September 24, 2010

On Calling Balls and Strikes

"Riddle me this," a particularly careful student of civil-military relations wrote to me this morning:

How many of the people who think we have a serious civil-military problem because the military is controlling Obama (or whatever word one wants to use) also a) complained when Shinseki spoke out about the Iraq war strategy, b) thought Rumsfeld was correct in general to ride roughshod over the generals in 2001-2003, and c) thought that the generals complaining about Bush's Iraq strategy should have piped down and been quiet?

Good questions. I, for one, am not arguing questions being asked about civil-military relations right now are appropriate or inappropriate. If pressed, in fact, I would argue that we should always be having a dynamic debate about these issues lest we grow complacent. But it's worth noting how partisan preferences shape when and how people choose to get their panties all up in a twist on this. (Although it needs to be said that some individuals, such as Richard Kohn, have been writing about this issue in a determinedly non-partisan manner for some time.)

Update: Case in point: Here is Andrew Sullivan warning, today, of the menace David Petraeus poses to healthy civil-military relations. But when a bunch of retired flag officers get politically involved and start lobbying the administration on the "right" side of an issue that Andrew Sullivan cares about, they are to be applauded. And when generals complained about Don Rumsfeld, they too were to be lauded for speaking out. I'm not trying to pick on Andrew Sullivan here, but the uneven way he approaches civil-military relations -- alternately praising or chiding flag officers for getting politically involved depending on the issue and the political preferences of the writer -- seems representative of most punditry I read on this on both the right and the left. Again, I respect folks like Andrew Bacevich or Richard Kohn for being more ecumenical (if uncompromising) in their treatment of the issue. Read Kohn's biting essay on the subject here.