<em>Guest Post</em>: A Belated Note on McCain, Petraeus, and Civil-Military Relations


Andrew Lebovich is a Research Intern with the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program
Petraeus McCain.jpgThe Obama campaign and various surrogates jumped on comments made by Senator John McCain last week that it was “not too important” when American troops come home from Iraq, but rather what the conditions on the ground are.
Yet this is not the most interesting quote from Sen. McCain’s remarks. The focus should instead be on his statement that “General Petraeus is going to tell us in July when we are [ready to withdraw].” This is reminiscent of President Bush’s assertions lat September that he would only base his decision on the future of the surge primarily on Petraeus’ recommendations.
When President Bush or Senator McCain defers to Petraeus in this way, they are abdicating responsibility for decisions made about Iraq policy. This is a feeble attempt to hide behind the legitimacy of the military, one of a declining number of institutions viewed favorably by Americans (a 69% approval rating in a 2007 Gallup poll, as opposed to 14% for Congress).
But it is more problematic if McCain or others rely on Petraeus because they genuinely believe only the generals can make the correct decisions about Iraq. This is not at all to say that generals are incapable of national leadership on important issues; many people, including Steve Clemons, have written of the importance of prominent military and civilian leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s experience commanding military operations in World War II helped to inform a balanced approach to foreign and domestic policy. Eisenhower was an avid centrist, famously using his final speech in office to warn against the growing military-industrial complex in America.
Unlike the centrist Eisenhower, however, Petraeus has already been wittingly or unwittingly politicized by the war in Iraq. He, President Bush, and now Sen. McCain have staked their credibility and reputations on the success of the surge. Setting aside arguments on the effectiveness of the surge put forward by respected scholars like Michael O’Hanlon on one side and the New America Foundation’s Nir Rosen on the other, this confluence of interest has brought Petraeus before Congress and the American people not just as a general, but as a defender of the Iraq war and advocate of administration policy.
Further, allowing only the Army to make major decisions about foreign policy sets a dangerous precedent. This action would establish the Army essentially as an independent force, and undermines the concept of civilian control of the military. This control allowed President Truman to rein in the extremely popular General Douglas MacArthur, who had plans to use tactical nuclear weapons against China. And in the absence of this control, allowed General William Westmoreland to tell Congress and the American people that the end of the Vietnam War was in sight, even on the eve of the Tet offensive of 1968.
General Petraeus is by all indications a highly intelligent, thoughtful, and capable general. But If Sen. McCain would simply rely on Petraeus to make decisions, he or others on both sides of the political spectrum reduce the office of the President to a vessel that blindly follows others’ suggestions instead of weighing different options from different perspectives, and choosing the most appropriate for a given situation.
— Andrew Lebovich


16 comments on “<em>Guest Post</em>: A Belated Note on McCain, Petraeus, and Civil-Military Relations

  1. rapier says:

    Every report I have read said that all the Joint Chiefs were against the surge. So you can throw the out the entire idea that somehow the brass is making policy. It’s the brass who will support the policy wanted and be passionate about it and then actually be willing to have the policy hung on him.
    If Bush had listened to the generals there would be no surge and the disaster in Iraq might not have been so bad to being with.
    The military is now self selecting from top to bottom for outright militarism. McCain would be a dream come true for them because at his very base McCain is a militarist. Luckily he probably won’t win. Obama won’t be able to dismantle what is going on in the Pentagon however. Who knows, it just might be them to oust Obama.
    At a minimum Petraeus is a candidate for 2012. That doesn’t mean much at this point but something to keep an eye on. He’d make a fine Ceasear too.


  2. PissedOffAmerican says:

    I strongly suggest googlin’ up Taguba’s latest efforts to throw these piece of shit in the White House in prison for war crimes.
    Golly, shoving broom sticks in the asses of our prisoners, and making them squeal like pigs. Electric shock treatments. Torture.
    Makes ya proud to be an American, don’t it?


  3. Bartolo says:

    Initials wrote: “Obama’s approach is startlingly different: He appears to be saying that he will remove troops from Iraq whether Army leaders think that is a good idea or not. Arguably, this is an arrogant thing to do…”
    Removing troops and ending the war is a good idea.
    Staying there in vain hopes of some “victory” is a bad idea. The damage has already been done: to Iraqis, to our military and to our economy.


  4. Chesire11 says:

    So the Bush junta continues the GOP strategy of policizing the military and militarizing politics – hard to see where that could possibly be bad for American democracy.


