Military must fall in line

July 07, 1994|By Richard H. Kohn

Chapel Hill, N.C. -- THE U.S. military is now more alienated from its civilian leadership than at any time in American history, and more vocal about it.

The dispute between the White House and top military officials over the use of force in Bosnia was only one in a long line of open disagreements that have sometimes crossed the line into outright insults.

Last year a two-star general was retired from the Air Force for publicly disparaging President Clinton, and the chief of staff felt obliged to demand in public that people in his service show the president proper respect.

At the Army's elite Command and General Staff College, a respected congressman was greeted by catcalls at the mention of the president.

When Americans think about civilian control of the military, concern about a coup always lurks in the background. But that has never really been a serious threat in the United States.

The military does obey orders and civilians do make the key decisions. But beneath the surface is a continual struggle for influence, as the military strives for the autonomy it needs to accomplish its tasks and the civilians seek to impose policies to meet national needs and to fulfill their own agendas.

Because so much depends on the personalities and issues of a given time, a proper relationship between civilian and military leaders is almost impossible to define.

Sometimes the line is clear, as when Douglas MacArthur tried to overturn the limits the Truman administration imposed on the Korean War. Other times it is murky.

But most of us can sense when the balance is awry; like pornography, we can't always define it, but we know it when we see it.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell steered his own vision of a post-Cold War military establishment through the executive branch and Congress.

Using the swollen power added to the office by Congress in 1986 and the political skill acquired in two decades in Washington's wars, he became the chief link between civilian and military during the Persian Gulf War, and he did his best to isolate one from the other, subordinating policy to military means and preventing the Bush administration from rushing into combat before first assembling overwhelming force.

He and the Chiefs became virtually the arbiters of intervention in Bosnia and Somalia. During his last year in office, Mr. Powell spoke out publicly on foreign policy quite beyond our tradition of military abstention from politics.

And on homosexual service, he and the other Chiefs, in alliance with key members of Congress, took full advantage of a new president with extraordinarily weak authority and experience in military affairs, to force the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise on the administration.

Much of the military's expanded influence over the past two generations has stemmed from inattention or abdication on the part of civilians in the White House and Pentagon, or from battles between Congress and the president that allowed the military to pursue its own ends.

No doubt Mr. Powell, in filling a vacuum, aimed at the national interest as he perceived it.

But whatever the cause, over two generations of Cold War the military has come to see itself as separate in society, with its own needs and interests -- adept at using the media, maneuvering inside the bureaucracy, playing off the administration and Congress, and now pronouncing publicly on issues of war, peace, and policy.

Mr. Clinton and his generation of senior military leadership may not be able to repair the damage, but they must try.

The White House should stop treating the military like a political constituency, to be wooed or "dealt with," and more like a trusted family doctor: to be respected, the advice pondered -- and checked against second opinions -- and the recommendations accepted or rejected with full appreciation of the risk.

The military should withdraw into personal and professional neutrality, abandoning participation in public debate about foreign and military policy. It also should resist the temptation to build alliances with lawmakers and the public for more military spending.

Our officer corps must come to terms with a much smaller role in American society -- perhaps with being marginal again, as before 1940, and certainly with being unequivocally nonpartisan. Officers need to remind themselves that peace and demobilization were the goals of the Cold War.

A consciously separate military participating actively in policy and national debate as an independent force can only erode American democracy.

Richard H. Kohn, chairman of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina, was the Air Force's chief historian from 1981 to 1991. This article is adapted from one in the current issue of the National Interest.

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