Will Our Generals Ever Shut Up?

by , September 08, 2010

The fall issue of Foreign Policy magazine features Fred Kaplan’s “The Transformer,” an article-cum-interview with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It received a flurry of attention because Gates indicated he might leave his post “sometime in 2011.” The most significant two lines in the piece, however, were so ordinary that the usual pundits thought them not worth pondering. Part of a Kaplan summary of Gates’s views, they read: “He favors substantial increases in the military budget. … He opposes any slacking off in America’s global military presence.”

Now, if Kaplan had done a similar interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, such lines might have been throwaways, since a secretary of state is today little more than a fancy facilitator, ever less central to what that magazine, with its outmoded name, might still call “foreign policy.” Remind me: When was the last time you heard anyone use that phrase – part of a superannuated world in which “diplomats” and “diplomacy” were considered important – in a meaningful way? These days “foreign policy” and “global policy” are increasingly a single fused, militarized entity, at least across what used to be called “the Greater Middle East,” where what’s at stake is neither war nor peace, but that “military presence.”

As a result, Gates’s message couldn’t be clearer: despite two disastrous wars and a global war on terror now considered “multigenerational” by those in the know, trillions of lost dollars, and staggering numbers of deaths (if you happen to include Iraqi and Afghan ones), the U.S. military mustn’t in any way slack off. The option of reducing the global mission – the one that’s never on the table when “all options are on the table” – should remain nowhere in sight. That’s Gates’s bedrock conviction. And when he opposes any diminution of the global mission, it matters.

Slicing Up the World Like a Pie

As we know from a Peter Baker front-page New York Times profile of Barack Obama as commander-in-chief, the 49-year-old president “with no experience in uniform” has “bonded” with Gates, the 66-year-old former spymaster, all-around-apparatchik, and holdover from the last years of the Bush era. Baker describes Gates as the president’s “most important tutor,” and on matters military like the Afghan War, the president has reportedly “deferred to him repeatedly.”

Let’s face it, though: deference has become the norm for the Pentagon and U.S. military commanders, which is not so surprising. After all, in terms of where our money goes, the Pentagon is the 800-pound gorilla in just about any room. It has, for instance, left the State Department in the proverbial dust. By now, it gets at least $12 dollars for every dollar of funding that goes to the State Department, which in critical areas of the world has become an adjunct of the military.

In addition, the Pentagon has taken under its pilotless predatory wing such previously civilian tasks as delivering humanitarian aid and “nation-building.” As Secretary of Defense Gates has pointed out, there are more Americans in U.S. military bands than there are foreign service officers.

If it’s true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then you can gauge the power of the Pentagon by the fact that, at least in Iraq after 2011, the State Department is planning to become a mini-military – an armed outfit using equipment borrowed from the Pentagon and an “army” of mercenary guards formed into “quick reaction forces,” all housed in a series of new billion-dollar “fortified compounds,” no longer called “consulates” but “enduring presence posts” (as the Pentagon once called its giant bases in Iraq “enduring camps”). This level of militarization of what might once have been considered the Department of Peaceful Solutions to Difficult Problems is without precedent and an indicator of the degree to which the government is being militarized.

Similarly, according to the Washington Post, the Pentagon has managed to take control of more than two-thirds of the “intelligence programs” in the vast world of the U.S. Intelligence Community, with its 17 major agencies and organizations. Ever since the mid-1980s, it has also divided much of the globe like a pie into slices called “commands.” (Our own continent joined the crew as the U.S. Northern Command, or Northcom, in 2002, and Africa, as Africom in 2007.)

Before stepping down a notch to become Afghan war commander, Gen. David Petraeus was U.S. Central Command (Centcom) commander, which meant military viceroy for an especially heavily garrisoned expanse of the planet stretching from Egypt to the Chinese border. Increasingly, in fact, there is no space, including outer space and virtual space, where our military is uninterested in maintaining or establishing a “presence.”

On Oct. 1, for instance, a new Cyber Command headed by a four-star general and staffed by 1,000 “elite military hackers and spies” is to hit the keyboards typing. And there will be nothing shy about its particular version of “presence” either. The Bush-era concept of “preventive war” (that is, a war of aggression) may have been discarded by the Obama administration, but the wizards of the new Cyber Command are boldly trying to go where the Bush administration once went. They are reportedly eager to establish a virtual war-fighting principle (labeled “active defense”) under which they could preemptively attack and knock out the computer networks of adversaries.

