The Generals’ Revolt Revisited

THE GENERALS’ REVOLT REVISITED….I want to revisit the question of whether there’s a downside to the “Generals’ Revolt” due to concerns that it serves to blur the principle of civilian control of the military. I’m hesitant to bring it up again since I don’t think we seriously have anything to worry about on this score, but at the same time I do think there are some genuine issues here that we shouldn’t sweep under the carpet just because we like the message we’re hearing. In particular, there are two counterarguments I want to address.

First, Mark Kleiman suggests that this is a case of IOKIYAR. After all, where were the complaints when Colin Powell “led the active-duty brass in a thoroughly insubordinate, and completely successful, campaign to overturn Bill Clinton’s executive order ending discrimination against gays in the military?”

That’s a good question, but it’s exactly the one that came to mind when I began writing about this last night. And here’s another example: does everyone remember Clinton’s complaints that whenever he asked for small scale military options he never got back anything that utilized less than two divisions? His suspicion was that the uniformed brass was frustrating his policy wishes by refusing to give him good advice. Put these two things together and there’s evidence already that the military feels free to meddle in policy debates. I’m not sure they need yet another precedent to do so.

Second, both Atrios and Steven Taylor make the obvious point that the complaints are coming from retired generals. That’s a fair point, but consider this from Lt. General Gregory Newbold, writing in Time magazine last week:

After 9/11, I was a witness and therefore a party to the actions that led us to the invasion of Iraq ? an unnecessary war….I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat ? al-Qaeda.

….With the encouragement of some still in positions of military leadership, I offer a challenge to those still in uniform: a leader’s responsibility is to give voice to those who can’t ? or don’t have the opportunity to ? speak.

Two things. First, Newbold isn’t just complaining that Donald Rumsfeld ignored professional military advice. He’s saying he thought this was an ill-conceived war and the uniformed military should have spoken out about it. Second, he’s plainly claiming to speak for some active duty generals and he’s encouraging them to go public.

There’s really nothing to like about this. Whether the war was “unnecessary” or not, that’s a political decision, not a military one. And if active duty generals follow his advice and start to speak out whenever they think the president is going to war unwisely, we’re going to have a serious problem on our hands.

There’s no question that military leaders should forcefully offer their best advice in private and should testify honestly in public on operational matters. When General Eric Shinseki gave his opinion that the invasion of Iraq required “several hundred thousand” troops, he was acting properly. That was a professional military opinion, and the way he was treated for expressing it was shameful. But that’s quite a different thing from speaking out simply because you think a war is a bad idea on policy grounds.

As I said, I don’t think this is that big a deal. I’m hardly concerned that we’re entering Seven Days in May territory, and Stephen Bainbridge and Steve Clemons, in different ways, both make the reasonable point that feedback from retired generals is really the only feasible way to keep the civilian leadership accountable given the military’s rigid chain of command. And Lord knows Rumsfeld deserves all the flak he’s getting and then some.

Still, there is another side to this story, and it’s not a completely nonsensical one. It’s worth airing, even if only to keep our bearings straight.