Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Keep it Zipped

Interesting and excellent Mac Owens article at NRO dealing with issues of civilian control of the armed forces and when it is or is not right for an officer to speak out.

I'm not an expert in civil-military affairs, but it strikes me that there may be a few other things to be added.

First, a point I've made before - one of the problems curently being seen on a fairly wide scale is that of leaks and anonymous briefings to the press. I do not approve of this. However, that said it is widely accepted that leaks by professional civil servants are more likely to take place when those doing the leaking are made to work in an environment in which their advice is either not given a fair hearing or is likely to lead to punishment or active sidelining. The job of professional civil servants is to speak truth unto power and if they do not do that for the sake of their own skins then that speaks badly of them. On the other hand, it is also up to our elected representatives to maintain an environment in which saying the "wrong" thing is not seen as beyond the Pale - they do, of course, then have the right to reject said advice as they see fit. While I find the current spate of leaks and briefings distasteful I also feel that claims that the current US (and British) administrations have fallen down on their share of the deal do not lack credibility.

Second, the question faced by any civil servant faced with a severe rift between himself and the elected representatives - whether and when to resign - has always been a supremely difficult one. First of all it takes guts. Second of all, it involves overcoming the very natural instinct that informs us that it is better to stick at a bad job and hope to influence events in what little ways we can than to throw our toys out of the pram and have no influence at all. A resignation may cause a stir for 24 hours, but once that initial exlosion of interest and exposure has died down, you are, to all intents and purposes, buggered. This feeling is doubtless exacerbated when a substantial chunk of that part of the commentariat loyal to the current administration seems to have taken to adopting the rapid-response character smear as weapon of first resort in reacting to any resignation, whether by a political appointee or a professional bureaucrat.

None of this is terribly new, of course. Similar debates took place in the 1930s, when Britain's Imperial General Staff, the bulk of whom favoured a tougher line on Germany and strengthening of the Anglo-French alliance, went through agonies of indecision and heartfelt ethical debate over how to respond to the policies set out by their elected masters. Ultimately the consensus decision was that they would resign en masse if committed to the field in pursuit of a policy they considered wildly irresponsible or if sent in on what would amount to a suicide mission without pressing cause but that they could not in good conscience resign over the absence of an active policy of which they approved (rearmament and stiffer opposition to the Nazis). In other words, they could resign to protest policy but not resign in order to coerce the government into adopting policy. The conscientious debate, absence of leakage from within the ship of state and rigorous committment to the principle of civilian authority did the officers involved much credit, though history might have turned a blind eye to their abuse of position had they chosen differently - nothing succeeds like success.

Finally, I do wonder whether the increasingly militaristic slant of American society (please don't choke on your own tongue at the sight of this comment, I have not turned into Michael Moore and will be laying out some moderating parameters in a moment) is not helpful in this regard. The term "militaristic" has become a catch all pejorative over the past few decades, simply being hurled (like "fascist") at anyone the hurler finds particularly annoying. These days, those who favour increased defence spending or an expeditionary foreign policy are frequently described as such. In fact in its proper usage a militaristic society has two rather specific factors linked to it - 1) an active role played by the armed forces in government and the policy making process and 2) the employment of the armed forces and the values seen to be embodied in the armed forces as a desirable template for society as a whole.

A little historical padding. Europe in the years building up to the Great War is frequently described as militaristic - a catch all term that is applied to all the participants in the conflict in equal measure. In fact, this holds true only if we accept as our benchmark of militarism the rather watered-down, student politico definition: all the major power supported high defence spending and most supported an active foreign policy based around national aggrandisement. However, in order to be precise we must look at the domestic situations of the leading powers and here a comparison between Imperial Germany and the United Kingdom is instructive.

In Imperial Germany, the German army was seen as the expression of national values and consciousness. There are two main reasons for this - first, the fact that German nationalism (as opposed to, say, French nationalism) was inherently tied into the reforms of the Prussian army in the wake of Prussia's disastrous defeat at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806 and that the key movers in this development were, quite naturally, uniformed officers and not civilian officials. Second, the fact that for centuries Germany as a geographical entity had been the main battleground for a series of catastrohpic wars that had decimated the civilian population, this helping to ingrain something approaching a siege mentality among significant chunks of the German population at large. Books elaborating theories of the purifying, Darwinian nature of war and exalting the mobilisation of the entire population to serve a grand national military project were popular among the general staffs of all the major European powers (and the USA). However, whereas in other countries, such books rarely found much of an audience outside the military arena, they found a ravenous civilian audience in Germany, the work of Colmar von der Goltz topping the equivalent of the bestseller lists and being reprinted thirteen times in its first year of publication. German army officers enjoyed significant power in the civilian arena (including powers of arrest over civilians). At its most mundane level this manifested itself in the ability of uniformed soldiery to boss ordinary civilians around even when in a civilian setting. At its most serious, it led to the rapid collapse of German democracy in the face of national crisis, to the extent that by the end of the war Imperial Germany was to all intents and purposes a military dictatorship.

