Sunday, April 24, 2016

Four Stars and Then What?

Steve's peeve of the week: four star officers.  How so?

First, there is the whole draft Matthis for President thing.  Sure, Matthis rejected it, but the effort to draft a general for President is just desperate and wrong.  I understand why the GOP folks would want someone, anyone, to be a candidate rather than Trump or Cruz since both are thoroughly detestable.  But picking a not so random General?  Oy. 

Yes, the US has had good Presidents who had been generals: Washington and Eisenhower.  But Grant and Jackson were awful.  Harrison, Taylor, and Garfield didn't last very long, and the rest were one-termers.  What makes for a good general does not necessarily make for a good President.  While stereotypes are a bit off, successful politicians are those who can persuade and build coalitions while successful generals are those who command well.  Overlapping but not identical skill sets. 

Why is Matthis attractive?  He gives good quotes, for sure (see teh Vox piece linked above).  He was successful in Iraq, but Iraq is not a huge success story.  He ran CENTCOM when things were going kind of well in Afghanistan despite the fact that Petraeus, like McChrystal before him, were deviating significantly from Obama's vision of pop-centric COIN. 

The bigger problem is that this is a poor time to think that we should hand over power to someone who is authoritarian in nature.  The military, as often argued and documented, tends to value authority and order, and I sincerely doubt that any Marine general would value those less.  Combine that basic tendency with the statements made by Matthis over the years, and, no, I don't want someone who thinks the US "is more of a foreign country than places overseas" to be President.

Which gets to my second peeve-reading: this piece by retired Admiral William McRaven, who spent most of his career in Special Operations.  In it, he complains about how lawmakers and folks in DOD (he does not blame the White House, which is interesting) blocked the career of a super-officer, Rear Admiral Losey.  Oh wait, this guy got to be a two star Admiral--which very, very few people can achieve.  And he got a sweet gig while his case was being investigated (running all SOF).  So, I am not really to feel horrible about this guy having problems with the civilians.

There is a real problem that civilian oversight has become far more polarized than it used to be, but we need more oversight, not less.  That is, how have the strategies and tactics advanced by military officers worked or not worked in the various wars of the past fifteen years?  While civilians make most of the big decisions, the military can and does game its recommendations (McChrystal's light/medium/heavy options for A-stan is a clear example).

Good civilian-military relations means that the officers give their best advice to the civilians and then the civilians make the call, AND then the civilians watch how the military implements their policies (oversight).  Cranky retired military officers is part of the culture of American civil-military relations, but when McRaven concludes his essay thusly:

In light of the challenging times in which we find ourselves, politically and strategically, we cannot afford to have a military that loses respect for its civilian leaders. My father was right. The strength of America always rests with our nation’s civilians. God forbid we should ever see it differently
I worry.  Is this a threat?  Is it a prediction?  Are we that close to a real crisis?  Is this op-ed causing actual harm to civil-military relations.  I think he goes too far here.  As a retired guy, he can do so, but he probably should not.  For me, while I care about the quality of oversight (which is the project of the next four or five years), I also care that the military has not faced enough criticism over the past fifteen years as it is protected by the whole "support our troops" mantra.  As the folks who can do the greatest damage, the military has to face the brightest spotlights.  As always, with great power comes great responsibility.

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