And the White House and environs haven’t been immune to creeping militarization either. As presidents are now obliged to praise American troops to the skies in any “foreign policy” speech – “Our troops are the steel in our ship of state” – they also turn ever more regularly to military figures in civilian life and for civilian posts. President Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, is a retired Marine four-star general, and from the Bush years the president kept on Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute as “war czar,” just as he appointed retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry as our ambassador to Afghanistan, and recently replaced retired admiral Dennis Blair with retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper as the director of national intelligence. (He also kept on David Petraeus, George W. Bush’s favorite general, and hiked the already staggering Pentagon budget in Bushian fashion.)

And this merely skims the surface of the nonstop growth of the Pentagon and its influence. One irony of that process: even as the U.S. military has failed repeatedly to win wars, its budgets have grown ever more gargantuan, its sway in Washington ever greater, and its power at home ever more obvious.

Generals and Admirals Mouthing Off

To grasp the changing nature of military influence domestically, consider the military’s relationship to the media. Its media megaphone offers a measure of the reach and influence of that behemoth, what kinds of pressures it can apply in support of its own version of foreign policy, and just how, under its weight, the relationship between the civilian and military high commands is changing.

It’s true that, in June, the president relieved Afghan War commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal of duty after his war-frustrated associates drank and mouthed off about administration officials in an inanely derogatory manner in his presence – and the presence of a Rolling Stone magazine reporter. (“Biden?… Did you say: Bite Me?”) But think of that as the exception that proves the rule.

It’s seldom noted that less obvious but more serious – and egregious – breaches of civilian/military protocol are becoming the norm, and increasingly no one blinks or acts. To take just a few recent examples, in late August commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Conway, due to retire this fall, publicly attacked the president’s “conditions-based” July 2011 drawdown date in Afghanistan, saying, “In some ways, we think right now it is probably giving our enemy sustenance.”

Or consider that, while the Obama administration has moved fiercely against government and military leaking of every sort, when it came to the strategic leaking (assumedly by someone in, or close to, the military) of the “McChrystal plan” for Afghanistan in the fall of 2009, nothing at all happened even though the president was backed into a policy-making corner. And yet, as Andrew Bacevich pointed out, “The McChrystal leaker provid[ed] Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership a detailed blueprint of exactly how the United States and its allies were going to prosecute their war.”

Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, on a three-day cross-country “tour” of Midwestern business venues (grandiloquently labeled “Conversations with the Country”), attacked the national debt as “the most significant threat to our national security.” Anodyne as this might sound, with election 2010 approaching, the national debt couldn’t be a more political issue.

There should be, but no longer is, something startling about all this. Generals and admirals now mouth off regularly on a wide range of policy issues, appealing to the American public both directly and via deferential (sometimes fawning) reporters, pundits, and commentators. They and their underlings clearly leak news repeatedly for tactical advantage in policy-making situations. They organize what are essentially political-style barnstorming campaigns for what once would have been “foreign policy” positions, and increasingly this is just the way the game is played.

From Combat to Commentary

There’s a history still to be written about how our highest military commanders came to never shut up.

Certainly, in 1990 as Gulf War I was approaching, Americans experienced the first full flowering of a new form of militarized “journalism” in which, among other things, retired high military officers, like so many play-by-play analysts on Monday Night Football, became regular TV news consultants. They were called upon to narrate and analyze the upcoming battle (“showdown in the Gulf”), the brief offensive that followed, and the aftermath in something close to real time. Amid nifty logos, dazzling Star Wars-style graphics, theme music, and instant-replay nose-cone snuff films of “precision” weapons wiping out the enemy, they offered a running commentary on the progress of battle as well as on the work of commanders in the field, some of whom they might have once served with.

And that was just the beginning of the way, after years of post-Vietnam War planning, the Pentagon took control of the media battlefield and so the popular portrayal of American-style war. In the past, the reporting of war had often been successfully controlled by governments, while generals had polished their images with the press or – like Omar Bradley and Douglas MacArthur – even employed public relations staffs to do it for them. But never had generals and war planners gone before the public as actors, supported by all the means a studio could muster on their behalf and determined to produce a program that would fill the day across the dial for the full time of a war. The military even had a version of a network Standards and Practices department with its guidelines for on-air acceptability. Military handlers made decisions – like refusing to clear for publication the fact that Stealth pilots viewed X-rated movies before missions – reminiscent of network show-vetting practices.

When it came time for Gulf War II, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military had added the practice of putting reporters through pre-war week-long “boot camps” and then “embedding” them with the troops (a Stockholm Syndrome-type experience that many American reporters grew to love). It also built itself a quarter-million-dollar stage set for nonstop war briefings at Centcom headquarters in Doha, Qatar. All of this was still remarkably new in the history of relations between the Pentagon and the media, but it meant that the military could address the public more or less directly both through those embedded reporters and over the shoulders of that assembled gaggle of media types in Doha.

