The End of Supreme Command

George W. Bush has degraded many important American concepts and values, such as the rule of law, human rights, and just government. Civilian control of the military is his next victim. America’s founding fathers were justifiably concerned about the possibility of military dictatorship, which is why they made the president commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Yet the Bush administration’s catastrophic bungling in Iraq may have fatally wounded the legitimacy of civilian control during wartime. Bush’s fetish for military symbolism may have also set a precedent that will make future presidents, future politicians, and even future social movements more and more dependent on a military pose for legitimacy.

A History of Violence

Civil-military relations have had a troubled history in America. Although the principle of civilian control is unquestioned, Americans have long favored warrior-presidents. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, some of the nation’s most influential and popular presidents, were former generals.

The growth of the national security state after World War II created, for the first time in American history, a massive standing army and security apparatus. This has resulted in a group of generals much more eager to buck the reigning political consensus. As Boston University professor Andrew J. Bacevich recalled in an interview with The Atlantic Monthly, the military strongly opposed President Bill Clinton’s intention to have gays serve in the military; the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps resisted President Truman’s push to desegregate the armed forces; and Air Force general Curtis "Bombs Away" LeMay dealt directly with Congress to build up the air force beyond President Eisenhower’s original intention. Even Cold War hawks such as John F. Kennedy often waged acrimonious battles with more aggressive generals.

Perhaps the most calamitous of civil-military clashes was General Douglas MacArthur’s struggle with Truman during the Korean War. Defying Truman’s command for caution, MacArthur took steps that many view as having provoked Chinese intervention, most notably his march across the 38th parallel to the Yalu River along North Korea’s border with China. MacArthur also publicly challenged Truman after he rejected MacArthur’s more expansive war plans, which included dropping nuclear bombs on North Korea and China.

In recent years, the military has won important battles in the unceasing struggle between generals and the politicians who seek to control them. American politicians have turned to the military for a variety of tasks that historically have not been part of the mission of the armed services, most notably humanitarian and "nation-building" missions abroad and enhanced cooperation in domestic law enforcement and emergency relief operations at home. Military participation in international counter-narcotics operations has become common, and domestic law enforcement has taken on a vastly more militaristic character, as evidenced in the increasing use of paramilitary units armed with military-grade equipment usually unavailable to the average policeman.

The military has also captured the "hearts and minds" of the American public. Lt. Col. Charles J. Dunlap writes in the American military journal Parameters that widespread public cynicism over the corruption of institutions such as the government and the media has left the military, in the public mind, as the most legitimate and morally superior institution. Criticism of "the troops" is taboo in mainstream political discourse, and the public has come to instinctively associate the military with an honesty and efficiency that the government lacks. The danger in this, Dunlap warns, is that the gradual encroachment of the military into civilian tasks, while satisfying the public’s demand for efficiency, will gradually acclimate the country to the idea of military control and delegitimize civilian control, an outcome that Andrew Bacevich declares has already occurred in his bestselling book The New American Militarism.

This may surprise those who remember the military’s tarnished reputation after the My Lai massacre and the 1980s defense procurement scandals. But the Reagan-era resurgence of patriotism and the first Gulf War’s deathblow to the "Vietnam syndrome" created a remarkable turnaround in attitudes. A 2007 Gallup poll noted that the public has more confidence in the military than any of the 14 other institutions included in the poll, which included the police, media, Congress, and organized religion. Of those polled, 69% stated that they had either a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military.

Bush’s Military Politics

George W. Bush presided over an expansion of military activities into many different areas. Specialized military intelligence units have taken on the tasks of traditional civilian intelligence agencies such as the NSA and CIA. American military aid and assistance has increased to regimes in the developing world. And the United States has undertaken expansive – and expensive – nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. American soldiers are now "armed social workers" deployed in a global struggle to advance American interests.

Bush portrays this as a response to the global threat of terrorism. This is partly true, as he publicly eschewed nation building during the 2000 election. However, it is also a continuation of Clinton-era trends. The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union motivated the military to expand its mandate – or risk cutbacks – by expanding into different sectors, such as humanitarian action. Bush, however, has given his predecessor’s military doctrines a counterterrorist sheen and upped the ante. Despite the high possibility of a Democrat in office in 2008, it is likely that the military policies begun by Clinton and expanded by Bush will continue.

As a generation of terrorists forged by the fire of Iraq coalesce into new and deadlier terror organizations, the American public will demand an increased military role in homeland security. The convergence of international crime, militancy, and terrorism will also result in continued military and civilian cooperation, a trend already seen in many major metropolitan centers.

