Is the President right to question the advice of his military advisers? You wouldn’t think so to hear some of the conservative and neo-con pundits excoriate President Obama for refusing to simply accept General Stanley McChrystal’s war plan for Afghanistan. Yesterday, National Security Adviser James L. Jones, who was a general in the Marines and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told CNN that other military advisers, and McChrystal himself, will be called upon to analyze a range of options.
Republicans forget that the founder of their party, Abraham Lincoln, spent most of the Civil War fighting with his generals and reminding them that he, not they, was the commander-in-chief. Closer to our own time, President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Republicans chastised the President and celebrated the General who wished to launch World War III and who consistently disobeyed orders from his commander-in-chief. The outbursts of emotion for MacArthur subsided quickly as people realized his Caesarian potential.
There is an even more recent example of military parochialism and politics that shows why President Obama is right to question, and question rigorously, the advice from his commanders. In the first year of the Clinton administration, the military said no to both gays in the military and to any U.S. intervention in Bosnia, both of which candidate Clinton had pledged in his campaign. The military brass said that gays in the military would destroy unit cohesion and that taking on the Serbs in Bosnia was impossible because of the mountainous terrain and the determination of the Serb fighters. At the time, I suggested that Clinton form an all gay brigade and send it to Bosnia, but that idea never went very far.
The military was wrong on both counts. Many countries now have gays serving openly in the military and none of them have reported any difficulties. And, we did finally go into Bosnia to end the genocide and we encountered virtually no casualties among our military. This is not ancient history, it is fifteen years ago. So, Obama is right to assume that military advisers, like all advisers, have certain parochial and personal and political blinders that he needs to overcome to reach the best solution.
I am not privy to the kind of information that would allow me to suggest this strategy over that. I think the fans of the Surge in Iraq make claims for its success but it is, in fact, unclear how permanent that success will be. And, it is sometimes the case that a suggested change in tactics leads to a re-examination of strategy that had been needed but not recognized previously. Something like this occurred during the American Revolution as it became obvious that there was no need to defeat the British redcoats in the kind of open-field warfare that was their strength. Better to skirmish and keep the Continental Army free from such set battles, to enter into a war of attrition and wear down the British. Indeed, that may be the Taliban strategy in Afghanistan today because it is undoubtedly the case that any people are more likely to remain loyal to a military fight for their own turf than for a foreign conquest. Finally, it is very unclear to me if any military strategy can achieve political stability in Afghanistan. We can be there with more troops or for more years and the country might still be unstable ten years hence. If there is a way to contain, if not defeat, the Taliban, without more troops, I am all for it. Such a strategy was adopted and worked in the Cold War, although it was adopted for different reasons than present themselves in Afghanistan.
None of us have the right to expect success to our decisions, yet decisions must be made. Whether you are running the country or the corner store, such infallibility does not exist. Our military deserves nothing but the highest praise for their skills, their commitment, the rigor of their methods, and their loyalty. But, they do not deserve a blank check to chart the nation’s foreign policy because no one deserves such a blank check.