Putting a general in his place
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, fell so far so fast that he is already yesterday’s news despite the ink hardly being dry on the Rolling Stone profile that sunk him. It is regrettable that so fine a warrior and skilled counterinsurgent who has devoted much of his life to this country met such an ignominious end.
But the same brash swagger and manly virtue that helped McChrystal reach the pinnacle of the profession of arms became his undoing when insufficiently balanced by the prudence and sense of moderation necessary in a leader. Given that he was the general who emphasized showing “courageous restraint,” McChrystal ironically failed to appreciate when to exercise it himself — whether in the U.K. last year when he earned his first reprimand from President Barack Obama or in the company of the reporter embedded with him and his “Team America” staff.
Team McChrystal’s downfall provides us an opportunity to reflect on the proper nature of civil-military relations since it was ultimately the team’s misunderstanding of it that was at the heart of the general’s problems.
A full guide to appropriate civil-military relations is impossible in such a short space. However, in a piece I wrote for the book “Inside Defense,” I offer a model building off Samuel Huntington’s classic work that suggests important behavioral guidelines for both military officers and their civilian superiors.
The most important is a moral commitment by the military to civilian authority. This norm requires not just a positive commitment to obey, but a negative duty to “avoid other kinds of political involvement as well.” Naturally that would bar open partisan activity. But it would also forbid activities designed to influence policy or public opinion. Military officers should take due care to avoid public comment on their civilian leaders — negative and positive. This responsibility would certainly bar mocking them. However, it would ban what might sound like praise as well.
Soldiers should be studiously neutral, even if our contemporary understanding of democracy means that we can’t expect our generals to avoid even voting. Gen. David Petraeus’ recent non-voting might suggest, though, that it is a real possibility — and a welcome one. Civilian leaders have a responsibility to act in ways that shows respect for military officers as professional experts in “the management of violence.” That entails a duty to avoid interference in the military sphere unless there is a particularly convincing reason to do otherwise.
Congress and the president also have a responsibility to avoid using the military as part of their institutional or partisan battles.
That means that neither the White House nor anyone else should “encourage” a military leader to enter political battles over current policy. Moreover, Congress should avoid calling military leaders to testify in public to make political gains out of what should be privately discussed. And civilian leaders should resist using the military for cheap photo-ops.
Political leaders have a responsibility to select military leaders for their virtues and expertise rather than their political views or willingness to publicly support government policy.
Civilians should seek out those who will offer candid advice and who can also be trusted not to “shirk” when they disagree with their superiors.
Moreover, civilians should not punish candor, though the military should advise its superiors privately and without stepping over the admittedly gray line into political debate.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seems to understand this given that he has asserted that “healthy” civil-military relations start with those in his office “creating an environment in which the senior military feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the president and the National Security Council.”
Civilian leaders also should behave in a fashion that lends respect and legitimacy to the government. That includes acting as moral exemplars. It will buttress the military’s normative commitment to civilian control, and it has been shown to reduce military intervention in politics.
These guidelines will not be easy for senior officers to follow — especially since we’ve educated them in the ways of politics as part of professional military training. Nor will it be easy for civilian leaders unaccustomed to denying themselves any political advantage.
No one ever said self-restraint is simple. But as David Hendrickson of Colorado College has wisely argued, “There is no substitute for better motives.” And McChrystal’s downfall teaches us that it can be personally and collectively harmful to fail to adhere to this virtue.