Putting a gen­eral in his place

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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.

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