Generals in Politics

GEN Petraeus Class A 1

Spencer Ackerman has an item about General David Petraeus’ testimony on the Hill today headlined “Petraeus Endorses Obama’s Afghanistan Strategy, Though ‘Everything Is Hard All the Time.’”

This is a point I’ve made before, but it’s worth emphasizing that you simply can’t imagine a comparable situation with regard to civilian agencies. Do senior civil servants at the IRS like Obama’s tax policy? Did George W. Bush get the support of EPA scientists for his approach to climate change?

Yesterday General McChrystal expressed “regret” for some remarks he made in London that were seen as undermining the civilian decision-making process. Spencer’s always thought the story was overblown, which is what I thought at the time, but in retrospect I think the real story is a bit different. What we saw with that episode is that in real-world political terms the senior leadership of the military—when it’s in rough agreement—is so politically powerful that it’s pretty easy for generals to more-or-less accidentally undermine civilian control.

The slightest hint of disagreement between the White House and a commanding general in the field is a big-time news story, so for generals to speak about anything winds up being fraught with potential controversy that they’re not necessarily seeking. It’s my sense that senior military leaders don’t like getting enmeshed in political controversy and generally try to avoid it. But at the same time, they definitely do like the immense prestige they enjoy in American society.

Check out this Gallup poll:

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The combination a military establishment that’s gigantic and overwhelmingly more popular than any other American institution with an activist foreign policy means that the military is going to be enormously politically influential to a degree that makes everyone somewhat uncomfortable.