Foreign Policy: When The Military Speaks, Listen Up Hushing our military generals would be a terrible mistake, one much more hurtful to the Obama administration than to the military.
NPR logo Foreign Policy: When The Military Speaks, Listen Up

Foreign Policy: When The Military Speaks, Listen Up

U.S. Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 5th Marines sit talking around a makeshift table in Nawa district, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009. Brennan Linsley/AP hide caption

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Brennan Linsley/AP

U.S. Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 5th Marines sit talking around a makeshift table in Nawa district, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009.

Brennan Linsley/AP

The release of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report on the war in Afghanistan has occasioned full-throated cries of insubordination from the president's liberal supporters. The most ignorant and offensive of these is Eugene Robinson's belief that the military "need to shut up and salute."

Let's leave aside that liberal commentators showed no such compunction when the Bush administration was being criticized by the military — including both active-duty servicemen like Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and retired servicemen like Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold — for its conduct of the Iraq war and for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's disrespect of their views.

Then, dissent was patriotic. Now, evidently, our military is not to be afforded views on the war they are fighting.

But shutting up the generals would be a terrible mistake, one much more hurtful to the Obama administration than to the military. Here are the main reasons the administration should not take the counsel of its supporters and silence the dissent being vented by our military.

They're more popular than he is. The American military is the most respected institution in these United States, with 82% of the public expressing high confidence, routinely outpacing all other institutions in American life — to include the presidency (51%), the Supreme Court (39%) and Congress (17%). They're likely to win this one in the eyes of the American people, and that can't be good for the president.

They want to support him. After President Bill Clinton commenced his administration with the ill-fated executive order on homosexuals serving openly in the military, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin wrote him a terrific memo about how to repair relations with the military. The fundamental point was that the military is a winnable constituency for any president. They want him to succeed. Treating them like they're the enemy will offend their professionalism.

They understand the difference between policymaking and execution. It's their job to salute and carry out orders once the president gives them, but that does not proscribe them from influencing policy in the making. Go back and read the transcript of Gen. Colin Powell's lecture at the National Defense University during the "gays in the military" imbroglio for a poignant reminder of how well they get it. It will be a better policy if the president takes account of their concerns.

They know more about war than you do. Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military, and few of our political elites have any experience of the military. Those who are serving or have served do actually know more about the theory and practice of warfare than those of us who have not. They've risked their lives to acquire the knowledge, and deserve us giving deference to their judgment on what it takes to fight and win the nation's wars.

He was persuading allies to remain committed to the fight. President Obama is not General McChrystal's only boss. As the NATO commander, he works for all the governments with forces committed to the mission in Afghanistan. In his comments in London, McChrystal was defending the strategy President Obama asked allies to commit to, and for which their forces are risking their lives. He was helping make the case for the war to skeptical European publics; surely the White House does not want to do all that heavy lifting itself?

Ask yourself why it leaked. Internal government documents like the McChrystal report on Afghanistan tend to be leaked in one of three circumstances: (1) someone who cares desperately about the policy believes an administration is about to make a catastrophic mistake; (2) someone involved in policy formation believes their point of view isn't getting a fair hearing; or (3) someone wants to force the administration to publicly defend its choices. The latter usually occurs when, say, the national security advisor tries to intimidate military commanders into politicizing their advice. Or when the president curries favor with the military by telling the Veterans of Foreign Wars he's all in, then a month later getting cold feet when the bill for achieving his objectives comes due. Whichever of these factors drove this leak, the administration should take it as a canary in a coal mine they aren't building consensus within the government, either for their process or their preferred course of action.

You get the military leadership you deserve. If you penalize military leaders who give you unwelcome advice, they'll stop giving you their best judgment. They'll either fall silent, (as then Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers did in the run up to the Iraq war), or they'll retire (as Lt. Gen. Newbold did in the run up to the Iraq war and Gen. Ron Fogleman did after the commander of the Khobar Towers facility in Saudi Arabia at the time of the bombing was later denied promotion), or they'll go through the motions of what you've asked and achieve little (as Gen. George W. Casey, now Army chief of staff, did when he was the top U.S. commander in Iraq). The president needs — and should want — military leaders who give their military judgment, which is all General McChrystal has done.

Secretary Gates judiciously suggested in his speech to the Association of the U.S. Army Monday that the president has a right to receive advice confidentially. He is serving the president well by trying to turn down the temperature on this civil-military imbroglio. People in the White House would also be wise to stop trying to silence the military — or they won't like the military they end up with.