Thursday, April 26, 2012

President Obama on his relationship to the uniformed military

Rolling Stone's By Jann Wenner did a mostly softball interview with President Obama, Ready for the Fight: Rolling Stone Interview with Barack Obama 04/25/2012. I was struck by this part:

I came in without having served in the military, but feeling a great reverence for our military, and in awe of the sacri­fices that our men and women in uniform make every single day. In the first year, the Pentagon had grown accustomed to basically setting the terms – not just tactics, but also strategy. There was some sense that we had a lot of hammers, so everything was a nail. In part because of really good work by Bob Gates, who I kept on as secretary of defense, and in part because of me really trying to engage and listen to the Joint Chiefs and have a frank and open and honest discussion, even when we had strong disagreements, they developed a sense that I care about our military – but that I very much believe in civilian control of our military, and that military decisions are in service of strategies and broader conceptions of diplomacy that are made here in this White House. And so I can say, with a lot of confidence, that at this point the relationship between me and the Pentagon is very good. I think they know I care about them and I respect them, and I think they respect me and listen to what I say. They understand that I'm the commander in chief. [my emphasis]
That whole section makes me really uncomfortable for these reasons.

Civilian control of the military is not a matter of a President's personal belief, it's part of our basic Constitutional system. I don't like to see a President talking about this as though its a matter of his personal management style.

"I think they know I care about them and I respect them": this sounds like management-consultant or motivational-speaker jargon. He's the President. The duty of the military from generals to private is to follow his legal orders. If they don't "respect" him enough to do so, or they aren't motivated to do so because they think Obama does sufficiently care about their feelings or whatever, then they should resign. Or the President should fire them. Yes, the President has to build a working relationship with his generals. But it makes me really uncomfortable to hear him talking about it this way.

"I came in without having served in the military, but feeling a great reverence for our military." Has Obama ever said in public that he has "reverence" for any other agency of the federal government? Like the National Institutes of Health, for instance, whose job it is to find ways to save lives? Aside from the fact that it sounds cloying, and that it echoes the chronic defensiveness of Democrats on military-related issues, it just seems wrong for the President to describe the military this way. His job is to command the military and set policy for it. Not to bow down to them in "reverence".


And as a matter of historical fact, I also wonder about this comment: "In the first year, the Pentagon had grown accustomed to basically setting the terms – not just tactics, but also strategy."

This sounds like something he would say that he might see as pleasing the Democratic base. But one of the things about the Cheney-Bush Administration is that for all their warmongering and warmaking and verbal idolatry of the military in public, they were clear that they were giving the orders. Rummy is a war criminal and an overall jerk. But he practiced civilian control of the military, if often in a bullying and inappropriate way. Ask Gen. Eric Shinseki.

Obama two sentences later talks about the "really good work by Bob Gates, who I kept on as secretary of defense." Yes, the Bush Defense Secretary he kept on. Which in retrospect was a terrible sign of how little he planned to strike out on a new course in national security policy. But if "the Pentagon had grown accustomed to basically setting the terms – not just tactics, but also strategy" - the would have been doing that under Secretary Gates, wouldn't they? Gates was Secretary of Defense for the last two years of Bush's Presidency.

Gates just announced he was forming a consulting firm with Bush National Security Adviser, Secretary of State, and war criminal Condoleezza Rice.

Republican politicians, including Bush and Rummy, like to talk about how they are just going to do what the uniformed military tells them to do, because their base likes to hear that. It's dangerous talk coming from a President or national security officials, and contemptuous of the American system of government. But in the Cheney-Bush Administration, the civilians did cram their preferences in matters like the Iraq War down the generals' throats.

Not that we saw any generals resigning in protest.

I am glad to see that Obama is still talking diplomacy with Iran: "So we have another round of talks taking place between Iran and the P5-plus-1 ... There is a window of opportunity to resolve this issue diplomatically, and that is my fervent preference."

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