Monday, May 22, 2006
Six decades ago, the National Security Act of 1947 inserted buffers between presidents and their top military men, leading immediately to a series of military debacles or, at best, stalemates. Instead of Marshall speaking--respectfully but frankly--to FDR, we got McNamara huddling with LBJ and, now, Donald Rumsfeld, who never saw combat, interpreting warfare to a president who never saw combat. Instead of making battlefield decisions based upon military necessity, the rise of powerful secretaries of defense resulted in combat decisions based upon political expediency.
Defense secretaries, not dissident retired generals, have politicized our national security. As for the recently invented "requirement" for retired officers to remain silent and apolitical, would we really like to strike George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower from our history books? After all, it was Eisenhower, the former soldier, who warned us so presciently of the military-industrial complex, while secretaries of defense--one after another--merely shoveled money into its maw.
The Goldwater-Nichols Act, an echo of Vietnam, was supposed to guarantee unfiltered military advice to the president. It didn't work. The elaborate superstructure of the contemporary presidency, with its many gatekeepers, excludes the nation's senior military leaders from the frequent, intimate, and unconstrained contact with the president that served us so well in the past. Too much has been delegated: While the president has the indisputable right to dismiss military leaders (as Lincoln certainly had to do), he also has the duty to study the professional advice of those who will lead our troops into battle before overruling it. With the approval of Congress (and increasingly without it), the president makes our strategic decisions, but it is his obligation to the American people to make informed decisions.
Today, however, our presidents do not hear unvarnished, de-politicized military advice, and the situation has never been graver than under the current administration. Presidential interviews with generals are essentially pre-scripted, with vetted talking points--political courtiers control access to the president and determine what the president will hear. Only the president himself could change the situation by demanding to hear a range of military views (without commissars at the shoulders of the generals). President George W. Bush, who has chosen war as a policy tool, may be the American president most isolated from sound military advice.
Something to ponder. Read the whole thing.
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