As long as war took its traditional form, this approach worked well, but once it turned into a protracted and inchoate guerrilla struggle, and “war” and “wartime” became the endless (often dismal) norm, something new was needed. In the Bush years, the Pentagon responded to endless war in part by sending out an endless stream of well-coached, well-choreographed retired military “experts” to fill the gaping maw of cable news. In the meantime, something quite new has developed.

Today, you no longer need to be a retired military officer to offer play-by-play commentary on and analysis of our wars. Now, at certain moments, the main narrators of those wars turn out to be none other than the generals running, or overseeing, them. They regularly get major airtime to explain to the American public how those wars are going, as well as to expound on their views on more general issues.

This is something new. Among the American commanders of World War II and the Korean War, only Douglas MacArthur did anything faintly like this, which made him an outlier (or perhaps an omen), and in a sense that’s why President Harry Truman fired him. Generals Eisenhower, Patton, Ridgeway, et al., did not think to go on media tours touting their own political lines while in uniform.

Admittedly, Vietnam War commander Gen. William Westmoreland was an early pioneer of the form. He had, however, been pushed onto the stage to put a public face on the American war effort by President Lyndon Johnson, who was desperate to buck up public opinion. Westmoreland returned from Vietnam in 1968 just before the disastrous Tet Offensive for a “whirlwind tour” of the country and uplifting testimony before Congress. In a speech at the National Press Club, he spoke of reaching “an important point where the end begins to come into view,” and later in a televised press conference, even more infamously used the phrase “the light at the end of tunnel.” Events would soon discredit his optimism.

Still, we’ve reached quite a different level of military/media confluence today. Take the two generals now fighting our Afghan and Iraq wars: Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno – one arriving, the other leaving.

Having spent six weeks assessing the Afghan situation and convinced that he needed to buy more time for his war from the American public, in mid-August Petraeus launched a full-blown, well-organized media tour from his headquarters in Kabul. In it, he touted “progress” in Afghanistan, offered comments subtly but visibly at odds with the president’s promised July 2011 drawdown date, and generally evangelized for his war. He began with an hour-long interview with Dexter Filkins of the New York Times and another with Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post. These were timed to be released on Aug. 15, the morning he appeared on NBC’s Sunday political show Meet the Press. (Moderator David Gregory traveled to the Afghan capital to toss softball questions at Washington’s greatest general and watch him do push-ups in a “special edition” of the show.) Petraeus then followed up with a Katie Couric interview on CBS Evening News, as part of an all-fronts “media blitz” that would include Fox News, AP, Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog, and in a bow to the allies, the BBC and even NATO TV, among other places.

At almost the same moment, Gen. Odierno was ending his tour of duty as Iraq war commander by launching a goodbye media blitz of his own from Baghdad, which included interviews with ABC’s This Week, Bob Schieffer of CBS’s Face the Nation, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, CNN’s State of the Union, PBS Newshour, and the New York Times, among others. He, too, had a policy line to promote and he, too, expressed himself in ways subtly but visibly at odds with an official Obama position, emphasizing the possibility that some number of U.S. troops might need to stay in Iraq beyond the 2011 departure deadline. As he said to Schieffer, “If [the Iraqis] ask us that they might want us to stay longer, we certainly would consider that.” Offering another scenario as well, he also suggested that, as Reuters put it, “U.S. troops … could move back to a combat role if there was ‘a complete failure of the security forces’ or if political divisions split Iraqi security forces.” (He then covered his flanks by adding, “but we don’t see that happening.”)

This urge to stay represents one long-term strain of thinking in the military and among Pentagon civilians, and it will undoubtedly prove a powerful force for the president to deal with or defer to in 2011. In February 2009, less than a month after Obama took office, Odierno was already broadcasting his desire to have up to 35,000 troops remain in Iraq after 2011, and at the end of 2009, Gates was already suggesting that a new round of negotiations with a future Iraqi government might extend our stay for years. All this, of course, could qualify as part of a more general campaign to maintain the Pentagon’s 800-pound status, the military’s clout, and that global military presence.

A Chorus of Military Intellectuals

Pentagon foreign policy is regularly seconded by a growing cadre of what might be called military intellectuals at think tanks scattered around Washington. Such figures, many of them qualifying as “warrior pundits” and “warrior journalists,” include: Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and Petraeus adviser; former U.S. Army officer Andrew Exum, fellow at the Center for a New American Security, founder of the Abu Muqawama Web site, and a McChrystal adviser; former Australian infantry officer and Petraeus adviser David Kilcullen, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security; Thomas Ricks, formerly of the Washington Post, author of the bestselling Iraq War books Fiasco and The Gamble, Petraeus admirer, and senior fellow at the same center; Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, the man Gates credits with turning around his thinking on Afghanistan and a recent Petraeus hiree in Afghanistan; Kimberley Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War, an adviser to both Petraeus and McChrystal; Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution; and Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and another Petraeus as well as McChrystal adviser. These figures, and numerous others like them, are repeatedly invited to U.S. war zones by the military, flattered, toured, given face time with commanders, sometimes hired by them, and sometimes even given the sense that they are the ones planning our wars. They then return to Washington to offer sophisticated, “objective” versions of the military line.

