Another one bites the dust

"Don't let the door hit you on the way out..."

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…”

President Obama has now lost his third Secretary of Defense in a six-year period, the latest in a series of unusually short-tenured leaders at the Pentagon. There are widespread reports that Chuck Hagel was frustrated by interference and micromanagement from the White House – a pathology of the Obama administration that was described in detail by Robert Gates. It appears that Hagel has been essentially marginalized in the Administration due to disagreements with President over US policy toward ISIS, Russia and China (in other words: all major policy issues). It seems as if President Obama considers the National Security Advisor to have responsibility for the country’s defense and military portfolios, while the Secretary of Defense is a bureaucratic functionary to execute orders and keep the Pentagon in line. It was recently revealed that Hagel authored a letter detailing his criticisms of the Administration’s Syria policy; the recipient was not his boss, President Obama, but Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor. Apart from any actual strategic disagreement between the Pentagon and the President, this dysfunctional command and control arrangement can be largely understood in light of the President’s background in academia. It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the military is an obsessive topic in the political science and constitutional law departments of America’s universities, where Eisenhower’s warnings about the “military-industrial complex” are repeated ad nauseam as a form of secular prophesy. Naturally, these discussions do not concern strategic issues such as the military’s proper structure or employment, but rather how a democratic society is to maintain control over a massive, professionalized, all-volunteer force. At one extreme are dark and outlandish fears about a coup led by a reactionary and anachronistic military. Most attention goes to the more prosaic issues of bureaucratic insubordination and the growing disconnect between the military and the society it defends. But for a professor on his way the White House, the lesson is clear: the military is going to be a political problem. Thus, when the President receives strategic pushback from the Pentagon, he does not engage with it on a policy level, but rather interprets it as the runaway insubordination he was warned of so many times back in the academy. From the Wall Street Journal:

“The White House fears what the Pentagon is going to say and do. The Pentagon fears how the White House will react. Both sides are nervous of the other,” said a longtime Pentagon official. “It has persisted through three secretaries now – Gates, Panetta and Hagel – and it will probably persist through a fourth secretary.”

This paranoia extends to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Even if he was a personal confidant of the President – as Hagel was – the first disagreement between them is considered symptomatic of the dreaded bureaucratic capture, and from that point on the Secretary will be marginalized (if political considerations forbid his outright dismissal) while the more politically reliable – but strategically incompetent – commissars on the National Security Council staff intrude directly into the management of the DoD. I am very sympathetic to the President’s inclination to avoid becoming further entangled in the Syrian quagmire. But he needs to articulate his policy more clearly than just “I’m the President. I’m in charge. You’re not.” He also needs to realize that policy tussles over policy and strategy do not constitute insubordination or rogue bureaucracy. Civilian control of the military is a foundational plank of the Republic. Without it, America ceases to be. But a paranoid overzealousness in its enforcement has contributed to the dysfunctional strategy of this Administration.

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2 thoughts on “Another one bites the dust

  1. I’m not sure your assertion about the impact of academia’s particular concern with the military-industrial complex is accurate. The danger posed by the military-industrial complex reside in its affect on the upper echelons of the officer corps. and in the incentivizing of major interest groups to push both policy-makers and public opinion towards military adventurism. Neither of these have any particular bearing on the secretary of defense, a civilian; or at least any more than it affects anyone in a position to influence foreign policy.

    Also your characterization of American Universities serve little function in the piece other than as a fallacious ad hominim attack on those same concerns about the military-industrial complex. Rather than arguing whether or not such concerns are warranted and why you imply that those expressing the concerns are obsessive zealots out of touch with the real world.

    Also your assertion that the presidents actions aren’t dictated by anything other than this implied pseudo-religious indoctrination during his years in acadamia is totally supported by any kind of evidence other than that you say it is so.

    In short your characterization of the views of “political science and constitutional law” departments in America is grossly inaccurate, not in that they are not particularly concerned with the military-industrial complex, but in the nature of their concerns. Furthermore the manner in which you presented this characterization was (in my humble and perhaps unintentionally inflammatory opinion) intellectually dishonest.

    I investigated your site after reading your piece on Black Hawk Down and being rather impressed by it which made this rather jarring.

    • Mr. Michaud,

      First of all, my apologies in taking such a long time to approve your post. This was not an attempt to silence or censor you in any way, but rather simply because I have been busy with other matters and have not been able to attend to the site very much.

      Now to business:

      (1) I don’t think you accurately characterize the common understanding of the “military-industrial complex” by confining it to solely to upper echelon military personnel. There is no reason why the Secretary, being in the immediate chain of command below the President, would not be considered part of it.

      (2) The “military-industrial” complex, to the extent that it does exist, is actually a restraining influence on US foreign policy, that discourages rather than encourages military adventurism. Why? Because money spent on war is money that is not spent on shiny new weapons and equipment, which is where the real profit for the defense industry lies. Furthermore, the military itself prefers to avoid foreign entanglements because it hates to see the negative impact on readiness that usually results. Witness Madeline Albright’s famous lament to Gen. Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” This point is what separates theory from reality in terms of the military-industrial complex.

      (3) Your final three paragraphs complain that my comments about academia and the President are unwarranted/inappropriate/unsupported/dishonest, etc. However, since you fail to offer any support for your own criticisms (or any argument at all, for that matter), I would advise you to “first take the log out of your own eye.”

      Furthermore, this was an opinion piece, not a research paper. My observations stem from years of education in those same universities and political science departments, as well as the close observation of this President in regards to defense policy and his relationship with the military. And contrary to your complaints, I did include evidence supporting my positions within the post.

      In any case, thank you for reading my blog, and I welcome your comments, even if I disagree with them.

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