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October 05, 2009

Dear NYTimes Caucus Blog -- That's Not What Michael Meant
Posted by David Shorr

Notwithstanding PT Barnum's dictum about bad publicity, I must object to the way watered down Michael Cohen's broadside on the attempted railroading of President Obama so that his point was almost unrecognizable. Michael gave us an impassioned reaffirmation of how the chain of command works in our system. Maria Newman's synopsis for The Caucus is worth parsing, mainly because it typifies how the essential principle gets lost in this debate. According to that summary, Michael:

traces the recent history of presidential reliance on the generals, finding that the mild upbraiding of Mr. McChrystal from both General Jim Jones and Mr. Gates suggested that this administration would shift decision-making back to the White House.

Yeah, anyone who saw the news understood the assertion of authority. If that was really as far as Michael went, it wouldn't be much of a contribution. Instead, he was saying what needed to be said: our elected leaders don't take orders from military commanders; it's supposed to be the other way around.

I don't think any of the senior brass are at all confused on this point, and Michael's post takes Republicans like Senator Kyl to task for their political games. But as I say, I'm really perplexed by the minimal attention to the principles at stake. This isn't just another political story about competing Washington power centers. In fact, civil-military relations isn't really the proper name for these issues, it's civilian control of the military.

Michael raises the specter of military juntas not because it's a realistic prospect here, but because this is an issue of the fundamentals of democracy -- elected leaders are the deciders, and the military executes the orders that come down the chain of command. When the United States preaches good governance around the world, this is often a primary concern, confining the military to the barracks and keeping it out of the political sphere. In fact, it's often US officers delivering this message, integral to many of their military-to-military exchanges.

So no, the military commander's judgment on the requirements for a given strategy is very important professional counsel, but it doesn't settle the matter.


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Dear NYTimes Caucus Blog -- That's Not What Michael Meant

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