General Colin Powell putting forward his own criteria for U.S. interventions, Admiral Fallon breaking with the administration over the prospects of war with Iran or General McChrystal venting his feelings about his civil government counterparts over Afghanistan, this nation’s military leaders are showing a dangerous train of thought. They have increasingly mistaken their role in implementing national policy as providing them a say on what policy should be. This growing tendency to “praetorianism” is a major potential threat to the Republic.
What explains this pattern of rank insubordination on the part of the U.S. military? In part this may be the ghosts of Vietnam continuing to haunt the U.S. military. Still bearing the scars of going all in in Southeast Asia, only to have the nation’s leaders (and some would argue the American people) pull the plug on that war, the military has been reluctant to fully commit themselves to any strategy. But this tendency is also a product perhaps of the increasingly bitter and divisive nature of political discourse in this country. In addition, the trend may also be a result of the U.S. military’s growing sense that it can stand apart from the strategic decisions it is called upon to execute. How many politicians have said they oppose this or that conflict but support the troops? While it is a natural sentiment it is inherently divisive in character. Hearing such statements, military leaders may well have gotten the impression that they can pursue their own institutional interests separate from those of the administrations which they have sworn an oath to support.
This apparent breakdown in civil-military relations is particularly dangerous at a time when defense budgets and programs will be under serious stress. There are calls coming from many quarters, including the deficit commission co-chairs, not just for cutting defense spending, but cancelling or curtailing major programs such as the F-35, V-22 and the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. If military advice to civilian leaders is in any way suspect it will make protecting the vital programs more difficult.
Find Archived Articles: