Shadow Government

If You Don’t Want Generals to Speak Out, You Must Speak Up

Do senior military officers speak out too much when they disagree with the policies their commander in chief is considering? Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he thinks the military talks too much. He notes that this problem hasn’t been unique to President Barack Obama’s tenure. During George W. Bush’s administration, Adm. William Fallon, ...

Photo: Jamie Rose/Getty Images
Photo: Jamie Rose/Getty Images

Do senior military officers speak out too much when they disagree with the policies their commander in chief is considering?

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he thinks the military talks too much. He notes that this problem hasn’t been unique to President Barack Obama’s tenure. During George W. Bush’s administration, Adm. William Fallon, for instance, clearly crossed Gates’s line in airing his opinions about Iran policy, and he left his command abruptly as a result. But Gates, during his secretaryship, found Obama to be especially exercised about this issue, and Gates attributes much of the civil-military problems in the Obama era to the way that White House political advisors seethed at hearing military opinion, particularly when expressed in public.

Respected military historian Hew Strachan says these concerns are overblown. Author of a forthcoming book on civil-military relations in wartime, Strachan told the Daily Beast:

"The concern about the military speaking out shows a lack of democratic and political maturity. We’re not facing the danger of a military coup. The professional experts, who deal with war all the time, should be able to express their views all the time, openly and coherently, just as you would expect a doctor or a teacher to express their views coherently about how you run medical policy or teaching policy."

This is a long-standing debate among civil-military relations specialists. At one extreme end are folks like Andrew Milburn who argue that the military has an obligation and duty to thwart civilians who are considering unwise policies; the most effective way to do that is to speak out to Congress, the media, and the general public whenever the president is tempted to err. My own academic work is closer to the other end of the spectrum: I have called doing end runs around the president in this way "shirking," a subversion of civilian control. 

But I would not muzzle the military entirely. Of course, the military’s primary obligation is to provide its most candid advice privately to the administration. Nevertheless, the military does have a legitimate role in speaking outside the administration. For starters, senior military officers must testify before Congress. When they do, they are obliged to explain the administration’s position and also, if asked, to give their independent military opinion, even if it differs from the administration’s position. They cannot merely give their own opinion, however; they must also explain the administration’s position if it diverges from their own. Moreover, the military can and should explain military policy to the general public, and the best way to do that is through the media.

This public role is tricky. The military must be wary lest it find itself carrying political water for an administration unwilling or unable to defend its own policies. The military also must speak without subverting the chain of command and the integrity of the internal policymaking process. That means that the military must be careful not to speak with the intention of mobilizing public opinion against administration policy; that was the line that Fallon crossed. And, of course, the military should not speak disrespectfully about the commander in chief, regardless of its private views; that was the line Gen. Stanley McChrystal crossed, which resulted in his early retirement.

If what Gates is saying is that the more often you speak to the media and the public, the more likely you are to inadvertently stray across one of these lines, then I have some sympathy with his position. I think the issue is less quantity than quality. Some military leaders are very good at staying within the lines and can speak for hours without crossing one; others cross the line within minutes of clearing their throat.

But what if Gates and other critics are making a more general point: that any speaking out by the military beyond the most banal statements about "God bless the troops" is a civil-military violation?

If so, I think that goes too far, even though I understand the impulse behind it. I think the military can rightfully speak out a bit more than that without crossing the civil-military line, though it must be very careful as it does so.

Here’s the thing, however: If you are the secretary of defense and you want to muzzle the military that much, then you must unmuzzle yourself by a corresponding amount. And Gates did not do that. One of the most striking revelations in the book — and now that I’ve thought about it for a week, perhaps the most striking revelation in the book — is how many times Gates muzzled himself. Time after time, Gates records in his memoirs that he was dismayed at the attitudes expressed by the president and the other senior civilians, especially attitudes toward the military and on vital national security matters. And time after time, Gates records that he really wanted to say something but did not.

Gates failure to speak up was not a matter of l’esprit de l’escalier, like George Costanza’s frustration with delivering a snappy comeback in a timely manner. On the contrary, it appears to be calculated: Time after time, Gates just chose not to speak up.

Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, a key shaper of the process that Gates is criticizing in the book, told National Journal that Gates did speak up: "I have to say I don’t see anything that Secretary Gates says in the book that he didn’t raise as an issue at the time." And according to the same National Journal story, Gates appears to confirm that, telling reporters, "there wasn’t a single issue" he didn’t raise in office that he addressed later in his book, whether about Afghanistan, Iraq, European missile defense, or the administration’s program of "outreach" to Iran. Gates added: "I agreed with him [Obama] on all those things. My continuing concerns were more process concerns. I did raise those all the time with Tom Donilon, [former National Security Advisor] Jim Jones, and others."

But did he raise it with the one person who mattered most, the president? According to his memoir, he did not.

And so the Obama administration’s fractious civil-military relations continued, observed but unaddressed, because no one would raise it with the boss. As Shadow Government contributor Kori Schake suggests, there were plenty of respectful ways Gates could have contributed the necessary corrective. To be sure, it must be conceded, even if he had, the political imperatives driving the behavior of Obama and the White House might have trumped anything Gates could have said. But at least he would have said it, and the fact that the secretary of defense spoke up on behalf of healthier civil-military relations would have resonated back with the rank and file — and that, by itself, would have contributed to healthier civil-military relations. 

If you are Gates and you don’t like the military speaking out in public, you have to be willing to speak up yourself in private. To the extent that Gates chose not to do that, important opportunities were missed.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.