  5. Carl Malone says:

    As long as citizens in America continue to enlist, these incessant wars will continue. We need to drastically reduce the proclivity of our young people to accept a pay check to go abroad and kill people on behalf of the military industrial complex.
    There is nothing honorable about being a soldier if that soldier is serving the military industrial complex.


  6. DonS says:

    Haggling for 58 bases in country, and building the largest US embassy in the world. Its going to take more than manipulating the military-civilian two step to come up with a plausible endgame. McCain doesn’t know, and doesn’t seem to care, from one day to the next what he says, what it means, and how he contradicts himself. Patriot though he may be, he’s treating the American people with contempt by trying to continue the same ruse Bush — BUSH — has been running. But, what the hell, he and the rest of his “got it made” buddies are going to do just fine, thank you.


  7. samuel burke says:

    crisis at the pentagon, and crisis at the gop.
    suppose the chinese people were able to overthrow their
    communist regime and install a democratic republic. suppose
    the new chinese officials asked americans to help them
    implement a new criminal-justice system for china.
    some americans would recommend that china adopt such
    criminal-justice principles as right to counsel, right to confront
    witnesses, right to due process of law, right to bail, right to
    speedy trial, right to habeas corpus, and trial by jury. the reason
    they would do so is because they believe that these principles
    are correct, just, and moral — and that they are among the best
    defenses to tyranny, communist or otherwise.
    other americans, however, would recommend that china reject
    the criminal-justice principles in the constitution and the bill of
    rights. they would recommend such things as tortured
    confessions, hearsay, secret evidence, secret trials, denial of
    effective assistance of counsel, and tribunals. In other words,
    some americans would recommend the same type of criminal-
    justice system that the chinese communists employed.
    How do we know this?
    because we know what pentagon officials did when they thought
    they were freed of any constitutional restraints and any federal-
    court interference with their operations at guantanamo bay.
    when free to construct what they considered would be a model
    judicial system, they rejected the principles found in the
    constitution and the bill of rights and adopted criminal-justice
    principles that have been employed in such countries as the
    soviet union, nazi germany, north korea, and cuba.


  8. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    If the fact speaks the impression that there exists close political or ideological convergences between the two Americans- one being a political leader, McCain and the otherone being the Gen. Petraeus, there must not be any thing new or strange to beileve in since both the Americans are trying to defend the philosohhy of strategic utilitarianism.


  9. Zathras says:

    Sen. McCain’s remark about Gen. Petraeus is not “…reminiscent of President Bush’s.” It is virtually identical to language Bush has used in the past.
    Just from a political point of view I’m at a loss to understand this. There may be reasons why McCain feels he has to stand by policies associated with the man he is trying to replace, a man with nearly 70% disapproval ratings, but to use virtually the same language Bush does steps on McCain’s own message, or at least what his general election message.
    Incidentally, jhkjh upthread is mistaken. The approach to Iraq he describes is mine, not Sen. Obama’s. Obama has made a withdrawal timetable part of his stump speech, but I have little doubt that he would modify his program if American commanders in Iraq warned him that an American withdrawal risked an increase in violence there. Though I have little interest in timetables as such, I do think it necessary to liquidate the American commitment in Iraq, whether or not this is followed by a resumption of sectarian bloodshed in that country.
    Naturally I would prefer that it were not. However, the point at which keeping Arabs from killing other Arabs was worth the price America is paying to do so was passed some time ago. It is not the field commanders’ job to keep track of that price; from their necessarily parochial standpoint, a stable Iraq and a bankrupted American Treasury would equal success. Frankly, I doubt whether Obama has it in him to act on a broader conception of American national interests, but McCain certainly does not. Bush’s position on Iraq is his position also, and his use of the same language only underscores this unhappy fact.


  10. PissedOffAmerican says:

    It would be interesting to see what Fallon, Shinzeki, or Sanchez would have to say about Lebovich’s commentary, if in fact they would comment.
    Powell’s input would be interesting too, but I understand he is still trying to get the kink out of his neck that he sustained while pulling his head out of Bush’s ass. I hope Powell has privately warned Petreaus to wear a neckbrace, and use plenty of KY-Jelly.


