Paul Pillar

Opinions in Uniform

General Douglas MacArthurOver at Foreign Policy, our friends Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner have been expressing unease over the conspicuous role active or retired military officers seem to be playing in debates on foreign and security policy. Drezner has noted the “strangeness” of how in Israel it is “ex-military/intel guys” who have been leading the challenge to the Netanyahu government's policies on matters such as Iran, although he also seems concerned about making sure U.S. officers stay in a seen-but-not-heard role. Walt notices what a prominent part military officers have been playing in some Council on Foreign Relations events and laments, in light of how much the Pentagon already spends on public relations, that the council is giving the military “another platform from which to purvey its views.” I am less concerned about any of this as far as the United States is concerned, partly for reasons that Walt himself touches on.

Of course members of the military, while still in active service, should not openly contravene the policies and judgments of the government of the day. That restriction applies not just to the military but to anyone, military or civilian, who is serving in the executive branch of the government. As far as the military specifically is concerned, the United States, for reasons related to the nation's history and political culture, has had less of a “man on horseback” problem than many other democracies. Douglas MacArthur was a rare megalomaniacal exception, but even a then-unpopular President Truman was able to dispose of the problem of insubordination that MacArthur came to represent.

When we start hearing from U.S. military officers in ways that seem to go beyond their proper role, this almost always reflects deficiencies in the civilian leadership's decision-making process. If costs, risks and the unlikelihood of success have been insufficiently considered, we hope and expect (at least in hindsight) military officers to speak up about it. By far the most egregious example in recent U.S. history of a deficient decision-making process was the launching of the Iraq War, in which there was no policy process at all that led to the decision to go to war. There was no known decision point and thus no way for the military or anyone else to distinguish between the period before a decision, when the military and everyone else inside government should be giving the decision maker their most honest and unvarnished advice, and the period after the decision, when the proper response is to salute and execute that decision as vigorously and skillfully as possible.

A stark contrast was provided by the Obama administration's long and thorough deliberations preceding key decisions about the war in Afghanistan. The Department of Defense (not just the uniformed military) can be justly accused of using the familiar bureaucratic ploy of shaping the options in a way that limits or favors certain options. But when President Obama was dissatisfied, he ended up crafting his own option. He did not get rolled by the military.

In the United States we also have another dimension in civil-military relations: being answerable to that coequal policy-making body, the Congress. If a military officer is asked a question by a member of Congress, even in an open hearing, he should give an answer that is honest and reflects his best professional judgment. General Eric Shinseki, then the army chief of staff, did so when asked before the Iraq War about how many troops the job would take. He paid a price when as a result of his honesty his political masters in the Bush administration shunned and repudiated him. The nation would have been better off if it had paid more attention at the time to what Shinseki said. It also would have been better off if it had paid more attention in the mid-1960s to the rather prescient judgments of the chief of staff of the army and commandant of the Marine Corps about the size of force and length of time the Vietnam War would entail.

Drezner says that recently retired military officers are in a “slightly different category” from those still on active duty. “Slightly”? They are in a completely different category. There is none of the same restriction about contradicting or being insubordinate to the boss in government. We are talking about private citizens expressing views about public affairs. We should not make the mistake of assuming that because such a citizen once was in the military, the views being expressed are somehow views “of the military,” much less militaristic. Walt correctly notes that it was Dwight Eisenhower who warned us about a military-industrial complex and that on Iran our military leaders “seem a lot more sensible than the more hawkish civilians.” Those examples reflect a larger pattern. Research has demonstrated that U.S. military veterans as well as serving officers are more reluctant to resort to force than are their civilian countrymen who have never served in the military. I certainly share Walt's concern about the tendency to think narrowly of the pursuit of U.S. interests abroad in terms of the use of military force. But that unfortunate tendency is not coming disproportionately from the views of those who have worn the uniform.