November 03, 2011

A Fairly Awful Model for Civilian-Military Relations

Peter Beinart, hailing the Israeli system:

Every time I get depressed about politics in Israel, I try to remember one salient fact: their political system still sometimes functions better than ours. ...

Why is their system working when ours did not? In Israel, as in the United States, military and intelligence officials are generally more cautious than civilian leaders when it comes to war, largely because they know firsthand how crude and unpredictable an instrument war is. But the Israeli system is less hierarchical. The military and intelligence agencies in the United States certainly leak to the press, and use bureaucratic tactics to box in their civilian overlords. At the end of the day, however, soldiers and intelligence analysts are trained to give their professional advice and then get out of the way. In Israel, the lines are more blurred, and bureaucrats are more freewheeling in speaking to the press. This has its disadvantages, but in a case like this, it gives the antiwar generals and spies greater leverage to fight back.

If anyone noticed Sam Huntington spinning in his grave, that's because Beinart is arguing that in a democracy, a military that actively resists the policy preferences of its elected leaders is a more responsible military than one that faithfully executes those same policy preferences. 

Needless to say, this is a model of civilian-military relations that few political scientists would endorse.

It is fine to think the decision to invade Iraq -- which Beinart loudly supported, if memory serves -- was a poor decision. And it is also fine to think that a decision to attack Iran in order to retard the development of the Iranian nuclear program would be a similarly poor decision. We can have debates about either, of course, but the positions are ones reasonable people can get behind.

But endorsing a system of government in which military officers get to pick and choose which policy preferences of their elected leaders to carry out is not a prescription for better policy-making. It is instead a prescription for turning yourself into Pakistan.