Michael Cohen on Generals in a Democracy

Obama, Bush, and Clinton share blame for politicizing the military, a dangerous step

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Top military brass have been caught at the center of debate over how to proceed in Afghanistan, a contentious fight normal for the partisan politics of Washington but strange new terrain for generals. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, and David Petraeus, head of Central Command, are being forced into political roles by those who see profit in appropriating the generals. Michael Cohen rises above the fray to explain how this happened and what it means for the military as well as its Constitutionally-mandated civilian oversight.

Now it should be noted that the placing of so much responsibility in the hands of Petraeus was largely a result of the White House and GOP having such little credibility on Iraq that they needed a man in uniform to seal the deal. But the current debate about Afghanistan strategy - and General McChrystal's striking and inappropriate public lobbying - seems to show the dangers in civilian leaders placing too much power in the hands of the military. To listen to McCain, Bush and now Kyl is to believe that the military is a co-equal branch of government . . . or perhaps one that should have the final say over national security decision-making. And it certainly seems like General McChrystal is acting that way.

Now to be completely fair, not all blame can be laid at the feet of Republicans. Bill Clinton must bear some responsibility as well; not only in giving the military too much influence in the implementation of US foreign policy, but also refusing to stand up to the military at times when they pushed back against him (the gays in the military imbroglio of 1992/3 is perhaps the best example).  And during the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama couldn't spend enough time getting photographed next to retired generals - many of whom were given jobs in his Administration that are usually filled by civilians. For national security vulnerable Democrats, the support of the military has become the great validator.

But perhaps the balance is shifting. Ultimately, the current White House review on Afghanistan policy is ... about Afghanistan. But the clear subtext is re-establishing the notion of unambiguous civilian control over national security decision-making. The fact that Jim Jones publicly rebuked McChrystal and now it seems the President privately did the same seems to suggest that this White House understands when it comes to sending troops into harm's way .. it's their call, not the generals.

Cohen, rather than blasting a particular general on behalf of a political cause, explores how our system politicized them in the first place. With most pundits using generals as political footballs, Cohen explains why this role is so new, why it's so dangerous, and why both generals and politicians should be concerned about it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.