Back to the Barracks, Boys!

President Barack Obama’s failure to sack General Stanley McChrystal immediately upon learning of the latter’s public promotion of his own views on American military strategy in Afghanistan was a sad and sharp reminder of the ascendancy of The Pentagon and both its civilian and military leadership in the formulation and implementation of United States foreign policy.  That President Obama later, when accepting McChrystal’s resignation, offered publicly to exempt him from the usual penalties that accompany such a forced departure was alarming as well.  Has this president, a constitutional scholar, forgotten the golden, iron rule that gives to him and his civilian designees sole power over foreign military policy, informed by, but never subject to, the advice and views of men in uniform of whatever rank?  Judging from recent reports, it appears that military officers up and down the line have drawn the lesson that they have the right, even a moral obligation, to speak out when disagreeing with their civilian masters.

A distressing case in point is found in an article published last month in the “Joint Forces Quarterly” under the aegis of the National Defense University.  It is neither the fact of its appearance nor the identity of its official sponsor that is remarkable, but rather the views expressed openly and proudly by an active-duty Marine Lieutenant Colonel currently posted – and allegedly serving his country –  in Germany.  A quote or two will convey the flavour without giving this moralist too much space.  “The military officer belongs to a profession upon whose members are conferred great responsibility, a code of ethics, and an oath

of office.  These grant him moral autonomy and obligate him to disobey an order he deems immoral.”  And, clearly taking a shot at his elected Chief of

State in Washington:  “The military professional plays a valuable and constitutionally defendable (sic) role as a check on the potentially disastrous decisions of men less capable than Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill.”  Others have subsequently exposed the ignorance and hubris of those who are pushing this line, foremost among them Professor Richard H. Kohn of the University of North Carolina in the online edition of Foreign Policy.  For our purposes, let us look at the recent history and the broader implications of the above-mentioned ascendancy of the Pentagon and its military component in the making of foreign policy, i.e., shepherding and protecting our national security.

It certainly did not begin with Barack Obama, guilty though he may be in not ending it.  As with the general deformation of U.S. foreign policy, accompanied by a plunge in American reputation and influence abroad, we need not look back further than the reaction of the George W. Bush Administration to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  With the policy game firmly in the hands of Vice President (and former Secretary of Defense) Richard Cheney and his long-time cohort and, at the time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with Secretary of State Colin Powell running errands on the sidelines, and with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice cheering them on, it took fewer than two years to gear up the illegal and disastrous invasion of Iraq.  The Pentagon, Rumsfeld and the military leadership were in command, and the State Department, under Powell and, during Bush’s second term, Rice, was a bit player.

We all know that when Rumsfeld blithely consigned our oldest friends and allies to the dust bin of history as “Old Europe,” not a word was heard from the White House or State, and that neither took noticeable exception to Rumsfeld’s equation of Venezuelan President Chavez to Adolph Hitler.  And former ambassador and career foreign service officer L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, still trying to justify his regime in print, won’t let us forget that he was selected to head the civilian “Coalition Provisional Authority” by, and reported to, the Secretary of Defense.  More easily forgotten is the report published in the American press in 2005 revealing that U.S. Forces in Iraq, aided by an American contractor, were producing “news stories” for placement without attribution in Iraqi newspapers and other media outlets – and paying for the privilege.  When asked, The White House publicly expressed concern, but Rice at State was silent.  The matter was resolved when the Pentagon let it be known that its “internal inquiry” turned up nothing to indicate that either U.S. law or “Pentagon guidelines” had been violated, thus allowing the practice to continue.

With much prodding from the Pentagon, Congress in 2006 included for the first time in that year’s “National Defense Authorization Act” a provision permitting the Defense Department to spend funds from its budget for foreign military assistance.  Until then, it had been State’s job to determine the conditions and standards required of potential recipients.  No longer:  Rice joined Rumsfeld in urging Congress in writing to pass the bill.  This Secretary of State was no more bothered by Rumsfeld’s cozy and open relationship with  Uzbekistan’s President Karimov, whose government was at the same time being labelled on State’s web site as one that systematically practiced torture.  Not until British Ambassador Craig Murray, apparently unable to interest the Foreign Office in the matter, resigned in protest and went public did State and Rice take notice.

Small wonder, then, that military officers up and down the line feel no compunction about shooting off their mouths about foreign or domestic policy, whether in support of massive American intrusion into the affairs of other countries or in opposition to any change in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on service by gays in the military.  The past decade has encouraged them and the civilian component in the Pentagon to believe that they have as much to say about whether we should invade one country or another as they legitimately do with respect to whether we can. This is a troubling and potentially dangerous development requiring urgent attention at the top.

NOTE:  This subject was treated at greater length in the author’s article in the online journal www.americandiplomacy.org in April 2006.

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