Of Presidents and Generals

Presidents invite resistance from their generals when they propose using armed force without seeking political decision in the situation.

The flap over General McChrystal’s London speech (see here and here for predictable hyperventilation) brought to mind Eliot Cohen’s 2002 book Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.  In it, he concluded that presidents have a “right to be wrong,” in their policies on war and military operations as in other realms.  The prism through which he adduced his facts inevitably included Vietnam, but he looked at other situations as well.

Cohen is a smart man with a deservedly-excellent reputation as a scholar of politics and the military, and his argument had a number of sound elements and a lot of pertinent history.  But the glaring shortfall I found in his thesis was his dismissal of the atypical character of presidential policy during the Vietnam years.  The other examples he uses are Lincoln, Churchill (in WWII), Clemenceau (WWI), and Ben-Gurion (Israel’s war of independence).  The point he derives from surveying the five separate situations is that generals do disagree with the strategies and methods selected by their civilian (or at least ultimate) bosses, and that doesn’t mean the civilian bosses have erred, or ought to be mistrusted or undercut.  Ultimately, the supreme commander, particularly when he is chosen by a constitutional process, has the “right to be wrong.”

In a sense we would all agree with that, with the proviso that the supreme commander’s “right to be wrong” is subject to the review of the people.  But what Cohen doesn’t acknowledge is that one of these things – Vietnam – is not like the others.  In all four other cases, and indeed in most cases we could come up with, the supreme commander was trying to use armed force to change the existing situation in a decisive way.  Each of the four supreme commanders Cohen considers, even Clemenceau, had a clear objective that sensible people would refer to as “winning” or “victory.”  That quantity was, by the conscious choice of our political leaders, missing throughout our engagement in Vietnam.

And that is why the generals were appalled and disgusted by the political decision-making, particularly through the earlier years of that conflict (the dynamic changed significantly with Nixon), and why so many in the ranks of the armed forces still resent the way the military was employed there.

Ask most military officers what were the worst uses of armed force since WWII, and you will hear:  Vietnam, Somalia, and Lebanon.  All three of these actions share the same character:  deployment of force to act as a placeholder – a national marker – in a dangerous and unstable situation we had no intention of trying to fundamentally alter.  Servicemembers do tend to resent being deployed as bullet-sponges.  An officer’s worst nightmare is having to beat up his troops day after day in a situation that, by political choice, we have elected not to try and change for the better.  That use of the military – that one right there – is the one that becomes unjustifiable, and loses the moral commitment of the troops.

This brings me to our policy in Afghanistan, and how McChrystal’s recommendations are emerging as a de facto challenge to Obama.  We did not see this under Bush, even in the darkest days of 2005 and 2006, because there were three things no one in the chain of command doubted: that Bush’s objective was a fundamentally altered situation in Iraq, that he would not leave the troops to merely hunker down on defense there, and that he would be ready to recognize what would not work, and who could not be compromised with.  Bush’s approach was more like fixing what’s wrong with your car.  Identify it, get the job done, pay the bill.  The Vietnam approach was more like improvisational theater:  let’s send some troops, do a little bombing, try a little finesse at the conference table, see what that buys us.  There will always be people to whom this sounds clever and interesting – but the military will not be among them.

What appears to be emerging with our Afghanistan policy is the attitude, at the national level, that gave us the Vietnam years of 1964 to 1969.  Obama has resisted acknowledging that his stated objective – to defeat, dismantle, and disrupt Al Qaeda – cannot be achieved without immunizing the Afghan populace against the guerrilla tactics of the Taliban.  Afghan territory must be secured against the Taliban guerrillas, through the concerted will of a persuaded people:  that is what McChrystal is telling him.  Otherwise, Obama’s main objective cannot be obtained.

Granted, the vice president disagrees, as apparently does National Security Adviser Jim Jones. Perhaps it is possible to argue about whether we can effectively hunt Al Qaeda without pacifying Afghanistan.  (I’ve written on that here and here.)  But here is the supreme point.  Obama’s tendency appears, regardless, to be disavowing any intention of using armed force to change the existing situation in a decisive way.  If Obama decides to shift to a Central Asian manhunt, and use our troops in Afghanistan solely for that, he will be turning them into bullet-sponges, in a deteriorating situation he has no intention of transforming in our – their – favor.