  11. Carroll says:

    Yep, we need control of a lot of things.
    Like this for instance. Remember the Urban Moving Systems company that was talked about concerning 911? Two of their employees were reported to be jumping up and down with glee and filming the WTC destruction. They were arrested and then let go and the owner of Urban Moving systems who was an Israeli disappeared and abandoned his business office.
    Well, truth is stranger than fiction and who would believe that the US government gave Urban Moving Systems a federal grant of some 400,000 in 2001?
    At first I though this was your typical internet gossip but lo and behold I went to the federal grants site and sure enough there it was:
    I really would like to know what the deal was with
    a flea bitten moving company getting a $400,000 grant from the government, and if this company was on the up and up why did the owner make a run for it before the FBI got to his office and found it empty.
    Very weird.


  12. TokyoTom says:

    – “This is a feeble attempt to hide behind the legitimacy of the military”.
    – “But it is more problematic if McCain or others rely on Petraeus because they genuinely believe only the generals can make the correct decisions about Iraq.”
    You’ve obviously got this wrong and are addressing strawmen. While advice from the military is of course crucial, Bush’s prompt canning of any general who speaks openly about the costs and dangers of continuing the war makes it clear that the administration IS controlling the military and not simply deferring to them – so most of your argument is simply meaningless.
    What should be addressed instead is something slightly different from your first point, namely, that Bush and others like McCain are dodging responsibility for the war and for the decisions that they are in fact making, not so much by hiding behind the military but pretending that – when they kick this can down the road (remember, waging war is paid for by us, not them, while they would bear the political costs of admitting their mistakes by withdrawing) – they actually care what the military is saying and simply following its advice.


  13. Linda says:

    Civilian control is essential; however, since Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in 1961, military-industrial complex has grown into almost every Congressional district. Neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress or White House have developed proper fiscal and accounting controls on the military budget. Much more can and should be done, and neither candidate seems to have this as a priority.


  14. jhkjh says:

    McCain isn’t saying he’ll cede decision-making authority to Petraeus completely; he’s just saying that he’ll defer to him on some issues because Petreaus has more knowledge and expertise regarding the conditions on the ground on Iraq. This is normal in war-time; Presidents shouldn’t try to make all military decisions by themselves, since they often do not know as much as the military does. Of course, one can take too much of a good thing too far; if McCain failed to supervise Petraeus, that would be a bad thing. But Iraq is one of the most important issues facing the country right now, and it would be weird for an American president to not supervise his point man on an issue of such importance.
    Obama’s approach is startlingly different: He appears to be saying that he will remove troops from Iraq whether Army leaders think that is a good idea or not. Arguably, this is an arrogant thing to do: How does Obama know that his analysis of the conditions on the ground in Iraq is better than those of the commanders who work there every day? When President Bush decided to go to war with Iraq in the first place, and several mid-level diplomatic and intelligence officers disagreed, liberals faulted Bush for not paying enough attention to the views of the relevant experts. But for some reason liberals are incapable of recognizing that Obama may be making the very same mistake.


  15. Don Bacon says:

    General Petraeus has not been already been wittingly or unwittingly politicized by the war in Iraq, rather he deliberately injected himself into the 2004 presidential race with false claims, and has been well rewarded for his perfidy.
    Sep 2004–Petreaus: “I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up.. . .Six battalions of the Iraqi regular army and the Iraqi Intervention Force are now conducting operations. . .Within the next 60 days, six more regular army and six additional Intervention Force battalions will become operational. . . Nine more regular army battalions will complete training in January”
    Sep 2005–Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, said there are fewer Iraqi battalions at “Level 1″ readiness than there were a few months ago. . . The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday.
    According to the Constitution the President is supposed to command the military, not a guy three command levels below him. Oh, for the return of Harry Truman in this regard. “It’s the fellows who go to West Point and are trained to think they’re gods in uniform that I plan to take apart.”–“Where The Buck Stops,” Harry S Truman
    As for McCain, he has previously touted the Prez as the go-to guy on war-making. McCain, Oct 2002: “The Constitution of the United States designates the President of the United States as Commander-in-Chief. The Congress of the United States plays a role, and I believe that this process we are about to embark on is the appropriate role that Congress should carry out its responsibilities. But at the end of the day, the final, most serious responsibility of sending young American men and women into harm’s way rests with the President of the United States.”
    Hey, with the Army in charge, they could turn the Oval Office into a Day Room, start the day with PT after reveille and march around the Ellipse all day. Hooo-ah! In the meantime, as we used to say about Vietnam: Hey, it’s a lousy war, but it’s the only one we’ve got. Promotions, ribbons, combat pay — keep ‘er goin’, Davey. You the man.


  16. JohnH says:

    “This is a feeble attempt to hide behind the legitimacy of the military.” Or acknowledgement that the military is actually running the show…


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