While such networking is often essential to defeating terrorists, gangsters, and networked insurgents, it also unnecessarily militarizes both foreign and domestic policies if taken too far. In foreign policy, military force is only one of many tools, and relying on the military too heavily as an instrument of policy, even in a nonviolent capacity, can push policymakers toward more aggressive courses of action. A sad example of this can be seen in the horn of Africa, where U.S. foreign policy supports Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, rather than humanitarianism and diplomacy. The most prominent American presence is shaping up to be the army’s Africa Command, which will officially begin operations in September 2008 and will focus on protecting Nigerian oil and hunting al-Qaeda terrorists. Neither mission is sufficient to stabilize Africa and, with regard to Somalia, has actually helped to create more chaos.

A domestic example of this militarization is the widespread use of SWAT teams against primarily nonviolent drug offenders. Part of the problem is also that military training emphasizes the rapid destruction of an adversary, not the kind of patient and primarily nonviolent security building and casework familiar to police agencies.

Military and paramilitary forces also can delegitimize their civilian partners by making it easier for enemies of the United States to claim that civilian contractors, government personnel, or ordinary American citizens involved in international exchanges are part of an invasion or subversion strategy, and thus fair game for attack. Sadly, the consequence of this can be seen in the targeting of contractors, relief agencies, and other entities linked in the public mind to American reconstruction operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Civilian control has also been undermined by Bush’s appointment of a "war czar" to coordinate all American military operations, a job that was traditionally performed by the commander-in-chief and his national security advisors. "Once again, they’ve gone to the military to solve administrative problems," says retired General Paul Eaton. Bush’s allies in the media and the press have also fetishized General David Petraeus as the savior of American involvement in Iraq. The motivation behind this is political: the president wishes to hide behind uniformed surrogates in order to evade responsibility for the continuing strategic disasters that have been a hallmark of his presidency.

While he has taken pains to distance himself from the military consequences of his own command, Bush is eager to wrap himself in the trappings of the armed services every chance he gets, surrounding himself with soldiers at photo-ops, calling himself the "war president," and famously landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the garb of an air force pilot. For a while, this was an adroit political move, for it satisfied the public and the mass media’s need for an aggressive symbol of strength after September 11. However, the long-term effect of Bush’s public posturing has been to dramatically militarize American politics. To be seen as legitimate, politicians must put on the garb of warriors.

For instance, the Democratic rebuttal to President Bush’s April radio address was delivered not by a Democratic politician but by retired General William Odom. The antiwar opposition, finding it difficult to oppose Bush on its own terms, has enlisted retired generals to fight on their behalf in the media. The antiwar movement leveled the charge of "chickenhawk" at conservative hawks who never served in the military, which was an accurate response to hawks hypocritically impugning the patriotism of Bush critics. But in the long run this tactic only served to reinforce the public perception of the military as morally superior to civilian politicians.

Even the case for action on global warming must be packaged as a response to an urgent threat to American "national security." While a world ravaged by global warming could drastically change military strategy, provoke resource wars, and empower non-state actors, the non-military crisis it would create would be far worse. Both Democrats and Republicans continue to posture over security, trying to out-hawk each other for the benefit of a scared and anxious public afraid of terrorism and traumatized by the immense strategic disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Rollback

The great irony of Bush’s militarized politics is that he has also discredited civilian control over the armed forces. His arrogant disregard of the opinions of the military community in the Iraq war has become part of the consensus political narrative. Every well-informed political observer can cite an instance in which the president overruled a sensible policy or ignored a prescient warning from a member of the armed forces. Centrist opinion makers in the media looking for a way to extricate themselves from their support for the war have been fixated on Bush’s incompetence as the major reason for the war’s failure, rather than the basic fraudulence and insanity of its stated mission. In a replay of Vietnam War revisionism, they have cast the military men Bush ignored or fired as martyred heroes who might have won the war if they had been allowed free rein.

The military soon pushed back, both overtly and covertly. Central Command head Admiral William Fallon has rebelled against the Bush administration’s plans to increase the size of the strike force in the Persian Gulf, vowing privately that "there would be no war with Iran" while he was head of Central Command. This is only the most overt action of a campaign of resistance that the Pentagon and the intelligence community have waged against the Bush administration’s determination to go to war with Iran. More covertly, reporters such as The New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh and The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward have been heavily dependent on leaks from the higher-ups within the national security apparatus, leaks designed to raise public outrage and stop the rush to war.

