Friday, October 09, 2009

All the President's generals

One would think the military could only publicly influence the policy-making process in the countries in which democracy is not mature enough. This given proposition would go on to argue that in America and other Western countries, the military leadership can only champion their views to the civil leadership behind closed doors. Amid the latest rift between the civil and the military leadership of America, this assumption has been proven to be still an open-ended discussion.
What seems to be unfolding is that a country, which has the oldest constitutional democracy in the world where civil leadership has the final say over all matters, still grapples dramatically when it comes to deciding over affairs that are closely tied to its security deeds. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan, in this context, publicly came against the current mind-changing tendency that is going on in the White House over the fate of the war in Afghanistan.
With this latest row, the division that goes deep among the fellow Americans and the two big parties of American politics, now spills over to another platform. This rift is very significant by any measure; however, it is hard to tell whether it is necessarily bad for America's overall policy-making fabric. At the end of the day, everybody seems to recognize the civil leadership's authority. Therefore, the rest of the clash is to be factored into the final discussions before making a weighty deliverance. And this measured understanding of the discussion makes the real difference between a western democracy and the others.
Two weeks ago on Monday, close followers of Washington, D.C. affairs woke up sensing that something important had occurred. While opening up one of their daily bibles, the Washington Post, they saw the headline, and the leaked news, which supposedly was a “secret” report for the president’s eyes only on the assessments to win the Afghanistan war. Instead, the secret report was presented to all, with little censure. Whether the intention was to box Obama, or was it an innocent leak by a soldier or a civilian, who may have thought that this report could not be kept secret any longer for America's own security, is not known. What is certain is the leak was a great warning and a sign of a crack in the thinking between the two powerhouses on a life and death issue.
Even if the leaked report, written by McChrystal, was not supported wholeheartedly by the CENTCOM commander and the Iraq war's surge hero Gen. David Petraeus and, by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, it still would have been an important opposition, but more of a one-man style dissidence. However, with the highest generals' endorsement of the report and of subsequently more troops, the military defiance against a possible shift over the Afghan war strategy became a huge issue, which has limited the White House's hand to extremely to fewer options.
There are many aspects of this clash of opinion that one can dwell upon while analyzing it. The most important one is the one related to the countries, which wish to take their own lessons from this unfolding dispute, is to what extent and when and should the military leadership go public to defend their own views. The question is what the fragile balance between the military and civilian authorities should be. While the civilian authorities in Washington, D.C., such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; former four star Marine Corps general and the current national security adviser for the White House, James L. Jones; and many other politicians also publicly revealed their dislike over the generals; open engagement of ideas, we must remember that the previous generals who were responsible in carrying out the Afghan and Iraq Wars, also were accused of being quiet and not showing enough backbone to the civil authorities at that time.
For the generals, those who carry the responsibility of hundreds of thousands of troops' lives on their shoulders and those who have been trained to do just that for all their lives, to speak against a policy that they deem erroneous, should be within the job description already, according to many experts.
To others, urging or cornering the commander in chief to take a certain course, limiting the civil leadership's decision-making authority, is a serious lapse. According to this school, the military leadership must confine themselves before pushing a certain strategy onto decision makers. After all, history fettered the inaccurate assessments of the military leadership during the Bay of Pigs or the Vietnam War. Moreover, the clouded assessments of the generals, after the immediate years of the Iraq war, still linger in recent memory.
There are many more particulars that one can further argue which side is taking the wrong approach in this very specific, text-book like clash. It is true that Obama, by cheering up the Afghan war as a “good war” for years, cannot just change his mind, when he is faced with increasing casualties, and abandon a strategy that he himself embraced passionately, merely a few weeks ago.
Two final lessons must be derived out of this American case. One is, countries like Turkey, should study this free lesson, and work out their own homework, with respect to civilian and military authorities' range of maneuvers. Taking up such matter, before the next conflict looms in our own country, certainly will help to navigate better, since the discussion will be on theories, but can well be applied as guidance in such time. With not taking the necessary caution in advance, democratically deficient countries tend to go under severe crises, in clashes such as this.
The second is, the civilian leadership, lacking the necessary expertise over military affairs, even when including such experts in their decision-making mechanism, will still have to think through what they are getting into over given a conflict. Once an administration gives the green light to its military forces for progress further, it is very hard to make a U-turn, even if the arguments for a U-turn may sometimes be very sound. Such a U-turn also is always seems to be a disrespect to those families who have lost their sons and daughters in the conflict.
Therefore, the leadership demands not only pragmatism, which seems to be plenty within the current White House, but also long-term strategic thinking as well, as David Ignatius recently argued.

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