Foreign Policy: Should Politicians Trump Generals? Should the commander-in-chief be less commanding? Foreign Policy's Peter D. Feaver debates the role of elected officials in the military.
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Foreign Policy: Should Politicians Trump Generals?

U.S. General Martin Dempsey, Admiral James Winnefeld Jr., and General Raymond Odierno listen while President Barack Obama makes a Defense Department staff announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House May 30, 2011 in Washington, DC. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. General Martin Dempsey, Admiral James Winnefeld Jr., and General Raymond Odierno listen while President Barack Obama makes a Defense Department staff announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House May 30, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Read Another Opinion About The Role Of The Presidency In The Military

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. He is coeditor of Shadow Government, a Foreign Policy blog.

Under what conditions should the commander-in-chief go against the advice of his senior generals? Any that he/she chooses. But the president is held accountable for all national security decisions, and when the decision involves rejecting counsel from senior advisors the president should expect and get critical scrutiny.

This is civil-military relations 101, but this basic principle of civilian control has gained some notoriety in two recent contexts.

First, it was raised in the recent Republican debate devoted to foreign policy. Governors Huntsman and Romney were debating Afghanistan, with Huntsman advocating a rapid drawdown in forces. Romney pointed out that senior U.S. military commanders wanted a more measured drawdown than the one advocated by Huntsman, thus raising doubt about whether Huntsman's risky course put in jeopardy all of gains achieved in Afghanistan thus far. That prompted this exchange:

ROMNEY: And the — and the commanders on the ground feel that we should bring down our surge troops by December of 2012 and bring down all of our troops, other than, perhaps, 10,000 or so, by the end of — of 2014.

The decision to pull our troops out before that, they believe, would put at risk the extraordinary investment of treasure and blood which has been sacrificed by the American military.

I stand with the commanders in this regard and have no information that suggests that pulling our troops out faster than that would do anything but put at — at great peril the extraordinary sacrifice that's been made. This is not time for America to cut and run. We have been in for 10 years. We are winding down. The Afghan troops are picking up the capacity to secure their country. And the mission is pretty straightforward, and that is to allow the Afghan people to have a sovereign nation not taken over by the Taliban. BLITZER: Let me bring the speaker in. What do you say...

GINGRICH: I would...

BLITZER: — pull out?

HUNTSMAN: Just — just one point.

BLITZER: You want — oh, go ahead.

HUNTSMAN: Yes, just about the generals on the ground. And listen, I think it's important for the American people to know we have achieved some very important objectives in raising standards in Afghanistan and helping to build civil society.

But at the end of the day, the president of the United States is commander-in-chief, commander-in-chief. Of course you're going to listen to the generals. But...


HUNTSMAN: — I also remember when people listened to the generals in 1967 and we heard a certain course of action in South Asia that didn't serve our interests very well.

The president is the commander-in-chief and ought to be informed by a lot of different voices, including of those of his generals on the ground.

After some more crosstalk, Romney got in the final word:

ROMNEY: Of course the commander-in-chiefs makes the — makes the final decision. But the commander-in-chief makes that decision based upon the input of people closest to the ground. And — and we — we've both been to Afghanistan. I've been to Afghanistan. The people I speak with there say we have a very good prospect of the people in Afghanistan being able to secure the peace and their sovereignty from the Taliban, but that if we pull out on a precipitous basis, as Governor Huntsman suggests, that we could well see that nation and Pakistan get pulled into terror and become another launching point to go after America. That's a mistake. That's why you listen and then make your decision.

Huntsman is right that generals can give bad advice, and that a commander-in-chief must do more than simply rubber-stamp whatever the senior brass is recommending. But Romney is also right that presidents who overrule the military commanders, especially those with responsibility in the theater, open themselves up to extra scrutiny. It is not enough to say, as Huntsman says, that he is the president and that is that (or that some military generals were wrong fifty years ago and so we can assume they are wrong again today). Especially when the president wants to do something that is politically expedient — and Huntsman's invocation of Obama's pandering about nation-building at home certainly raises the whiff of political expedience — then he should expect tough cross-examination. Indeed, healthy civil-military relations requires such cross-examination from the political process, but crucially assigns the role to other politicians, not to military subordinates.

President Bush was subjected to that kind of scrutiny when he decided on the Iraq surge and Obama or a hypothetical Huntsman should receive at least an equivalent level. Presidents should get that scrutiny even if they are simply following the advice of their generals, but they should for certain expect it when they take a course that the military has advised as especially risky.

Perhaps that is the spirit that gave rise to the second civil-military squib that caught my eye: Fred Kagan's sharp critique of President Obama's handling of military advice.

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