Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Obama and the Pentagon

Andrew Bacevich's article of today at The New Republic website, Civilian Control? Surely, You Jest. 08/18/2010, is a kind of update of the essay he published in 2007 from which I quoted yesterday. That essay describes a series of incidents since the end of the Second World War in which military leaders have asserted their preferences against those of the civilian leadership through bureaucratic maneuvers and politics. His point is that while the legal and formal reality of civilian control of the military prevails in the US, in practice its content is severely mitigated in a variety of ways. In the New Republic piece, he takes the story up to today:

A more recent example occurred just a year ago. With President Obama agonizing over what to do about Afghanistan, The Washington Post offered for general consumption the military’s preferred approach, the so-called McChrystal Plan. Devised by General Stanley McChrystal, who had been appointed by Obama to command allied forces in Afghanistan, the plan called for a surge of U.S. troops and the full-fledged application of counterinsurgency doctrine—an approach that necessarily implied a much longer and more costly war.

The effect of this leak, almost surely engineered by some still unidentified military officer, was to hijack the entire policy review process, circumscribing the choices available to the commander-in-chief. Rushing to the nearest available microphone, members of Congress (mostly Republicans) announced that it was Obama’s duty to give the field commander whatever he wanted. McChrystal himself made the point explicitly. During a speech in London, he categorically rejected the notion that any alternative to his strategy even existed: It was do it his way or lose the war. The role left to the president was not to decide, but simply to affirm.

The leaking of the McChrystal Plan constituted a direct assault on civilian control. At the time, however, that fact passed all but unnoticed. Few of those today raising a hue-and-cry about PFC Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeak-er, bothered to protest. The documents that Manning allegedly made public are said to endanger the lives of American troops and their Afghan comrades. Yet, a year ago, no one complained about the McChrystal leaker providing Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership with a detailed blueprint of exactly how the United States and its allies were going to prosecute their war.

The absence of any serious complaint reflected the fact that, in Washington—especially in the press corps—military leaks aimed at subverting or circumscribing civilian authority are accepted as standard fare. It’s part of the way Washington works.
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"It is the logic of our times
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-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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