Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Are we becoming Pakistan?


In 2008, retired generals and admirals lined up with candidate Obama.

On an email list where folks are discussing how to encourage our rulers to wind down their farflung wars and stop starting new ones, somebody mused the other day:

General Petreaus is essentially playing this administration like a fiddle with the "surge" in Afghanistan and our President is basically hapless to rein him in. ...The situation reminded me of how in Pakistan it's the military who has the upper hand in terms of "public confidence" and often openly undermine their civilian leaders.

Am I making too much out of this? The similarity sadly seems to be kind of striking.

When empires are declining, losing their grip, historically their generals have often stepped in to prop up and then take over inept central governments -- think Rome, the Ottoman Turks, etc. After all, the army bled for the empire; if the civilians can't run it properly, don't the generals almost have a duty to push those dithering politicians into a back seat? Or so many come to believe. We shouldn't think this is entirely a phenomenon of the distant past among "less modern" people -- it nearly happened in France in the late 1950s.

The epic muddle that is the Afghanistan war is raising these question in this country among "National Security" thinkers. (Anyone else remember a time when that label was confined to obscure Washington bureaucrats, spooks and a few slightly scary professors?) They are concerned. Bernard Finel (Georgetown University plus thinktanks) writes:

We are witnessing dysfunction[al] civil-military relations in the United States today and that dysfunction is a major reason for our incoherent and unrealistic approach to Afghanistan.

He spells this out:

I don't know if Obama is using Petraeus to float trial balloons, or if Obama has decided -- like Bush before him -- that selling an unpopular war requires a man in uniform. Regardless, there is a broader, and troubling pattern.

It isn't just Petraeus and McChrystal. It is also a matter of Michael Hayden's role as NSA director in developing and implementing an unlawful domestic surveillance program. It is the willingness of military leaders to be complicit in criminal conduct against detainees. It is the increasing role of former military officers in various leadership positions in government.

Even as the percentage of the population with military experience shrinks, the policy influence of serving and retired general officers is extremely high. Is this better than just appointing a president’s cronies or donors to important national security and foreign policy decisions? Maybe. Let's at least have a discussion about it. But claiming that the line between policy and military leadership is as strong as in the past is, I think, not accurate. Old soldiers are not just fading away anymore, they are instead continuing their careers in sensitive and senior policy positions. Is that healthy?

Finally, I am not sure Obama is, in fact, wholly in charge on Afghanistan. ...

Scary, huh? Jason Fritz who writes as "Gunslinger" at the "national security" blog InkSpots thinks he understands why the Afghanistan muddle is almost pushing the generals into action.

U.S. military doctrine demands that leaders act based on their best interpretation of their commander's intent. If that intent is nebulous enough, subordinate leaders have wide flexibility of action. And that's where we've come to in Afghanistan.

Our Afghan strategy, if you could call it such, is horribly vague to the point of uselessness, which I see has a failure in leadership at the highest levels here in DC. Any general, with 30-plus years of leadership experience, will naturally fill that void with how he best interprets his commander's intent. In this case it seems to simply mean: win in Afghanistan. So I think that is what Generals McChrystal and Petraeus were and are attempting to do. I don't see this as a power grab by the generals and I don't necessarily see the President as trying to use them to sell the war. Nor do I see it as a crisis - yet. But the civilians aren't providing the leadership they should and the generals are filling that void as their nature dictates they should.

Those poor military leaders just can't help themselves -- they just have to take over, don't they? It's what they were trained to do.

Viewed from lower military ranks, these general officers pushing their Afghanistan agendas don't appear quite so innocent. Did you hear about the reserve colonel, a vet of both Iraq and Afghanistan, who got bounced out of Kabul for complaining about the command staff's addiction to meaningless PowerPoint presentations? He's not so impressed with the generals' professionalism or superior wisdom about the wars.

I think it is time for the American people to hold the senior military leaderships' (colonels and up) feet to the fire. When they make their reports to Congress, one can be sure that it is the best possible scenario that they can justify without lying. The phrase "progress is being made" should not be accepted as an answer. It is like saying "the check is in the mail."

Everyone should remember that these are military careerists. War provides the opportunity for testing their skills, getting medals and promotions. A compromise peace without their definition of "victory" might be considered a failure. They all want to march down Pennsylvania Avenue like General Norman Schwarzkopf. Likewise, the contractors want to continue making their huge profits. It is the common soldiers, however, who are providing the sweat and shedding the blood.

We must stop treating the Afghans like children. They are not. It is their country and for better or worse, they should start taking responsibility for it. There is little reason not to begin turning over responsibility now. ... After that no more blank checks. In my opinion, time's up.

Colonel Sellin's distress with his commanders points to another historically common phenomenon in declining empires. Once military leaders have pushed those useless politicians off the scene sometimes their subordinates, who know the foibles of their leaders, think they could do an even better job. Once a hierarchical order jumps the rails, the potential for violent chaos rises exponentially.

Obviously we are not there yet. But these are the dangers in empires losing their predominance and the United States is that. Failed wars heighten threat and we have several such wars these days.
***
Tonight President Obama will address the nation about our Iraq folly. Nothing he can say can excuse all the death, destruction and displacement of that criminal imperial enterprise.

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