Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman argues in the Washington Post that it was inappropriate for General Stanley McChrystal to announce his preferred Afghanistan strategy and publicly disagree with Vice President Joe Biden. Such statements, Ackerman said, were “a plain violation of the principle of civilian control.” The New America Foundation’s Michael Cohen makes a similar argument.
According to Ackerman,
As commanding general in Afghanistan, McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements. Under law, he doesn’t have the right to attend the National Security Council as it decides our strategy. To the contrary, the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 explicitly names the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the National Security Council’s exclusive military adviser. If the president wanted McChrystal’s advice, he was perfectly free to ask him to accompany Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, when the council held its first meeting on Afghanistan this week.
McChrystal’s “breach,” Ackerman argues, “should provoke a broader discussion of the meaning of civilian control in the 21st century.”
Ackerman’s essay raises some interesting issues, but I wonder if he’s making too much of McChrystal’s comments (as is Cohen). There’s ample precedent for Cabinet Secretaries and other presidential appointees making policy statements in advance of a Presidential decision. While the military is, and should, be different, I also seem to recall other instances in which it was widely known that military leaders disagreed with their civilian leadership, and yet no one saw any threat to the principle of civilian control or the President’s authority as commander-in-chief. Presidents have removed military leaders over strategy and policy disagreements in the past, and no doubt will again, and not every general who disagrees with the President is another General MacArthur.