Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 9, 2009

Civilian control of the military

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 1:10 am

On October first, General Stanley McChrystal, the commanding officer in Afghanistan, made a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that implicitly repudiated Vice President Biden’s proposals for refocusing the war as one against Al Qaeda in Pakistan rather than the Taliban in Afghanistan.  In his speech, the General dismissed the claim that Afghanistan “is a graveyard of empires” as “untrue”. Given the deteriorating situation that more than anything else has prompted Biden’s “dovish” stance, one wonders if McChrystal is whistling in the graveyard.

If you read the speech, you will not find much in the way of Fox-TV rhetoric. Indeed, the main thrust against Biden took place in the Q&A when the General was asked whether he favored a strategy in Afghanistan of killing top insurgent leaders with unmanned drones and missiles that was associated with the peace-loving VP. He replied, “The short, glib answer is no. You have to navigate from where you are, not from where you wish you were. … A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy.”

In the days following the speech, the civilian wing of the imperialist war machine asserted itself as the London Telegraph reported:

According to sources close to the administration, Gen McChrystal shocked and angered presidential advisers with the bluntness of a speech given in London last week.

The next day he was summoned to an awkward 25-minute face-to-face meeting on board Air Force One on the tarmac in Copenhagen, where the president had arrived to tout Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid.

In an apparent rebuke to the commander, Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, said: “It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president, candidly but privately.”

When asked on CNN about the commander’s public lobbying for more troops, Gen Jim Jones, national security adviser, said:

“Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”

The liberal punditocracy jumped into the fray as well, including Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist and indefatigable Obama apologist who concluded that civilian control of the military had to be upheld even at the cost of dead Muslims:

For the record, this would be my position even if McChrystal were arguing for an immediate pullout — or even if George W. Bush, rather than Obama, were the president whose authority was being undermined. In October 2006, when the chief of staff of the British army said publicly that Britain should pull out of Iraq because the presence of foreign troops was fueling the insurgency — a view I wholeheartedly shared — I argued that he ought to be fired. I wrote that I didn’t like “active-duty generals dabbling in politics, even if I agree with them.” If military officers want to devise and implement geopolitical strategy, they should leave their jobs and run for office.

One of the chief theorists of civilian control in the academy, in fact, was someone who devoted most of the past decade demonizing Muslims and Arabs. I speak of Samuel Huntington, best known for his “clash of civilization” thesis that amounts to Ann Coulter for the carriage trade. Huntington wrote “The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations” in 1957, as a reaction to General MacArthur’s defiance of civilian control during the Korean War.

Speaking in the name of the entire ruling class, the Washington Post allowed Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman to make the parallels with MacArthur in an October 5th op-ed piece:

Generals shouldn’t need to be told that it is wrong to lecture their presidents in public. Perhaps McChrystal was misled by the precedent set by Gen. David Petraeus, who strongly supported President Bush’s military surge in Iraq in 2007. Though Petraeus publicly endorsed the surge, this happened only after Bush made his decision. Petraeus was backing up his commander in chief, not trying to preempt him.

Nevertheless, precedents have the habit of adding up. Unless McChrystal publicly recognizes that he has crossed the line, future generals will become even more aggressive in their efforts to browbeat presidents.

We have no need for a repeat of the showdown between President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea. Truman faced down his general the last time around, but it was a bruising experience.

The parallels with MacArthur are indeed striking. He was to the Korean War as McChrystal is to the one in Afghanistan. In 1950, Truman began making public statements about the need to escalate the war, specifically to invite the defeated Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-shek to enter the fray and to strike inside the Chinese mainland if necessary. After MacArthur had sent an expeditionary force into the north that was threatening to cross over into China, Mao felt it necessary to intervene on behalf of the North.

Truman decided to fire MacArthur in after he wrote a letter to Republican Representative Joe Martin in April 1951 disagreeing with Truman. Ironically, the letter was rather mild in comparison to the General’s past bluster-filled statements. But it did end on the same note as McChrystal’s speech, namely that there is no substitute for victory:

It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomatic there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory.

The parallels between 1951 and 2009 are intriguing. Like today, the country was polarized during the Korean War between a Republican Party moving so far to the right that even the Trotskyists had begun to consider Joe McCarthy as a would-be Hitler. MacArthur was the darling of the Republican Party that was all revved up for a total confrontation with the Soviet Union, including the use of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the Democrats were more “reasonable” by comparison, favoring a “containment” strategy and the use of UN troops in peacekeeping missions. In the early 1950s, when cable TV and the Internet did not exist, the primary medium for the ultraright was the myriad of tabloids, especially in metropolitan centers like New York, which provided a bully pulpit for the Glenn Becks of their day, like Westbrook Pegler.

