Don't Leave It To The Generals


Matt Yglesias has a web article in The American Prospect where he ruminates on Richard Holbrooke's legacy and impact on the ongoing AfPak struggle. He takes the time to point out the disfunction of civil-military affairs in this discussion.

More disturbing -- because it's presumably better considered -- is Gen. David Petraeus' decision to pen a postmortem homage to Holbrooke that includes the line "I used to note to him and to various audiences, with affection and respect, that he was my 'diplomatic wingman.'"

The affection and respect Petraeus expressed were doubtlessly both genuine, but the sentiment is mistaken. It reverses the proper relationship between civilian and military authorities -- generals and their troops are supposed to serve political objectives outlined by civilians, not view civilians as adjuncts to military campaigns. Holbrooke, though, likely would not have been offended. When told he was to be Petraeus' civilian counterpart in the region, he told Der Spiegel that he laughed in response: "He has more airplanes than I have telephones."

That's funny, true, and a big problem for American foreign policy. And with America losing its most famous diplomat -- really its only famous diplomat -- the situation is not improving.

Let me suggest that (maybe) this situation is more simple than it appears. Yglesias noted in his book "Heads in the Sand" this phenonema of liberal internationalists to rely more on military power to execute foreign policy since the Balkans conflict (but why, since we still have US forces there and regional tensions continue? Question for another day). But I wonder if he has this right, that government civilians are ceding their primacy in foreign affairs to the military, or are the civilians just being lazy?

I have this image in mind, where GW Bush and his staff point to the Pentagon generals and say "just get it done in Afghanistan and Iraq." No real guidance other than personnel and resource constraints, because those count in budget issues. They didn't cede their control, just any responsibility to measure the success of military operations against a pre-determined end-state. And we all saw how well that turned out. Obama's administration is a little different, in that (I imagine) they're uncomfortable with the lack of progress being made, but want to direct the military operations toward an end-state without appearing "weak" on defense. But the process is the same, where the civilians who ought to be directing and managing the conflict have pretty much said "we'll just let the military do its best."

In both administrations, the civilians aren't giving up oversight or authority to the military. They're just letting the military be the middle managers in executing their policy, without really determining if there is any progress being made. I think we'll see that behavior again in Obama's latest review of AfPak strategy this week. That's criminal behavior in and of itself, but not really a change in the civil-military relationship. We need this administration to step up and take control of the situation, starting with a drawdown of forces next year and getting out of Afghanistan before 2012.

UPDATE:And of course, why should we be surprised that today's White House press conference basically said, "no change from the military-led, civilian-supported operations that rely on 'conditions on the ground' as bellweathers for any future decision." Disappointing.

Winter Donation Drive
Help us stay independent!
Via snail mail:
P.O. BOX 66310
Los Angeles, CA 90066


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service (revised 3/17/2016) for information on our posting policy.