Military Reminds Candidates of Civilian Primacy, Presidential Duty to Lead

January 11, 2012

GOP frontrunner and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has repeatedly pledged that his national security policy will be founded on deferring to the “commanders on the ground” when making decisions. Yet military leaders reject this view, with Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey calling such comments “offensive” because civilian rule “makes us as a military profession in a democracy.” Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism czar for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, notes that such attitudes show “there is an important part of the president’s job that [candidates] are unwilling to perform.” Ironically, candidates who argue for deferring to the generals have taken positions counter to the military’s advice on hot-button political issues such as Iran, Guantanamo and defense spending.

Military leaders: Such comments are “offensive.”

Joints Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey. As the National Journal reported last December, “‘I’ll probably make news with this but I find some of those articles about divergence or control of the generals to be kind of offensive to me,’ Dempsey told reporters traveling with him in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. ‘And here’s why. One of the things that makes us as a military profession in a democracy is civilian rule. Our civilian leaders are under no obligation to accept our advice; and that’s what it is. It’s advice. It’s military judgments, it’s alternatives, it’s options. And at the end of the day, our system is built on the fact that it will be our civilian leaders who make that decision and I don’t find that in any way to challenge my manhood, nor my position. In fact, if it were the opposite, I think we should all be concerned.’” [Martin Dempsey via National Journal, 12/18/11]

Major General (ret) Paul Eaton, NSN Senior Adviser. “In defense of soldiers, no soldier ever had enough of anything. We all wanted more soldiers, more ammunition, more vehicles, more tanks. It’s normal. With additional soldiers, you buy down risk. The civilian leadership of the armed forces give us our missions, and we negotiate the resources to execute those missions. So there is a natural tendency to want to husband the resources to prosecute the mission. So this is a negotiation. The Commander in Chief hears what the generals have to say and their advice, but the Commander in Chief decides. And the generals will execute, and they’ll do a great job of it.” [Paul Eaton via Current, 6/21/11]

Richard Clarke: Deferring national security decisions to the military means “there is an important part of the president’s job that they are unwilling to perform.” As Richard Clarke, counterterrorism czar during the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations explains in the New York Times: “Of course, we choose our presidents in part because of how we think they will handle crises, how they will see the bigger picture, the greater good, the historic moment. We expect them to exercise their own judgment after listening to military and civilian advisers, not just to do what the ‘commanders on the ground’ want. In countries like Pakistan the president cannot tell the military what to do. Not so in America. But by offering to cede automatically to the will of military commanders, some presidential candidates are telling voters in advance that there is an important part of the president’s job that they are unwilling to perform.”

There’s strong historical precedent for civilian control of the military, writes Clarke: “History provides ample evidence of bad judgment on the part of American military commanders, and some of our best presidents have had the courage to overrule them. Abraham Lincoln regularly dismissed military commanders in the middle of the Civil War, in which the battle lines were often less than 100 miles from the capital. Harry S. Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his commander on the ground during the Korean War, even though MacArthur had achieved victory in the Pacific in World War II. (MacArthur was insisting on bombing China and on using nuclear weapons along the China-Korea border.) Had John F. Kennedy followed the advice of his commanders during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union would almost certainly have engaged in a nuclear war in which millions of Americans would have died. More recently, George Bush successfully invaded Kuwait despite the recommendation of his military commanders.” [Richard Clarke, 12/12/11]

Ironically, conservative candidates for president hold a number of views that run counter to military advice.

Iran. Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Micah Zenko explains Mitt Romney’s position on Iran, saying, “He has called for regime change in Iran and, when pressed on how a President Romney would achieve his goals, has said he supports both ‘covert and overt’ actions, including military action if necessary, though he rules out ‘boots on the ground.’” Compare that to Brigadier General (ret) John Johns, who writes, “The problem with these arguments is that they flatly ignore or reject outright the best advice of America’s national security leadership. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, former congressman Admiral Joe Sestak and former CENTCOM Commander General Anthony Zinni are only a few of the many who have warned us to think carefully about the repercussions of attacking Iran. Two months ago, Sestak put it bluntly: ‘A military strike, whether it’s by land or air, against Iran would make the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion look like a cakewalk with regard to the impact on the United States’ national security.’ While rhetoric about military strikes may work as an applause line in Republican debates, there is little or no chance that military action would be quite so simple. Quite the contrary. Defense leaders agree that the military option would likely result in serious unintended consequences.” [Micah Zenko, 1/10/12. John Johns, 11/14/11]

Guantanamo Bay. Mitt Romney has said, “Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo.” Compare that to General (ret) Charles C. Krulak and General (ret) Joseph P. Hoar, who wrote last month: “We should be moving to shut Guantánamo, not extend it.” [Mitt Romney via Time, 5/15/07. Charles Krulak and Joseph Hoar, 12/13/11]

Defense spending. The Romney foreign policy plan states that he has “the goal of setting core defense spending —  meaning funds devoted to the fundamental military components of personnel, operations and maintenance, procurement, and research and development — at a floor of 4 percent of GDP.” Such a plan would amount to a 14 percent increase in the base defense budget. Compare that to former Joint Chiefs Chairman and former Secretary of State Colin Powell: “When the Cold War ended twenty years ago when I was chairman and Mr. Cheney was Secretary of Defense, we cut the defense budget by 25 percent and we reduced the force by 500,000 active duty soldiers. So it can be done. Now how fast you can do it and what you have to cut out remains to be seen. But I don’t think the defense budget can be made sacrosanct and it can’t be touched.” [Romney Foreign Policy Plan, 10/7/11. DemocracyArsenal, 10/7/11. Colin Powell via ThinkProgress, 1/23/11]

 What We’re Reading

 North Korea indicated it would open talks regarding its nuclear program in exchange for food aid.

An Arab League official called the group’s observer mission to Syria a farce.

U.S. drone strikes resumed after a four week pause with a strike in northwest Pakistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani fired the defense secretary for allegedly stoking tensions with the military.

A car bomb killed an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK is working to help the U.S. close Guantanamo Bay.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega began his third, albeit controversial, term.

Gunmen in Nigeria’s north region killed eight people as tensions flare between the country’s Christians and Muslims.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos rejected peace talks with the guerrilla group FARC.

President Obama will send five U.S. military officers to South Sudan amidst recent violence.

China voiced no interest in reducing its imports of Iranian oil in light of growing international pressure to sanction Iran over their nuclear program.

 Commentary of the Day

James Andrew Lewis refutes the notion that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq signals the end of American dominance.

Marvin Kalb maintains that China does not pose a threat to American national interests.

Thomas Friedman imagines a Middle East without oil.

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