In the United Kingdom, threads of similarity existed. The British public was cock-a-hoop over naval construction, even lobbying parliament for MORE ships than planned ("We want eight and we won't wait!" - long time since we've seen that sort of thing...) and shrewd bureaucratic players (notably Jackie Wilson) were keen to cultivate good relations with newspaper magnates and to advance their pet projects. The record of civilian control over the armed forces was not entirely unblemished either, as the Curragh incident demonstrated. Beyond these superficial similarities, however, the differences are stark. Apart from when "our lads" were off doing the business in foreign climbs, the "scum of the earth" theory of British soldiery ruled, with men in uniform often being treated not as titans, but second class citizens. Once again we return to Kipling - it is almost inconceivable that "Tommy" could ever have been written in Imperial Germany. Had it been, it would not have chronicled any recognisable social reality. While the British public did mobilise - in the event, more effectively than their German opponents - in the face of a perceived threat to national survival, enthusiasm for empire and grand adventures abroad was contingent upon the fact that pursuit of these cheerful diversions rested in the hands of a tiny professional army and an all volunteer navy and thus demonstrated minimal impact on the average man in the street beyond the occasional tax increase and exposure to the odd unusual item of foodstuff or trinketry sourced form Exotic Climbs.

I don't wish to give the impression that America is somehow analogous with Imperial Germany or that it is teetering on the brink of a military coup. I have a lot of faith in American democratic institutions and, broadly speaking, the sound sense of the American people (excepting those factors identified by Fareed Zakaria in his "The Future of Freedom"). However, various developments (none of which, lest I seem to be unduly hammering the current people in office, are the creations of the Bush administration) do point in that general direction and, while they are unlikely to have earth shattering effects on American democracy as a whole, they may serve to contribute to the increasingly opaque state of the civil-military divide.

The first of these is the sidelining of public diplomacy in favour of military representatives abroad - analogies (slack or otherwise) with ancient Rome abound. This is probably not a Good Thing, though the point ought to be made that it is quite possible that this trend reached a peak during the Clinton administration and is now actually on the decline. The choice of civilian representatives to lead the American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan (I myself would have been strongly inclined to make Iraq at least a quasi-military appointment in the form of retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni) may serve as a repudiation of this creeping militarisation. The cynic would doubtless argue that the increase in civilian appointees is a result of the fact that the only people prepared to back current administration policy are politicised true believers. Whether there is some truth in this or whether there's just no pleasing some people, I don't feel equipped to judge (though I suspect rather more the latter than the former).

Second is the militarisation of the presidency. To the best of my knowledge - I am open to correction - this started with Ronald Reagan, who took to saluting soldiers as he sauntered past and other minor military affectations. Ironically, Reagan was at that point the least military of all post-war presidents. The trend has been taken to new heights with the current incumbent, reaching its apogee with his landing, encased in military flight suit, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln at the close of conventional operations in Iraq. It is impossible to conceive of Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan undertaking such a spectacle and it is equally hard to see George H W Bush, a genuine, Grade A, copper-bottomed war hero, in the same position (full disclosure of prejudice: Although a supporter of the war and full of piss and vinegar at that point, I found the whole display to be in monumental bad taste). This is, of course, a tricky point, given the president's role as commander in chief. In the United Kingdom, of course, the Queen has this role and other members of the Royal Family various appointments (The Princess Royal is Colonel-in-Chief of the Blues and Royals, much to the detriment of Elaine Donnelly's bile duct one presumes), while lacking serious political power (Her Majesty reins, but does not rule...). I would be interested in hearing from American readers what their views are on this issue - where should the line be drawn?

There are a couple of other factors which I don't feel terribly comfortable discussing here. Aside from anything else I have no wish to cause offence. Reviewing the post I have the terrible feeling I may end up sounding like some sort of ghastly person who can expect lifetime employment on the editorial board of Le Monde or something. As I say, the areas of current American political life that I've picked out for tentative (and it is very tentative) criticism, I have picked out because of their potential to blur somewhat the lines between civil and military control, not because I think they are contributing to - or are symptoms of - a supposed urge to ravage the planet or lapse into some sort of crypto-fascist dictatorship.

