Overruling the generals: A response from Fred Kagan

Overruling the generals: A response from Fred Kagan

Shadow Government is pleased to run Fred Kagan’s guest post below.  I believe it helpfully advances the debate and clarifies were there is and isn’t much daylight between his position and mine.  And I apologize for any and all misconceptions in my original post.

Fred is especially compelling on the matter of speaking for others vs. speaking for himself and I couldn’t say it any better than he did.  However, I think he may have misunderstood my point.  I was not criticizing him for deceptively speaking on behalf of others.  Rather I was worried that he was saying things that he had heard some (many?) in the military already say and, in that sense, was stoking a flame that Fred, in this follow-up note, acknowledges could singe civil-military relations.  Put another way, I do not think Fred did anything dishonorable; I do worry about the wisdom of it because of the way it could resonate with civil-military grievances already in place.

I remember many people claiming that the Bush administration was trying to silence critics by pointing out how the strategy was endorsed by the military commanders, but I do not remember many instances of the administration actually doing so.  By 2005-2006, the critics were so loud I don’t remember any Bush colleagues who thought we could silence anyone.  At the same time, the administration did believe then that the confidence of the ground commanders in the existing strategy was one reason to stick with it a bit longer to give it time to deliver results.  Not the only reason and, obviously, not the dispositive one as it turned out  — but a legitimate one to raise.  It was not "silencing critics" then to point that out, anymore than Fred is trying to silence critics of his preferred strategy now by pointing out how military commanders preferred his approach to the one the president chose. 

Fred’s new post raises the crucial question: if a president can be either too comfortable or too uncomfortable with overruling his/her commanders, how can we know when he/she has it just right.  I am not sure how to parse it sufficiently finely, which is why I come down on the side of "right to be wrong."  But I do agree with him that there are better and worse ways to manage the military advice and decision-making process and that the best way imposes obligations on both politicians and generals.  In future posts, I hope to lay some of those criteria out.  And when I do, I hope Fred Kagan will help measure all administrations, past, current, and future, against them.

By Fred Kagan

Peter Feaver is an acknowledged expert on civil-military relations.  I have not always agreed with his views on that issue, but I certainly appreciate his contributions to the field and look forward to continuing the discussion with him.  His recent commentary on my editorial in The Weekly Standardhowever, requires some brief correction in that he, no doubt unintentionally, misrepresented my argument somewhat and, more to the point, suggested that I was not speaking only for myself. 

The fact that I associate closely with various military officers periodically gives rise to the notion that I am acting as a conduit for them when writing in my own voice. While it is perhaps inevitable that some might draw such a conclusion, it is nonetheless imperative that I make clear that the notion is absolutely false.  I have never said or published anything with the intention of channeling the opinions of military officials, bringing concerns that they did not wish to voice to the attention of the public, or helping them in some way to bypass their chains of command. My candid opinions and assessments, even when they diverge from those of military leaders, are just that-my own.  It’s an independence I’ve worked hard to maintain, and the reason why I have never accepted to enter into the employ of a commander in the field.   

I would not belabor this point if it did not arise in the context of civil-military relations at a charged time in American history.  It would of course be inappropriate for senior military commanders to attempt end-runs around their chains-of-command by planting stories, ideas, or lines of argument through cut-outs.  On the other hand, it is an important moment for citizens who are concerned about the direction of American national security policy to voice their personal concerns.

In 2005-2006 I was not criticizing President Bush for taking the advice of his generals, as Feaver suggests, but rather for pursuing the wrong strategy.  Some in his administration attempted to use the fact that the commanders were advocating that strategy as a club with which to silence those who questioned it.  I rejected then-and rejected explicitly in the editorial I just published-the notion that generals are always right, that their advice should always be taken, and that their proposals should be the end of discussion.  President Bush was extremely uncomfortable overruling the advice of his commanders-too uncomfortable, in my view.

There is such a thing as being too comfortable with overruling military advice as well, however, which was the point of my editorial.  The president is not obliged to take the advice of his commanders simply because he chose them.  Nor did I suggest any kind of "three-strikes-and-you’re-out" principle.  There is, nevertheless, a disturbing pattern in this president’s repeated decisions to reject portions of the advice and plans his commanders reportedly presented him.  The question at hand is not his right to make these decisions, but rather his wisdom in doing so.