The other parallel is a divided nation, an inheritance of colonialism. The Korean War was precipitated by imperialism’s insistence on keeping the nation divided, just as the war in Afghanistan is largely a product of Pashtun nationalism cross-fertilized by political Islam and peasant resistance to landlordism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Will Obama have the guts to end the war in Afghanistan, the only strategy that in fact is in the long-term interests of American capitalism? In the last few days, there has been jubilation in the ranks of his supporters for appearing to resist McChrystal’s call for an additional 40,000 troops and a refocusing of the war into Pakistan in accord with Biden’s recommendations.

Yesterday the NY Times reported that the President was leaning in Biden’s direction:

President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday.

But in his standard triangulation mode learned from Bill Clinton, Obama appeared ready to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan to placate the Pentagon Hawks and the Republican Party, as the NY Times reported in rather convoluted prose in tune with the convoluted fence-straddling behavior of the centrist President:

As Mr. Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he had not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.

In other words, only 10,000 or so young Americans will be sent to possible death or permanent injury rather than the full complement of 40,000 demanded by McChrystal. Apparently this “dovish” maneuver might be enough to assuage Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin who has become persuaded of the need to continue the occupation of Afghanistan in a kindler and gentler fashion.

One doubts that 10,000 or 40,000 more troops will do much to counteract a growing sense among the men and women stationed there that this is not a war worth dying for, as the Times of London reported today:

American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taleban.

Many feel that they are risking their lives — and that colleagues have died — for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.

“The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families,” said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2-87 Infantry Battalion.

“They feel they are risking their lives for progress that’s hard to discern,” said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division’s 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. “They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through.” The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not.

Reflecting the new tilt toward bringing peace, stability and the American way to Pakistan, the United States has conditioned aid to the impoverished country on the basis of it living up to our standards. The NY Times reported today that the Pakistani Generals resent certain conditions, including one that is under discussion here:

The chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was so offended by stipulations in the American legislation that he complained to the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, when the two men met in Islamabad on Tuesday, according to a senior Pakistani military officer.

The legislation passed by Congress last week gives Pakistan $1.5 billion over the next year for the Zardari government to build roads, schools and other infrastructure, a gesture intended to shore up the weak civilian government and turn around the widespread antipathy toward the United States among Pakistanis.

Instead, the aid package has served to widen the distrust between the military and the civilian government, even though the new aid comes in addition to America’s aid to the Pakistani military, which had totaled more than $10 billion since 2001.

The section of the legislation that has outraged the army says the secretary of state must report to Congress every six months on whether the government is exercising “effective civilian control over the military.”

Who knows? Maybe the Pakistanis can consult with McChrystal on ways to circumvent this particular section since he has proven rather indifferent to such matters in his own bailiwick.


  1. General Stanley McChrystal has also been involved with torture

    Comment by Real American — October 9, 2009 @ 3:00 am

  2. I was surprised by the Medea Benjamin information. I don’t agree with her, but atleast she is not apparently one of those my enemies friend is also my enemy type.

    Bush blurred the line, about generals being vocal. he’d blame his positions on military advisors.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — October 9, 2009 @ 5:57 am

  3. Of course, in 1951 or today, a general believes that “There is no substitute for victory”. Every pimp believes his particular stable is the answer to all life’s problems. Brokers believe the essential task of humanity is to save the stock market.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 9, 2009 @ 6:29 am

  4. Surprised by Medea Benjamin? Please. These people in the so-called anti-war movement have repeatedly shown their over-arching allegiance to the leadership of the Democratic party over and above any any principled stance against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When it was Bush’s war, it was full-tilt boogie in opposition, but ever since Obama’s election the streets have been silent and empty of protest. Benjamin and her ilk must at least have flexible joints, twisting the way they do one way and then the other. Just shows the limitations of trying to influence policy by supporting the democratic party, the other war party.

    Comment by Greg McDonald — October 9, 2009 @ 8:46 am

  5. “Medea Benjamin who has become persuaded of the need to continue the occupation of Afghanistan in a kindler and gentler fashion.”

    I was channel surfing past Fox News and O’Reilly the other night and caught part of the segment with Medea. I thought O’Reilly sure is being polite and civil to her. Now I understand why. She wasn’t arguing for full withdrawl. Any so-called leftitst should know that something is wrong when O’Reilly treats them with respect. Pathetic!

    Comment by Sheldon — October 9, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

  6. How is it that anti-war generals get praised by the left while the MacArthur/McChrystal types get shit on? Am I the only one who was actually in the Army? No military officer (NONE!) is supposed to say anything political or anything that varies from the orders handed down in the Chain-of-Command. McChrystal, or any general, can let the President know how he feels without involving the media. Truman was a law abiding Commander-in-Chief and Obama ought to follow that example… but don’t hold your breath.