The difference Eliot Cohen did not recognize, between Vietnam and all the other statesman-soldier situations he surveyed, was that in Vietnam, Washington was trying to use our military not to achieve a political decision, but as a beleaguered police force, in a holding action whose parameters shifted on a whim.  Generals will typically have serious philosophical objections to lending themselves to this approach:  they know what it is their soldiers will be asked to do.  Policemen in tough urban areas at least get to go home at night.

9 thoughts on “Of Presidents and Generals”

  1. Would you know enough to comment as to whether the military approves of semi-publicly lobbying for a policy?
    Some non-military (and anti-military) folks think that for a serving general officer to express his opinion in a public forum strains propriety.

  2. As someone who lived through the Vietnam era, I’m glad anyone stands up and gives their opinion. The men and women in today’s military are all volunteers, they don’t have to be there defending the rest of us. If and when, the politicians want to go to the front lines and that includes the front lines the police man up in our big city slums, I’ll take a listen to the political elites over the trained professionals who protect the rest of us!

  3. While I tend to strongly agree that McChrystal has it right — counterinsurgency can work (but may not) but counterterrorism cannot work — I also think that there are legitimate arguments to be made for a “just kill as many terrorists as we can” approach that that nitwit Biden is hawking.

    But the key point here is a political one. Regardless of which policy is chosen, it is important for the President to consider the options and then act decisively. Obama, however, is constitutionally incapable of being decisive. He’s afraid of everything. Afraid Afghanistan will be another Vietnam. Afraid to get his far-left base riled up against him. Afraid of the MSM turning on him. Afraid that he’ll be accused of really blowing the health care “reform” — aka Post-Officing of medicine — and losing what he has decided must be his legacy. Afraid of his wife (can’t say I blame him).

    So he has sat on his hands for 7 weeks and has now announced that he’ll sit for another few. In fact, he’ll not make a decision until after Thanksgiving — probably the Friday after, so that the bad economic news re the holiday will blot out his decision.

    It is this lack of leadership that will destroy him.

    Even now, McChrystal is being demonized — another MacArthur, the Left is saying — but no one could be further from Truman in temperment than Obama, so Obama will never expressly denounce/rein in McChrystal.

    But if Obama goes into Nero-fiddling mode on this decision, the odds increase that he’ll ultimately just give McChrystal a handful of troops — say, 10,000 — and my sense is that McChrystal may just decide he’s going to resign. And if he does, so will Petraeus.

    And if Petraeus plays his cards right, he’ll be the Republican candidate in 2012 and President on Jan. 20, 2013.

  4. Was McChrystal merely being honest but politically naive? Or was he purposely seeking to use his position and public advocacy of his view as ‘leverage’ to manipulate Obama into responding in Afghanistan in the way that McChrystal desired?

    Suspicions are not necessarily aligned with facts, but if McChrystal speaks out again there will be little doubt of his motivations.

    Ultimately, regardless of the knowledge and wisdom that McChrystal’s recommendations may contain, the President is the CIC and not only deserves McChrystal’s support but duty leaves no other alternative.

    The honorable course of action for McChrystal is to loyally support and serve his CIC until and unless events require his resignation. Then, he should speak out immediately, as to WHY he resigned.

  5. We need to put the McChrystal speech in London in perspective. For one thing, it was a speech made to the relatively obscure group IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies), with which only the military and academics had much familiarity before last week. I’d be willing to bet this is the first time US media have EVER picked up on the rare report by UK media of a speech made by a visiting NATO general at the IISS. Such speeches happen all the time, are reported in the British press maybe 5% of that, and are then reported again in the US, well, once, in the 70-odd years there’s been an IISS. McChrystal would not have thought of this venue as a means of making a case to the public.

