July 04, 2012

Happy Fourth of July! (And even happier civil-military relations!)

First off, let me wish everyone out there a Happy Fourth of July. As a veteran of the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, let me take this opportunity to clear up a misconception and remind you that the Fourth of July is not about today's veterans. We have both Veterans Day and Memorial Day for ourselves do not need another holiday. (Although we'll take Arbor Day if you're offering it.) Today is the day, rather, when we honor those who won the American Revolution. I am speaking, of course, of the French Navy.

My column in today's World Politics Review, meanwhile, aims to poke a few holes in the "crisis in civil-military relations" that everyone worries about and which reached something of a crescendo in 2009. I'm not saying that smart people like Richard Kohn and Andrew Bacevich don't raise some good points. I'm instead arguing that wartime civil-military relations are actually quite healthy by comparative and historical standards. This column is the first in a two-part series: next week I will tackle where I do see there being some problems.

(Preview: it's not in the fact that the president salutes.)

P.S. You probably all saw that odd article in the New York Times arguing that military officers have a tough time transitioning to being diplomats and civilian officials -- before then awkwardly listing a bunch of former military officers who have not, uh, actually had much difficulty making the transition. The article featured a quote from John Norris of the Center for American Progress:

Would you take a talented professional diplomat with no military experience and put him in charge of a major military unit? Absolutely not ... Yet we still think it’s a good idea to take senior military officers with virtually no diplomatic experience and put them in key diplomatic and political posts.

I'm sure I would actually agree with Norris more often than not if we sat down and talked about this over beers at Cafe Mozart, but his sentiment expressed in the article struck me as all kinds of wrong. First off, you don't become a four-star flag officer without gaining some diplomatic experience along the way. I am halfway through the newish Gaddis biography of George F. Kennan (more on that later), and one thing that strikes me is that George C. Marshall had decades more diplomatic experience when he became the Secretary of State than his successor -- the Washington lawyer Dean Acheson -- did. Along the same lines, did Hilary Clinton have more diplomatic experience than Colin Powell when each became the Secretary of State? And how was James Jones, who was the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe an era when he didn't have to worry about Soviet tank divisions, anything but a high-level diplomat? Did Kennan himself object when Walter Bedell Smith was named the ambassador to Russia? No -- probably because Smith had as much or more diplomatic experience than his predecessor, the businessman Averell Harriman, who Kennan very much admired. (Also, was Kennan, a career diplomat, a better ambassador to Russia than either Harriman or Smith?) Second, we put civilians in de facto command of military units all the time. Look at all of those civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy. Some of them are former military officers, but many are not, and if they ever were, they stopped serving in the ranks many years prior to their service in the Department of Defense. Finally, take a look at the first few chapters of the classic Marine Corps Small Wars Manual: U.S. Marines are repeatedly referred to as "State Department Troops." Why? For the way in which they were (and are) often placed under the operational control of diplomats in overseas contingencies. I could go on.

In progressive foreign policy circles, there is at once a desire to gather former military officers close to policy makers to get, as the New York Times article describes, "validation." There is also, elsewhere in progressive foreign policy circles, a knee-jerk suspicion of military officers. Neither instinct, frankly, is very helpful in the formation or execution of foreign policy.