    Comment by Richard Greener — October 9, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  7. “Am I the only one who was actually in the army?”

    Behold, the age of macho myth is still upon us. Why not tell us about military honor and make our eyes water. Ex-boy Scouts seem to be less warped and more independent-minded than your averare vet.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 9, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

  8. Not only was McChrystal involved with torture, he was involved in the Pat Tillman cover-up:


    Comment by Binh — October 9, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

  9. Mr. Byrne… you appear to be as ignorant of the military as you are of the stock market. While you may enjoy your First Amendment right of free expression, Gen. McChrystal, like all military officers, is specifically prohibited. His comments do not deserve rebuke or response. He should be removed from his command. You have a problem with that?

    Comment by Richard Greener — October 9, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

  10. I was in the U.S.A.F. and had a John Lennon record, “Shaved Fish,” confiscated from me in order to ‘save’ me from making a ‘political statement’ in support of Lennon in his deportation hearing.

    Comment by Glenn — October 9, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

  11. Lord, teach me all about the heroic code of the military. I’d also like the lowdown on the virtues of Wall Street. Then tell me about the “law abiding” Commander in Chief, Truman. I’ll pass the news on to Hiroshima

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 9, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

  12. I’m rather tired of breathy-voiced patriots telling me I owe my freedom of speech to something called the First Amendment. In case Mr. Greener hasn’t been around, he should learn that such freedom is a feature of life in dozens of countries that don’t pledge allegiance to his flag, etcetera. Some of these countries will still be speaking free long after one of his “law abiding” presidents will have shut up U.S citizens to protect them, yet again, from swine fever, a Vietcong bicycle invasion or miscellaneous men in beards freeloading on Homeland Security.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 9, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

  13. I don’t know about you guys, but have been hoping for universal state run dental care for our people. What do you think? Here’s what they’ve done in Britain:


    Comment by And 1 — October 9, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  14. “Will Obama have the guts to end the war in Afghanistan, the only strategy that in fact is in the long-term interests of American capitalism?”

    I’ll confess that I’m in the “give war a chance” camp: the worse isn’t always the better, but this is a case where it is – a defeat for imperialism and the “long-term interests of American capitalism” in this fairly remote and undeveloped area would be great, especially as it would also be a defeat for NATO. So go in guns blazing! I know one shouldn’t wish that on the Afghan people, but in fact “victory” in Afghanistan will require a wholesale genocidal massacre of especially the Pashtun tribal confederations, for like the Native Americans, they can fight on forever unless uprooted and “relocated” Andrew Jackson – style. If McChrystal isn’t thinking this as part of his proposals, then he is blowing smoke out of his derriere like the rest of them.

    “But in his standard triangulation mode learned from Bill Clinton, Obama appeared ready to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan to placate the Pentagon Hawks and the Republican Party, as the NY Times reported in rather convoluted prose in tune with the convoluted fence-straddling behavior of the centrist President…”

    One of the most dismal results of the Obama presidency so far has to be the utter lack of originality. (Standard disclaimer, I never had illusions about the guy, didn’t vote for him, etc. I’ll admit Obama has turned worse than expected, though.) Really, all that the Obama team can do is to recycle scripts from the old Clinton playbook? At least Clinton, as despicably reactionary as he was, was a political original. I suppose that is another measure of the depth of this present crisis, producing ruling class paralysis to this extent. There was still room to maneuver in the 1990’s, especially in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Looks all over now, baby blue.

    My only hope is that, in the face of Obamas’ resolute Clintonian rejectionism – NO to bank nationization, No to universal heath care, No to Afghan withdrawal – a section of the Democratic Party left will split. Even a relatively small minority will do.


    Comment by Matt — October 9, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

  15. “I don’t know about you guys, but have been hoping for universal state run dental care for our people. What do you think? Here’s what they’ve done in Britain:


    Comment by And 1 — October 9, 2009 @ 9:40 pm”

    I know this troll just wants to drop is snarky little comment and then run away, but I’ll answer him anyway. The problems mentioned in the article stem from increasing privatization of the NHS. There aren’t enough NHS dentists because many of them have left for the private sector. Dentists can make more money in the private sector because they can charge more money and refuse to serve people who can’t pay. In other words, the way that health care is distributed in the UK is beginning to resemble the way it is distributed in the US more and more, so we will be seeing outcomes that resemble the US system more and more, such as those outlined in the article.

    Comment by John — October 10, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

  16. This is hard to believe but it’s been confirmed by the Penatgon today that Obama is spending $400 per gallon for gas in Afghanistan!

    Fotunately Humvees, Convoys, Tanks, Drones & Airplanes don’t use much fuel!

    I literally got sick inside reading this:


    Somebody needs shot and it’s not a Talibani.

    Oh Eh Vay!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 16, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

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