As of press time, civilians control the military

Peter Beinart, I think, has the best analysis on the McChrystal affair, at least in this first sentence:

The press is turning a story about policy into a story about penises. What matters isn’t what McChrystal said about Obama—it’s what he believes about Afghanistan.

I think this is partially true, but I think Beinart identifies reasons that are not precisely correct.  Later on, Beinart compares the issue with Truman’s handling of the firing of Douglas MacArthur.  And while he makes a fair point, namely that MacArthur believed in unlimited war in order to achieve total military victory, while Truman (correctly) discerned that such a victory would come at an unacceptable cost to real American power.  I don’t disagree with him, but I think there is another element to the whole affair that needs to be constantly repeated.

The civilian leadership sets military policy.

The “correctness” of a civilian decision regarding military is so immaterial that to even reference it in a praiseworthy fashion is to suggest that, had Truman’s decision been bad, he would have been at fault in firing MacArthur.  This is not true.  That “Truman kept the pursuit of military victory from destroying American power” is true, but even had it been reversed–had Truman been pursuing American victory at the expense of American power, where MacArthur was the one wanting to draw back and wage a limited campaign–Truman still would have been both justified in firing MacArthur and obliged to fire him.

Americans must realize that the central potential threat to freedom in any situation, no matter where you are, is force, weapons, armaments–it is hard to claim your rights in the face of those who have guns.  Whether or not the Athenian response to the Melians–that the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must–is true as an ethical precept is immaterial.  It is true as a practical reality.  I worry about this a lot, because American military power is, quite frankly, overwhelming.  Not invincible–witness Vietnam–but overwhelming.  There is, essentially, nothing the civilian leadership could do if the military actually decided to pursue the policy it wished.  The military could, in fact, overthrow the civilian leadership and pursue the policy it wished; I’m sure the Tea Party would approve.  And so working on maintaining a political, social, and ethical climate in which it is understood that civilians–i.e., the representatives of the people of a democracy–make policy decisions for the military is paramount.

Truman fired MacArthur because his actions were consistent with an arrogant military perspective that assumed it had the right to set policy.  It had to be reminded that civilian leadership sets policy.  And now Obama must fire McChrystal.  It’s as simple as that; it has nothing to do with respect.  McChrystal’s preferred policy has nothing to do with it: whether he’s right or wrong, his error is in assuming that he has the right to pursue his policy preferences independent of civilian control.  That’s the issue here, and I’m just waiting for the news that McChrystal has joined the ranks of the unemployed.

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