6 Comments:

Blogger J. said...

You have a lot of topics in this blog. First I will agree, that NRO article was excellent. I think it does articulate the need for military leaders to "convey his concerns to civilian policymakers forcefully and truthfully." And if the civilian leaders don't accept your advice, you take their orders and drive on. Absolutely agree that active military officers should not publicly discuss foreign policy (but retired officers, sure). Having said that, I don't think that there's an obligation to be a milksop like Gen Myer and dance around behind Rumsfeld agreeing with everything he says either.

On the issue of leaks, well, I think there are more leaks from civilian leaders in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps than military leaders leaking info. For the most part, my experience has been that the military doesn't have time to play politics like that, unless they are dealing with acquisition issues and they want Congress to "help" OSD fund a particular project.

On the issue of militarism, I'm not sure that it's such a phenonema in the United States. Yes, there have been increasing responsibilities upon the combatant commands to work regional issues, in part due to the lessened resources of State Dept. That should be changed. But I don't see this as a fundamental mindset - I think the COCOMs would rather not deal with the policy issues, but in a way they're forced to make things work to accomplish the mission.

However, the Prez and his flight suit - and the saluting issue - yes, definitely not warrented. It's all imagery, to show the strong leader of the armed forces, blah blah blah, while his administration reduces veteran benefits and prolongs their service obligations beyond expectations. It's showboating and not necessary, but I think the military and public knows this (well at least half of them).

Yes we need civilian control of the military, but we need strong military leaders to offer constructive advice to ensure these temporary, politically-chosen (not chosen based on their "strengths") have the options to do the right thing. We need an Abazaid for the CJCS slot, not another Myer.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Yes, sorry, it's rather incoherent. I ended up rattling it all off in one go at half two in the morning and the results are far from ideal.

Interestingly, we had a slight flutter in this area in the UK a while back when Admiral Boyce was CDS. During a press conference with the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, Mr Hoon made some sort of a comment about British forces not being overstretched and being perfectly capable of taking on all their assigned duties and the Admiral brazenly contradicted him, albeit in a very, very diplomatic fashion. To look at the expression on the Defence Secretary's face one would be forgiven for thinking he'd just had a large carrot forcefully inserted into his rear end.

Reaction to this was mixed. Initially it was largely positive, with the Admiral being praised for having the guts to Tell It How It Is. Later there was unease among some commentators about whether the Admiral had overstepped the boundaries, to the extent that some columnists (not all of whom held a brief for the Labour government, by any means) called for him to be fired.

Ultimately, nothing happened. He was only a couple of months from retirement anyway and probably figured he had nothing to lose. Though I agree with his sentiments, I am still unsure as to who was i nthe right in this instance

1:45 PM  
Blogger J. said...

Good for the Admiral. I mean, as long as it was very diplomatic... I've found that the best value of military generals/flag officers is immediately before retirement when they do slip the veil aside and offer honest, tough assessments.

2:34 PM  
Anonymous D.F.F. said...

I don't think that you need to feel tentative about criticizing the current situation in the U.S. in this regard. There was a piece in Atlantic a year or so ago discussing Bush's use of military imagery and penchant for appearing before audiences of soldiers/sailors/marines which might interest you (or not). I'm afraid I don't have the reference to hand.

I agree with the general contrast between Imperial Germany and the U.K. just before the Great War, but think one ought to take civilian organizations of a military stripe (like the Scouts in their original form) into account. Does it make Germany more or less militaristic that (IIRC) its groups of this sort were frequently overtly tied to the active-duty military while Britain's were not? The latter could be evidence of a deeper infiltration of a military ethos into society. And if Britain lacked a Goltz it did have an active and popular literature on the dangers of a coming foreign invasion. . .

5:58 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Ah, this is true. John Buchan and Erskine Childers and whatnot. I'm not sure that they are directly analogous with the sort of literature coming out of Germany, however.

As I say, I think the Imperial Germany/Great Britain militarism contrast is relative, not absolute and there are obviously strands of similarity - though I do view the contrast to be stark enough to be noteworthy and instructive and not simply a matter of semantics.

On thi issue of the boy scouts I am uncertain what broader conclusions to draw beyond noting that in the 19th century much of continental Europe maintained mass conscript land forces and nursed an ethos that saw military service and citizenship as at least tacitly linked. This was not the case in Britain.

Of course, this alone presumably cannot be held up as evidence of militarism, given that this situation persisted in a rather dilute form until very recently in much of continental Europe (and is still largely the case in Germany), even in societies that are resoundingly unmilitaristic. Hmm. Something to chew over I suppose.

6:51 PM  
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