Article — From the May 2011 issue

Owned by the Army

Has the president lost control of his generals?

Last August, General David Petraeus did something unusual for a U.S. military officer: he went to the media to discuss the strategic aims of an ongoing war. Reporters couldn’t resist the martial puns: they called it a blitz, a tour, a campaign. Appearing on Meet the Press and the CBS Evening News, and sitting for an hour-long interview with the New York Times, Petraeus discussed delaying the Obama Administration’s planned July 2011 drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. The Times described these appearances as “a campaign . . . to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the American-led coalition can still succeed.” Asked whether Petraeus’s remarks were made with White House approval, deputy press secretary Bill Burton was quick to assure the public that, when it comes to the conduct of the war, “there’s no daylight between the president and his commanders.”

But even if he had had authorization from the executive branch, Petraeus should not have been chatting with Katie Couric about policy, or trying to convince the American public of anything. The absence of so much as a raised eyebrow among journalists showed how much the boundary between strategic policy, which is supposed to be the realm of the civilian commander in chief and his advisers, and military tactics, which are the province of the armed forces, had already eroded. It was a strange time for the media to be silent about military overreach: just two months earlier General Stanley McChrystal had been dismissed for, as President Barack Obama put it, “undermin[ing] the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”

Things got worse in December, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had to remind the senators debating whether to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell that we don’t give the military a say in policy decisions. Senator John McCain and other Republicans insisted that opposition within the armed services to ending the ban on gays serving openly should dictate Congress’s decision on the matter. “I cannot think of a single precedent in American history,” Gates responded, “of doing a referendum of the armed forces on a policy issue. Are you going to ask them if they want fifteen-month tours? Are you going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq? That’s not the way our civilian-led military has ever worked in our entire history.”

Then, in January, Petraeus pointedly released a “state of the war” address to the troops just hours before Obama’s State of the Union speech. Petraeus’s statement, posted on NATO’s website, avoided gloomy words like “fragile” and “reversible” that had marked a White House assessment released six weeks earlier. Instead, Petraeus insisted that American forces had “halt[ed] a downward security spiral” and “inflicted enormous losses.” Making no mention of July 2011, he spoke only of 2014, the target date set by NATO for transferring security responsibility to Afghan forces. By contrast, Obama in his annual address reiterated that in July “we will begin to bring our troops home.”

Something is clearly wrong with our relationship with the military, and the problem runs deeper than arch missives to the troops, presumptuous TV-interview banter, or the propriety of combat-unit questionnaires. Our generals are getting bolder, and we’ve lost our ability to recognize when they are overstepping their constitutional powers. This is not the threat of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower spoke about; this is new. The military isn’t trying to ramp up spending. It’s interjecting its voice into the sphere of statecraft as it never has before.

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is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

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