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Suckers For A Uniform

This column was written by Ben Adler.


A few weeks ago, a cover story in The Nation by Richard J. Whalen heralded "The Revolt of the Generals." It began:
A revolt is brewing among our retired Army and Marine generals. This rebellion — quiet and nonconfrontational, but remarkable nonetheless — comes not because their beloved forces are bearing the brunt of ground combat in Iraq but because the retirees see the U.S. adventure in Mesopotamia as another Vietnam-like, strategically failed war, and they blame the errant, arrogant civilian leadership at the Pentagon.
The breathless tone of appreciation for a military "revolt" from a leading publication of the American left is actually an unsurprising development. As the Bush administration's strong-arming and mistreatment of the armed forces in the context of the Iraq fiasco have served to threaten the Republicans' usual monopoly on political support in the military, liberals have rushed to embrace the authoritative critiques from dissident soldiers and officers, both active duty and retired. Indeed, this is not only unsurprising — it's perfectly valid, as far as it goes. Still, for reasons not only of constitutional principle but also of pragmatic politics, liberals ought to pause to remind themselves of a few core tenets concerning civilian control of the military.

They should, for one, recall the situation during the Clinton years, when the military brass's opposition to — and disrespect for — Clinton's position as the commander in chief were so egregious as to mark a recent nadir in military-civilian relations. The insubordination was a barrier to liberal reforms and policy goals. Press reports at the time chronicled the tendency of Colin Powell, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to subvert or obstruct administration policies. First the Joint Chiefs were incensed over Clinton's attempt to lift the ban on gays serving in the military. Shortly thereafter Powell made no secret of his opposition to military intervention in the Balkans, which the administration was considering. Clinton ultimately backed away from intervention, in part because he feared another confrontation with Powell, who was popular both among the military brass and the public. (During one egregious incident in 1993, Harold N. Campbell, a two-star Air Force General, was investigated on charges that he launched into an anti-Clinton tirade at a banquet dinner featuring such phrases as "gay loving," "draft dodging," and "pot smoking." As an Air Force spokesman explained to USA Today at the time, there are military rules against such exercises in speech because "We don't want dissension in the ranks against the civilian authority.")

It's important to distinguish the substantive issues here from the procedural, "meta" questions. Though liberals happen to substantively agree with certain dissident generals now, about this war in particular, they should avoid setting precedents about process and legitimacy that they will regret the next time there's a progressive in office.

Whalen puts the issue squarely early on in the piece:

The retired officers opposing the war and demanding Rumsfeld's ouster represent a new political force, and therefore a potentially powerful factor in the future of our democracy. The former generals' growing lobby could acquire a unique veto power in the future by publicly opposing reckless civilian war-making in advance.
Though he also describes this development as "worrisome," the 3,600-word article doesn't actually explore any concerns or delve into any of the troubling scenarios a military veto over the civilian leadership might present. But here are just a few: military brass could marshal public opinion against necessary spending cuts, or in favor of a foolish policy like strategic ballistic missile defense; they could speak out against a humanitarian military operation that they deem non-essential to national security, or they could egg on a war of aggression.

Beyond such pragmatic concerns, the presentation of non-civilian, uniformed figures as unique bastions of credibility and legitimacy makes for an awkward and fundamentally dishonest argument about who is or isn't entitled to opinions on defense policy. The liberal turn to uniformed critics of Bush's war policy— from Wesley Clark's presidential bid to John Kerry's nomination to the Paul Hackett phenomenon (he graced the cover of Mother Jones as "The Democrat who Fought") — can also obscure the degree to which non-military figures, liberals in particular, have led the way in articulating sound critiques of U.S. security policy under Bush. The New York Times' lead editorial a week and a half ago began by noting in typical fashion, "The generals who told President Bush before the war that Donald Rumsfeld's shock-and-awe fantasy would not work were not enough to persuade him to change his strategy in Iraq." Of course, the Times is right to encourage the Bush administration to listen to the wisdom of career civil servants in any department of government. But generals who were skeptical of the Iraq misadventure never held a monopoly on these concerns; millions of Americans marched against the war before it even started, magazines like the Prospect, The Nation, and Mother Jones spoke out against it, as did academics and think tankers (including experts on national security and the Middle East), current and former politicians, and career civil servants in the State Department.

It's obviously true that the civilian administration conducting American foreign policy should be listening regularly and carefully to the feedback and input of uniformed military brass; it's just as obviously true that the Bush administration has done anything but (and has relied on allies to shift blame for policy failures onto that brass). They can justly be criticized for it. Liberals might only pause to reaffirm a basic truth among themselves: To elevate the views of military officials above those of other citizens would be a moral and strategic mistake, and one they might one day have reason to regret.

Ben Adler is editor of Campus Progress at the Center for American Progress.

By Ben Adler
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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