What Role Should Generals Play in the War Debate?

Top military leaders struggle to influence policy while avoiding political fights

This article is from the archive of our partner .

What role should military leaders play in the contentious world of partisan political debate? It's a minefield the top brass must negotiate carefully as Obama pushes to continue an Afghanistan war that is more popular with his Republican opponents than Democratic supporters. General Stanley McChrystal, the military's chief in Afghanistan, has fallen victim to politicization by both sides, compromising his political objectivity (though not his military leadership). Jim Jones, a retired general and Obama's national security advisor, publicly rebuked McChrystal for his dissent. Now David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, enters a political zone: the formerly vocal "face" of Bush's Iraq surge is much more silent under Obama, inviting speculation as to whether there is a political game at play.

  • President Tops the Chain of Command  Michael Cohen wonders why Republicans forget the Constitution when the White House and military clash. "This country is not ruled by a military junta; we are ruled by elected officials who make decisions about war and peace. General McChrystal has offered his advice and recommendations to the president; now his job in this particular strategic review is done - and the Commander-in-Chief gets to make the decision on how to proceed," he writes. "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."
  • Generals Don't Set Policy in Democracies  Bruce Ackerman points out in the Washington Post that federal law places civilian leadership above the military. "As commanding general in Afghanistan, McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements. Under law, he doesn't have the right to attend the National Security Council as it decides our strategy," he writes, calling it "a plain violation of the principle of civilian control" for "McChrystal to pressure the president in public to adopt his strategy." Ackerman notes that Obama asked McChrystal to be honest, but confidential. "Future presidents won't be so encouraging if they know that their commanders might create political problems if they think that their recommendations will be overruled. Instead, they will insist that their commanders tell them only what they want to hear."
  • Obama Shouldn't Decide Intra-Military Debates  Michael Goldfarb argues that the White House and Jim Jones are now deciding strategy issues once left up to the military. "During the Bush administration, there were legitimate debates about Iraq within the military about troop numbers and strategy," he writes, citing debates over what strategy to use in Iraq. "This time there is no debate going on within the military. The debate is entirely political and taking place entirely inside the White House." Goldfarb slams Jones for helping the White House to work against military leadership in "advancing Obama’s political agenda."
  • Sec. Gates Warning McChrystal?  Spencer Ackerman parses Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's statement this morning as a warning to McChrystal not to stray. "Gates has fired a lot of generals, including McChrystal’s immediate predecessor, and so a meeting of hundreds of Army officers is sure to get the message from the defense secretary that they had better not try his patience if they’ve got a problem with the strategy review." Ackerman says that the statement "designed to convey that there isn’t a civilian/military split and the Pentagon is not antagonizing and will not antagonize President Obama."
  • Generals Dragged Into Political Fights  Fred Kagan defends against politicians and pundits who would bash or co-opt generals for political purposes. "The reality is that America’s commanders over the last eight years have consistently given their best professional military advice, making the recommendations they thought would achieve the goals set for them by their political masters," he writes. "The politicization of the analysis of American generalship is one of the worst consequences of the partisan excesses of the past several years. Whether it was Gen. David Petraeus in 2007 or Gen. Stanley McChrystal today, far too many commentators on both sides of the aisle have become comfortable saying that commanders who offer recommendations the critics don’t like are doing so because they have become captive of some ideology."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.