Toss into this mix the former neocons who caused so much of the damage in the early Bush years and who regularly return at key moments as esteemed media “experts” (not the fools and knaves they were), including former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) L. Paul Bremer III, and former senior adviser to the CPA Noah Feldman, among others. For them, being wrong means never having to say you’re sorry. And, of course, they and their thoughts are dealt with remarkably respectfully, while those who were against the Iraq War from the beginning remain scarce commodities on op-ed pages, as sources in news articles, and on the national radio and TV news.

This combined crew of former warriors, war-zone bureaucrats, and warrior pundits are, like Odierno, now plunking for a sizable residual U.S. military force to stay in Iraq until hell freezes over. They regularly compare Iraq to post-war South Korea, where U.S. troops are still garrisoned nearly 60 years after the Korean War and which, after decades of U.S.-supported dictators, now has a flourishing democracy.

Combine the military intellectuals, the former neocons, the war commanders, the retired military-officer-commentators, the secretary of defense and other Pentagon civilians and you have an impressive array of firepower of a sort that no Eisenhower, Ridgeway, or even MacArthur could have imagined. They may disagree fiercely with each other on tactical matters when it comes to pursuing American-style war, and they certainly don’t represent the views of a monolithic military. There are undoubtedly generals who have quite a different view of what the defense of the United States entails. As a crew, though, civilian and military, in and out of uniform, in the Pentagon or in a war zone, they agree forcefully on the need to maintain that American global military presence over the long term.

Producing War

Other than Gates, the key figure of the moment is clearly Petraeus, who might be thought of as our Teflon general. He could represent a genuine challenge to the fading tradition of civilian control of the military. Treated as a demi-god and genius of battle on both sides of the aisle in Washington, he would be hard for any president, especially this one, to remove from office. As a four-star who would have to throw a punch at Michelle Obama on national television to get fired, he minimally has significant latitude to pursue the war policies of his choice in Afghanistan. He also has – should he care to exercise it – the potential and the opening to pursue much more. It’s not completely far-fetched to imagine him as the first mini-Caesar-in-waiting of our American times.

As of yet, he and other top figures may plan their individual media blitzes, but they are not consciously planning a media strategy for a coherent Pentagon foreign policy. The result is all the more chilling for not being fully coordinated, and for being so little noticed or attended to by the media that play such a role in promoting it. What’s at stake here goes well beyond the specific issue of military insubordination that usually comes up when military-civilian relations are discussed. After all, we could be seeing, in however inchoate form, the beginning of a genuine Pentagon/military production in support of Pentagon timing (as in the new bases now being built in Afghanistan that won’t even be completed until late 2011), our global military presence, and the global mission that goes with it.

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, you can see that Pentagon version of an American foreign policy straining to be born. In the end, of course, it could be stillborn, but it could also become an all-enveloping system offering Americans a strange, skewed vision of a world constantly at war and of the importance of planning for more of the same.

To the extent that it now exists, it is dominated by the vision of figures who, judging from the last near decade, have a particularly constrained sense of American priorities, have been deeply immersed in the imperial mayhem that our wars have created, have left us armed to the teeth and flailing at ghosts and demons, and are still enmeshed in the process by which American treasure has been squandered to worse than no purpose in distant lands.

Nothing in the record indicates that anyone should listen to what these men have to say. Nothing in the record indicates that Washington won’t be all ears, the media won’t remain an enthusiastic conduit, and Americans won’t follow their lead.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), has just been published. You can catch him discussing the new military/media landscape in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

[Source note: For a basic source on the decline of the State Department, Stephen Glain's 2009 Nation piece “The American Leviathan” is still the place to start. For those of you who would like more on the history of how the Pentagon organized war in the post-Vietnam era and the tumultuous Bush years, consider getting your hands on the revised, updated version of my book, The End of Victory Culture, and checking out the sections entitled “Afterlife” and “Victory Culture, the Sequel.” Among the recent “all options on the table” statements, this one from Petraeus's Washington Post interview caught my attention: “One policy [Gen. Petraeus] has opted not to continue, however, is his predecessor’s asceticism. He suggested that the fast-food restaurants McChrystal ordered closed on bases probably will reopen soon. With respect to Burger Kings, all options are on the table,’ he said.”]

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