- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I happen to be a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and so I get various emails announcing upcoming events. Yesterday I received a notice about a not-for-attribution tele-conference with the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. A few hours later, I received the usual invitation to the Council’s annual conference in New York. The speaker at the opening session will be General Martin Dempsey (chairman of the Joint Chiefs), and other key events at the conference include a mock NSC meeting focusing on the confrontation with Iran and a dinner reception to be held at the USS Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. The closing event will be a conversation with retired Army general Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
None of this is all that surprising, but am I the only one who sees it as more evidence of the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign policy? The Pentagon already spends several billion taxpayer dollars each year on public relations; does CFR need to give it another platform from which to purvey its views? More importantly, will any well-known advocates of a more restrained and less militarized global posture be given a chance to lay out their views at the annual meeting? What about experts who think U.S. military leaders were at least partly responsible for the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan?
America’s founding fathers were wary of excessive military influence, and by the end of his long career, so was President (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower. They understood that in a free society, powerful institutions should be confronted and held accountable. Since 9/11, however, we’ve seen a predictable but growing deference to military expertise and advice. Politicians bend over backwards to tell us how much they support "the troops" and hardly anyone in office is willing to challenge military leaders openly. Just read Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, and you get a good sense of how civilian authorities can get rolled by those in uniform.
I favor a strong defense and I enjoy having students and fellows from the armed services here at Harvard. I don’t think our military leaders are mindless warmongers (on Iran, for example, they seem a lot more sensible than the more hawkish civilians). And I certainly don’t think CFR should cut itself off from the Pentagon entirely, though the danger of that occurring seems remote. But I would like to see more balance in mainstream discourse on foreign and national security policy, including at venerable institutions like CFR. To paraphrase Clemenceau, war is still too important to be left to the generals.