    Moreover, McChrystal said nothing in the speech that contradicts any policy statement Obama has made. Pundits with such disparate views as Michael O’Hanlon and Max Boot have made this point, and it’s a valid one. It was Obama’s policy, as stated in March, and which McChrystal was installed this summer to execute, that set the parameters of McChrystal’s assessment and recommendations from August.

    McChrystal is not under any obligation to refrain from speaking in professional venues about assessments he has forwarded in good faith, and has not been given other guidance on.

    Gates has now issued a gag order, which presumably McChrystal will obey. Experienced media hands think the McChrystal assessment document was leaked last month by a staffer at CENTCOM (Petraeus’ HQ command), and not by McChrystal.

    I am not ready by any means to convict McChrystal of running a media campaign to preempt the decision that, properly, lies with Obama. I note further that generals and colonels spoke in professional venues in favor — often urgently — of the surge strategy in Iraq, BEFORE Bush decided to send Rumsfeld to the showers and switch strategies; and no one accused them of being disloyal. The difference, from where I sit, lies in the attitude of the press about the two strategy-staffing situations.

  6. Well, Obama’s ’strategy’ is now clear:

    “aides stress that the president’s final decision on any changes is still at least two weeks away, the emerging thinking suggests that he would be very unlikely to favor a large military increase of the kind being advocated by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal…

    Obama’s developing strategy on the Taliban will “not tolerate their return to power,” the senior official said in an interview with The Associated Press. But the U.S. would fight only to keep the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan’s central government — something it is now far from being capable of — and from giving renewed sanctuary in Afghanistan to al-Qaida, the official said…

    Bowing to the reality that the Taliban is too ingrained in Afghanistan’s culture to be entirely defeated, the administration is prepared, as it has been for some time, to accept some Taliban role in parts of Afghanistan, the official said. That could mean paving the way for Taliban members willing to renounce violence to participate in a central government — though there has been little receptiveness to this among the Taliban. It might even mean ceding some regions of the country to the Taliban…

    Obama kept returning to one question for his advisers: Who is our adversary? the official said.”

    As ALLAHPUNDIT states: “In other words, rather than eat crap by forthrightly admitting he’s prepared to abandon huge swaths of the country to Islamist fascists, rather than invest another 40,000 troops, he’s going to create an artificial distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda to let him save face by claiming he’s focused on “the real enemy.”

    Much like how he was focused during the campaign on “the good war” in Afghanistan rather than “the bad war” in Iraq.

    I wonder how long it’ll be before he decides that not everyone who’s in Al Qaeda is an enemy either — or, better yet, that AQ’s been “substantially defeated” or something, which has been the unstated thrust of all those WH-leaked pieces in the press lately about how weak Bin Laden’s gang has become.

    Why, I’ll bet in a year or so we’ll be told that they’re so weak that we can start pulling out of Afghanistan altogether. Things sure have improved over there since Bush was president, huh?”

    For in depth analysis, see: Al Qaeda is the tip of the Jihadist spear


  7. GB — thanks for providing that link. I saw the piece earlier today and agree with highlighting it. Everyone should read it.

    AQ is, of course, deeply embedded with the Taliban — as it is with other Islamist warlords in Afghanistan — and it’s disgracefully mendacious to suggest we can fight AQ while letting the Taliban and the warlords run rampant in Afghanistan.

    Ironically, this new theme from the administration merely parrots the Taliban’s own announcement, earlier this week, that they are not our enemy. It makes Obama look worse than a fool, unfortunately.

  8. McCrystal should have put his concerns to Obama either directly or through normal military channels. He instead made a public speech invading the area of political perogative under our democratic system of government. Moreover, the speech was made to a foreign forum. An inappropriate speech in an inappropriate place.

    Notwithstanding, the “carpeting” of McCrystal seems to have been a rather mild affair (It sure wasn’t a Trueman/McArthur-like confrontation). Judging from the body language after the airport meeting Obama remains rather fond of his (slightly) unruly general.

    All in all, if we have learned anything about Obama it is that he quite enjoys having his views challenged, he is rather respectful of his generals, and is not adverse to having his mind changed by cogent argument based on evidence.

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