April 01, 2005

The Liberal Case for Rumsfeld

No, no April Fool's joke. I meant to discuss this earlier, in the context of David Ignatius' bizarre column the other day. His conclusion: "[A] Joint Chiefs chairman who can stand up to [Rumsfeld] is the right military leader post-Rumsfeld." That's sort of right, but mostly wrong in an interesting way. Lord knows I'm not the biggest fan of Rumsfeld, but one truly invaluable thing he's done over the last four years is reassert civilian control over the Pentagon. This, I think, is a good thing, or at least has the potential to be a good thing down the road...

During the Clinton years, civilian-military relations were mostly a disaster, with the Joint Chiefs more or less allowed to do whatever they felt like doing. Some of this was due to the contempt that military leaders had for Clinton himself (draft-dodger, gay-booster, couldn't salute properly, etc. etc.). Some of it was structural: the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 obviously made the military more powerful by making the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "principal military advisor to the president, the NSC, and the secretary of Defense". And some of it was due to ineffective and largely aloof Secretaries of Defense, like Les Aspin and William Perry (Cohen was fantastic, though).

Anyway, we tend to forget it now, but American foreign policy during the 1990s was pretty flagrantly unilateral, and pissed off a lot of our allies. To draw up a short list, there was: levying sanctions on Cuba and Iran, withholding funding from the IMF and World Bank, thwarting another term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the UN because we thought Kofi Annan would be more pliant (heh), the criminal attacks on Sudan's pharmaceutical plants, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. Granted, Bush took unilateralism to a whole new level, but the '90s were pretty bad too.

But what often goes unnoticed is why much of this happened, and a large part had to do with the fact that the Joint Chiefs had so much sway over foreign policy. The Commanders-in-Chief (CinCs) opposed the land-mine treaty (because it would hurt our readiness against North Korea), opposed the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, pushed for Star Wars and missile defense systems over the objections of the world (even though Clinton wasn't very serious about funding these things), opposed the International Criminal Court because they wrongly thought U.S. soldiers could be prosecuted, opposed the ban on child soldiers. And the White House fell meekly into line on all of these issues. It was out of control. Meanwhile, retired generals popped up on TV daily to criticize Clinton, and a large subset the officers corp became extremely politicized, a relatively new developement.

Now to a large extent, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and friends have changed all that, which was largely their intention. As James Mann tells it in Rise of the Vulcans, Cheney and Wolfowitz grew hostile towards the Joint Chiefs after their experience during the first Persian Gulf War, when then-Chairman Colin Powell dragged his feet on attacking Iraq and seemed to have too much influence over national security policy in the White House. So the hawk party said "never again." Hence, Rumsfeld marginalized the current JCS Chairman, Hugh Shelton, from day one. Neocons in the Pentagon like Stephen Cambone and Paul Wolfowitz went out of their way to antagonize military leaders, sometimes (it seemed) purely out of spite.

In many respects, of course, this was disastrous, as when Wolfowitz laughed off Army Gen. Eric Shinseki's (probably correct) estimate of the number of troops the U.S. needed to invade Iraq. And in other respects, the Rumsfeld gang didn't go far enough. They haven't really managed to break the military services' stranglehold on various budgetary matters. The "revolution in military affairs" hasn't come to any sort of fruition. And, as Dana Priest shows in her excellent book, The Mission, Rumsfeld hasn't really diluted the influence of the regional CinCs, who still rule over their little fiefdoms in lieu of more traditional diplomatic channels. (Indeed, State Department funding has gone monotonically down since the 1970s, and regional military commanders carry out most of our diplomacy in the back corners of the earth these days.) So the military is still doing things abroad it perhaps shouldn't be doing—rebuilding civil societies, doing de-mining work, combating drug-trafficking, humanitarian disaster relief, etc.

Nevertheless, the stage has now been set for a Democrat (or at least a competent Republican) to come into office, assert civilian control over the military and revamp the place. A Democrat could rein in, for example, the regional CinCs who are doing diplomacy abroad and replace them with more flexible State Department operations. Or that president could finally pick and choose among various international treaties without being bullied by the whims and demands of the Joint Chiefs. But before any of these things could happen, a power struggle really needed to play out in the Pentagon, and Rumsfeld delivered on that front.

Continue reading "The Liberal Case for Rumsfeld"
-- Brad Plumer 12:12 PM || ||