Bruce Ackerman’s weekend Washington Post article criticizing General Stanley McChrystal was not the first time he has raised concerns about the involvement of currently serving military leaders in political debates about national security policy. In 2007, he wrote this article for the Financial Times criticizing comments by Major General Rick Lynch and President Bush’s use of General David Petraeus to deflect Congressional criticism of the Adminsitration’s policies in Iraq. These incidents, Ackerman warned, were threats to the principle of civilian control of the military.
I still think Professor Ackerman is overstating his case. I agree that it can be inappropriate for active military officers to criticize their superiors, particularly the commander-in-chief. And it’s possible that McChrystal’s comments crossed that line (though my understanding is that his speech had been approved). Remarks like those of Major General Lynch, had they been directed at the President (rather than a Senator), might even constitute insubordination. But I am not convinced that either Lynch’s or McChrystal’s comments “represent[ed] an assault on the principle of civilian control.” It seems to me that we all benefit if public debate over military policy to be informed by the opinions and analyses of military leaders, and I would be more concerned about an overly restrictive policy, in which only the President and his closest advisors could hear the views of top military brass, than the opposite.
If the President sets a given policy goal, I think Congress and the public at large should know what military leaders think is necessary to achieve that goal. So, for instance, if General McChrystal believes that current United States’ policy in Afghanistan would require particular measures — more troops, shifts in deployment, different rules of engagement, whatever — I think it’s a good thing if such information is public. This makes it easier for civilians to evaluate the choices on the table. I see this as less of a threat to civilian control as a way to ensure that military policy decisions are more transparent and our political leaders are more accountable. If the current military leadership believes we will not be able to achieve a given goal on the cheap — and our political leaders know this — shouldn’t the public know this as well? Perhaps this will result in a greater investment in achieving the given policy — such as sending more troops to Afghanistan. But it also seems possible that it could result in a reconsideration of the stated policy, and perhaps a reduction in U.S. involvement. That is, I don’t think this approach undermines civilian control in the military or makes our military policy decisions less responsive to public opinion. Indeed, I am inclined to think it could do the opposite. And insofar as it could “box in” the commander-in-chief, and make it more difficult to take certain actions, I am notsure why this is a bad thing.