General McChrystal, General Petraeus, and General Confusion

Barack Obama’s Afghanistan commanders are something else. First, they promoted a highly debatable counter-insurgency strategy. Then, despite the numerous and cogent contemporary critiques, they got the president to buy into their particular brand of wishful thinking, and they got from him the additional troops supposedly needed for success. They have since failed to deliver. There are no convincing signs of progress toward their promise of pacification.

You would think they would have enough to do in Afghanistan. They should keep pretty busy managing an international coalition, bucking up the Karzai government, building an Afghan army, and distributing U.S. largesse, not to mention figuring out where the assorted bad guys are and how to put them in their place. But no, they manage to find quality time to spend with the media, unburdening themselves at remarkable length.

Stanley McChrystal and his aides got carried away, and now David Petraeus has caught the media bug, going on a blitz earlier this week. He wants us all to know that he rejects “a graceful exit,” even though that is probably the best to be hoped for. He assures us that he is working hard to “achieve our objectives” (whatever they may be). And in impressively technocratic language he sheds light on the situation on the ground by indicating that he is close to getting “the inputs about right.”

The real general in command seems to be confusion. There is most obviously confusion about what the personalities are up to. Heaven knows what Petraeus has in mind. Has he suddenly recalled that Nixon’s troop withdrawal from Vietnam was a version of “a graceful exit” strategy — and he wants no part of a repeat? Or has settling into McChrystal’s chair convinced him that the situation is far worse than he imagined? So he turns to the U.S. public and the president with a plea for more time. By doing so, it seems on the basis of the evidence offered in Jonathan Alter’s The Promise that he is double-crossing his commander in chief. Late last year at the end of extended deliberations over Afghan strategy, he joined Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen in making a firm commitment to respect the 2011 deadline for beginning significant U.S. troop withdrawals. Petraeus may well calculate he can get away with this reversal: an inexperienced president with one sacking behind him is not likely to attempt a second, especially if the fresh challenge is mounted adroitly.

Is it possible on the other hand that Obama is at least tacitly behind this backpedaling? There is precedent for a president using his field commander for political ends: Johnson brought his Vietnam commander, William Westmoreland, home in late 1967 to sell a war even as it was going badly in the field. This doesn’t seem Obama’s style, but the gap between promise and performance in Afghanistan and the competing claims of other causes closer to home must be creating intense pressure on the president.

General confusion is also at work in civil-military relations. No question, the era of the political general has arrived. Vietnam taught at least some in the military establishment that generals need to speak their mind forcefully. But where exactly is the line that defines civilian control under the new dispensation where generals freely address the public and negotiate with the president on ultimate strategic goals? Where does civilian control end and insubordination begin? We may be watching in McChrystal and Petraeus some senior Army leaders not just trying to find that line but also to move it.

Finally, in grandest terms, general confusion reigns in the American national understanding of itself. Over the last several decades the country has undergone a militarization notable for its breadth (a point elaborated in Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism). Generals and admirals have fanned out from the Pentagon to populate the upper levels of the decisionmaking apparatus throughout Washington. The society is enamored with military virtues so strikingly missing in the everyday life of most Americans. Politicians and the media heap praise on the sacrifice of servicemen and women while banishing any thought that that sacrifice should be shared, least of all through universal military service. Patriots boast of their country’s prowess on the battlefield — a might far exceeding any imaginable combination of powers — even though U.S. expeditionary forces regularly reveal the limits of brute coercion.

This militarization of America, of which McChrystal and Petraeus are symptoms, would shock the founding fathers. Fortified by a well developed sense of history, the founders identified foreign military adventures as one of the prime dangers to the survival of any republic. They were certain that foreign wars raised up generals, who in turn became celebrated men on horseback and in the bargain a threat to democratic values and institutions. Their America, they warned, was no more immune to a subversive militarism than had been Greece, Rome, and the Italian city states.

Maybe Obama should be reading The Federalist Papers. He could start with Alexander Hamilton’s no. 8:

“The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”

This might be a good time to put a stop to general confusion and to that end assert firm civilian control, order the brass back to the Pentagon, and above all ask if the militarization of our society is consistent with our historic values.

Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.