Galston on McChrystal

William Galston, writing on TNR’s The Plank, argues Bruce Ackerman and others are wrong to suggest that General Stanley McChrystal’s public comments somehow threaten the principle of civilian control of the military.

Liberal pundits, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and National Security Advisor James Jones are in agreement: General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was wrong to give public voice to his views about the best way forward in that beleaguered country. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman accused McChrystal of “a plain violation of the principle of civilian control.” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson put it most bluntly: “The men with the stars on their shoulders … need to shut up and salute.” Some are even drawing parallels between McChrystal and Douglas MacArthur. All these critics are wrong.

The principle of civilian control means that once the competent civilian authorities have made a binding decision, military leaders are obligated to support it and carry it out. If they cannot in good conscience do so, they should resign. The principle does not mean that military leaders are barred from publicly expressing their best judgment as to the strategy and tactics best suited to the problem at hand before the civilian authorities have made their decision.

He notes further that the arguments for muzzling McChrystal are the same arguments used to justify the Bush Administration’s effort to silence General Eric Shinseki before the invasion of Iraq.  Further, insofar as McChrystal’s comments put pressure on the President — pressure to either deploy more troops or redefine the mission in Afghanistan — Galston believes it’s a good thing, as it limits the President’s ability to “fudge” the decision.