Civilian control of the military is not only one of the great benefits of today’s democracies; it is also one of the most profound political developments of the modern era.
Clearly there are hazards to having the military in charge of those who may not have fought in wars, and therefore cannot know first-hand the horrors of war. But those hazards are small compared to having active-duty generals in charge of both a country’s military and politics. For instance, there is no shortage of military men whose experience in battle only increases their appetite for military incursions, and who are apt to view all foreign policy politics as contests of military might.
Probably no example in American history better demonstrates the benefits of civilian leadership over the military than the Cuban Missile Crisis. If the military leaders had had their way the U.S. would likely have bombed Cuba, believing that the Soviet nuclear warheads were not yet operational. In fact they were operational, and recent documents show that both Castro and the Soviets were prepared to launch a nuclear strike on America if Cuba was attacked. Only the wisdom and restraint of the Kennedy team, many of whom were formerly in the military, averted the disaster.
Most importantly, civilian leadership puts the responsibility for foreign policy and the conduct of war exactly where it should be: on elected officials who are accountable to the people. Without this check it would be much harder for the public to exert any influence on American foreign policy, including waging war.
And yet this chain of accountability has been utterly broken by one of the Bush Administration’s most effective “bait and switches”. Back in 2006 Bush started using the rhetoric that he was “listening to the generals”; it was a masterful way to shift the blame away from him and his administration so that he could contend that he was just following what the generals were telling him.
This tactic of deflecting attention away from his own failed policies reached its apex recently when he shifted all the attention to General Petraeus. No longer did Bush have to answer for his policy decisions; they were all in the hands of a single general who would periodically brief Congress.
And the media rolled over (yet again).
When Petraeus testified in September there were reams of media coverage dissecting his statistics and whether the “surge” was working; there was next to nothing on how Bush’s rationale for the war had shifted yet again (to we can’t leave because it will get worse). The Administration’s original metrics for success were barely discussed.
Most troubling about this shift is that it’s become increasingly clear (despite the mythology perpetrated by the Right) that the generals are not apolitical actors who “tell it like it is”. In fact they have their own agendas and are loathe to openly criticize Administration policy.
Until they retire that is.
General Sanchez, once a major cheerleader for the war, is the most recent retired general to change his tune once he begins collecting his pension. Just last week he unleashed a tirade of criticism on the administration and described the war as a colossal failure. One can only wonder whether there are any high-ranking military officers willing to openly criticize the war while they actually have some say in its conduct.
We now have a situation where the civilian leadership under Bush has absolved itself of responsibility and the generals are playing along. The result: an indefinite occupation which no one seems to have a clue how to end.
Expect lots more money down the drain and lots more body bags. And then Bush will tiptoe out of office and leave the mess to the next administration.
This is not how American democracy was supposed to work.