The Skeptics

New York Times Buries the Lede

Thom Shanker has a story in Friday's New York Times about how the roles and duties of a U.S. military officer have changed given the missions bestowed on them in recent years by policymakers.  Shanker writes:

Generals and other top officers are now expected to be city managers, cultural ambassadors, public relations whizzes and politicians as they deal with multiple missions and constituencies in the war zone, in allied capitals — and at home.

The most interesting part of that passage is the last three words: "and at home." Historically, the mission of the uniformed military has not been to influence the policy debate at home.  As military officers—who have agreed to die rather than face mission failure—have come to realize that one of the gravest threats to their missions can come from exhaustion at home, they have become increasingly involved in domestic political discussions regarding U.S. foreign policy. Gen. David Barno, now a COIN promoter at the Center for a New American Security, reports learning that he had to not just lead his troops, but also influence a range of actors including "allies, Capitol Hill, the media."

Inevitably in these discussions the politicians are presented as crabbed, impatient, almost infantile whiners that bleat like sheep for relief.  The military officers are consistently presented as patriotic, stoic, and restrained.  Perhaps these images are inevitable.  But some of us wonder whether the influence of military officers has grown beyond its healthy limits.  It is interesting that Shanker, despite having scored an interview with Petraeus, didn't appear to broach that topic with him or Barno, skimming over the subject by noting drily that

senior officers admit it is much harder to figure out how to prepare their most senior commanders for managing relationships with civilian masters in Washington, especially if popular support is waning for both the strategy, and the wars themselves.

For those interested, at the upcoming American Political Science Association annual meeting in Washington Gen. Petraeus, who holds a Princeton PhD, will receive the Hubert H. Humphrey Award in recognition of notable public service by a political scientist.  We will cover the APSA meeting in as much detail as possible here at The Skeptics.