A battalion of retired generals has also taken to the media, harshly attacking the Bush administration’s defense policies in all available media outlets. Some, like General Odom, have become part of the political advocacy process itself. This unprecedented criticism, especially coming from a group not known for their activism, has played a pivotal role in adding mainstream legitimacy to the antiwar critique. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, universally loathed by military men for his singular arrogance and obsession with high-tech "transformation" schemes, is arguably the highest profile victim of the retired generals, who focused their criticism on his management of the Iraq war.

Soldiers on active duty have also hit back at the administration, both directly with a petition by a group of active duty soldiers calling for withdrawal and indirectly with active duty officer Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s article "A Failure in Generalship," which ran in the Armed Forces Journal, an explosive and unprecedented attack on the military leaders who planned the Iraq war and, by extension, their civilian masters.

The military critiques became a part of received wisdom because the Bush administration’s immense failures validate the familiar charge of civilian incompetence and make the top brass seem sensible by comparison. The Pentagon showed much more reluctance to get involved in another Vietnam-like quagmire. The military remains at least partly under the sway of the "Powell Doctrine," which insisted that the nation only go to war when national security is threatened, there is a clear objective, the costs and risks have been frankly analyzed, the action is supported at home and overseas, there is no other choice, and an exit strategy has been formulated. It is very telling that the doctrine’s author, decorated general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, is often portrayed as a victim of the Bush administration, forced to make their fraudulent case for war at the UN.

Future War

When the dust clears from the Iraq war, historians will likely note it was entirely controlled by intellectuals. The war’s strategy and guiding ideology was generated in a small group of civilian neoconservative think tanks, and it was sold primarily by neoconservative and centrist intellectuals, the vast majority of whom had never fought in the military. Although historians and commentators have noted many similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, few have noticed that the Vietnam war was also dreamt up and waged by intellectuals. Cold War liberals, Kennedy and Johnson’s "best and brightest," were largely responsible for the war, and Johnson was infamous for micro-managing strategic bombing targets.

In the war’s horrible aftermath, the military determined it would not again be forced into a war it could not win. The guiding spirit behind the "Powell Doctrine" was a Pentagon profoundly suspicious of civilian overlords who had led U.S. soldiers into a bloodbath. The Bush administration’s response to this healthy skepticism was to cut the military entirely out of the loop, relying for its modicum of strategic planning on various neoconservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, where civilian strategist Frederick Kagan was responsible for, among other things, dreaming up the "surge."

It is very possible that nothing like it will happen again. The retired generals on TV are not going away. The military establishment will not forget how it was marginalized and abused by the Bush administration. The active duty soldiers who attacked Bush’s war plans in Iraq will not stay silent either.

This may seem to be a good thing. The public role that the military played in the Iraq conflict was a rational response to an out-of-control chief executive whose dangerous ambitions still threaten to undermine the credibility of every American institution, including the armed forces. In the short term, the military critique of the Iraq War may hasten the war’s end. But in the long run the discrediting of civilian control and the rise of military activism bodes ill for American democracy.

Since World War II, presidents have had to contain military men eager for personal glory or hell-bent on employing "worst-case" solutions for intractable problems. There will always be Curtis LeMays and Douglas MacArthurs, powerful men who challenge civilian control in favor of harsh measures. They have always been brought to heel because of the deeply ingrained legitimacy of civilian control. Yet after Iraq, the MacArthurs and LeMays will increasingly take their case to the people, who just might be inclined to agree with them.

The legitimacy of civilian control over the military will take decades to recover from the disaster of Iraq. Military activism in the political process could become increasingly commonplace, with politicians unable to convince the public of their ability to decide security matters without the public endorsement of retired or active military figures. And whoever sits in the White House in 2009 will have to deal with the fact that their authority over the military has been diminished. The militarization of U.S. foreign policy – as well as border policy and even domestic affairs – has accelerated during the Bush years. Without a civilian check, this dangerous process could have even more drastic consequences. The founding fathers looked to the example of Oliver Cromwell, the English general who seized power during the Civil War, and saw the dangers of a military that could overpower its civilian masters.

Our national security problems do not boil down to a mere choice of who gives the order to shoot. Defense contractors and their allies within the government waste taxpayer dollars on weapons systems useless in today’s age of war and terrorism, while potentially life-saving body armor and armor plating is neglected. A global network of permanent overseas bases overstretches the military and provokes anti-Americanism. The Cold War practice of military aid to unsavory regimes continues, and the United States still remains the world’s top arms merchant. Worst of all, Congress has effectively abdicated its authority over the use of armed force, cutting the American people out of the loop. Whether the president or the Pentagon ultimately calls the shots, the use of force still occurs without public debate or legislative restraint. It will be very difficult for the next president to help pull the country back up this slippery slope.

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.