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October 05, 2009

Can Someone Get Jon Kyl a Copy of the Constitution?
Posted by Michael Cohen

On Sunday I wrote about how the leak of the McChrystal review represented a troubling breach of civil-military relations. But in some respects the real problem in civil-military relations, over the past several years, comes not from the military, but instead from civilians have given the the military a virtual final say over national security decision-making.

Case in point Senator Jon Kyl and the comments he made Sunday on CNN:

I think the question really ought to be turned around and that is, if we know that the commanding general has recommended more troops to win in Afghanistan, if we know that time is of the essence, then why are we, in effect, having this big public debate about it and why can't we make a decision that would enable us to get those troops in there in order to have an effective campaign next spring.

Why? Does Jon Kyl really not know the answer to this question or is he so infected with partisan fervor that he is willing to throw the Constitution under the bus to score a few cheap political points against Barack Obama? The most obvious answer is that this country is not ruled by a military junta; we are ruled by elected officials who make decisions about war and peace.  General McChrystal has offered his advice and recommendations to the president; now his job in this particular strategic review is done - and the Commander-in-Chief gets to make the decision on how to proceed. (It should also be mentioned here that McChrystal is far from being even the president's top military advisor. The notion that his views would trump even those of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of Defense is perhaps even more troubling from a chain of command perspective).

Yet Kyl's comments are very much at pace with what happened during the Bush years - the gradual ceding of decision-making to the military.

In June 2008, GOP candidate John McCain declared that “General Petraeus will tell us in July when we are [able to withdraw]” from Iraq.”

This came on the heels of President George W. Bush’s earlier declaration that a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would depend not on a strategic decision by the President but almost exclusively on the recommendations of Petraeus. "My attitude is,” said Bush “if he (Petraeus) didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me. . . I said to the general: 'If you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you.' "

Of course, that decision is actually up to the President.

Now it should be noted that the placing of so much responsibility in the hands of Petraeus was largely a result of the White House and GOP having such little credibility on Iraq that they needed a man in uniform to seal the deal. But the current debate about Afghanistan strategy - and General McChrystal's striking and inappropriate public lobbying - seems to show the dangers in civilian leaders placing too much power in the hands of the military.  To listen to McCain, Bush and now Kyl is to believe that the military is a co-equal branch of government . . . or perhaps one that should have the final say over national security decision-making. And it certainly seems like General McChrystal is acting that way.

Now to be completely fair, not all blame can be laid at the feet of Republicans. Bill Clinton must bear some responsibility as well; not only in giving the military too much influence in the implementation of US foreign policy, but also refusing to stand up to the military at times when they pushed back against him (the gays in the military imbroglio of 1992/3 is perhaps the best example).  And during the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama couldn't spend enough time getting photographed next to retired generals - many of whom were given jobs in his Administration that are usually filled by civilians. For national security vulnerable Democrats, the support of the military has become the great validator. 

But perhaps the balance is shifting. Ultimately, the current White House review on Afghanistan policy is . . about Afghanistan. But the clear subtext is re-establishing the notion of unambiguous civilian control over national security decision-making.  The fact that Jim Jones publicly rebuked McChrystal and now it seems the President privately did the same seems to suggest that this White House understands when it comes to sending troops into harm's way . . . it's their call, not the generals.

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Comments

...if we know that time is of the essence..

From the beginning of this recent round of debate, we have heard incessant repetition of this need-for-speed talking point from the McChrystal camp and its backers. It makes no sense at all. The folks pushing his agenda seem peculiarly insistent and concerned about avoiding any process of deliberation. They seem to want to establish some kind of direct McChrystal-to-Obama stimulus and response loop, and are bizarrely upset with the fact that McChrystal is not being treated like the Supreme US War Czar, but like an officer in the chain of command.

I'm starting to wonder if McChrystal's problem isn't with Obama, but with Petraeus, Centcom, Jones and Gates. The implied McChrystal message to Petraeus in the recent press battles appears to be "Your war is winding down, but my war is the one that was declared a war of necessity by the President. So whatever it says on the letterhead about who is in charge in principle, I should now outrank you in practice. I get my own meetings with the President and my own direct channel!"

When it was just a matter of the leaked report, I was inclined to give McChrystal and his overeager team the benefit of the doubt. But following his brazen London politicking, I'm thinking this guy is getting seriously dangerous. This bounder has got a serious case of Pattonitis, and Obama needs to prevail on his top people to push Stanley of Afghanistan back into line.

I get my own meetings with the President and my own direct channel!

That seems mischaracterized. In the 60 Minutes interview where McChrystal mentions he's only spoken to the President once, it was off-handedly and calmly stated, with no indication that he's perturbed by it. Which is appropriate, since there are several channels of communication between the General and the President. And when McChrystal met with the President last week, he was summoned there, by the President; he didn't publicly demand that the President speak with him, and there is no indication that he requested such a meeting privately, either. At most, McChrystal is getting press as a natural consequence of his appointment, his assessment, the leaking of that assessment, and press requests that were in place at the time that assessment was first requested. The profiles of McChyrstal on 60 Minutes and the upcoming Frontline documentary were put in place before the assessment had even been completed, much less leaked. And from the press coverage post-leak, it seems that McChrystal is about as interested in being a press point as he is in the Olmpics--which is to say, not very interested at all.

I'm not trying to cut the guy a break just because he's in the public eye now with a very public leak dogging him. But to say that he not only desired all this attention, but is seeking the politicization of his own assessment to insure adherence to that assessment is false and hyperbolic.

@ karaka,

I don't think Michael is saying the general has sought to politicize the resource request. I think he is saying it is his responsibility to avoid that outcome, do nothing to help bring it about even if he doesn't intend it to happen, to understand how that might occur, and to take immediate steps to mend the situation if it comes about. I think he's saying the general's conduct has not been sufficient in these particular responsibilities thus far.

This reminds me of a story Harold Koh tells about his response to Watergate and Nixon's resignation. He called up his dad (who had to leave Korea because of his opposition to a military government) expressing wonder at the fact that the United States had just weathered a major crisis peacefully and without military intervention. His dad replied (and I'm only paraphrasing here), "That's the difference between democracy and dictatorship. In a democracy, the military obeys the President. In a dictatorship, the President obeys the military."

I don't think that there's any chance that we're heading toward open military rebellion anytime soon, but as you note, it is quite telling that Republicans don't understand the difference. I wouldn't go so far as you do -- I don't think Kyl was throwing the Constitution under the bus -- but it would be accurate to say that Republicans don't seem to understand that, as David put it in his post, that this is about civilian control of the military, not political infighting.

SENATOR,


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Michael Mason

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