Coming Military Coup?
Thomas Schweich fears a military coup in the United States. Or something like that. In a breathless WaPo op-ed, “The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere. It’s time to stop the mission creep” (with the clever subhead, “The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere. It’s time to stop the mission creep”) he fears that the proliferation of former military officers in high positions foreshadows, well, something.
We no longer have a civilian-led government. It is hard for a lifelong Republican and son of a retired Air Force colonel to say this, but the most unnerving legacy of the Bush administration is the encroachment of the Department of Defense into a striking number of aspects of civilian government. Our Constitution is at risk.
President-elect Barack Obama’s selections of James L. Jones, a retired four-star Marine general, to be his national security adviser and, it appears, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be his director of national intelligence present the incoming administration with an important opportunity — and a major risk. These appointments could pave the way for these respected military officers to reverse the current trend of Pentagon encroachment upon civilian government functions, or they could complete the silent military coup d’etat that has been steadily gaining ground below the radar screen of most Americans and the media.
As the son of a retired Army first sergeant, it’s easy to say this: This is BS.
We’ve had retired military officers — and, frequently, active duty military officers — in key intelligence and national security positions since time immemorial. The first several CIA directors were military men and we’ve had the likes of Brent Scowcroft (twice!) and Colin Powell as national security advisors. The Republic not only survived but flourished.
But, no more:
While serving the State Department in several senior capacities over the past four years, I witnessed firsthand the quiet, de facto military takeover of much of the U.S. government.
Why was I not told of this?!
So, what overarching authority are military men taking in running our civil society? Well, it seems, they’re doing jobs in hostile fire zones that nobody else wants to.
The first assault on civilian government occurred in faraway places — Iraq and Afghanistan — and was, in theory, justified by the exigencies of war.
The White House, which basically let the Defense Department call the budgetary shots, vastly underfunded efforts by the State Department, the Justice Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to train civilian police forces, build functioning judicial systems and provide basic development services to those war-torn countries.
This may have been bad policy. But it’s not exactly “de facto military takeover of much of the U.S. government” to have generals calling the shots as to how to run operations in a foreign war zone.
The result of letting the Pentagon take such thorough charge of the programs to create local police forces is that these units, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, have been unnecessarily militarized — producing police officers who look more like militia members than ordinary beat cops.
Perhaps because ordinary beat cops would have certain difficulties in fighting the Taliban? Last I checked, Afghanistan wasn’t even slightly close to a normal society, even a high crime urban area.
Or consider another problem with the rising influence of the Pentagon: the failure to address the ongoing plague of poppy farming and heroin production in Afghanistan.
He’s got a point here. We should use the same civilian experts who have so brilliantly eradicated illicit narcotics domestically. Oh.
I’ve been in half a dozen briefings with the highest level military commanders in Afghanistan. Strangely, every single one of them has been acutely aware of the problems poppy farming is causing. They also understand that every potential solution brings its own set of massive problems.
As military officers sought to take over the role played by civilian development experts abroad, Pentagon bureaucrats quietly populated the National Security Council and the State Department with their own personnel (some civilians, some consultants, some retired officers, some officers on “detail” from the Pentagon) to ensure that the Defense Department could keep an eye on its rival agencies.
This is an effort to prevent precisely the kind of stovepiping Schweich is whining about. And each of those agencies has personnel doing tours of duty in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the Defense Department.
This sort of thing goes on for a bit until we’re finally given some policy solutions.
1. Direct — or, better yet, order — Gates, Jones, Blair and the other military leaders in his Cabinet to rid the Pentagon’s lower ranks of Rumsfeld holdovers whose only mission is to increase the power of the Pentagon.
And replace them with new people whose only mission is to increase the power of the Pentagon? Or with non-DoD personnel?
2. Turn Gates’s speeches on the need to promote soft power into reality with a massive transfer of funds from the Pentagon to the State Department, the Justice Department and USAID.
In theory, this makes sense. And some of the top generals in charge of the Afghanistan mission agree that State and USAID should have more funding and take a greater part in these missions. (I’m dubious as to why Justice should be involved overseas.) But it’s not as if there are FSOs and other civilians lining up around the block hoping for a chance at going to a hostile fire zone. The main reason that the military has taken over these missions is that they go where they’re told, usually cheerfully.
3. Put senior, respected civilians — not retired or active military personnel — into key subsidiary positions in the intelligence community and the National Security Council.
This is a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. Aside from vague uneasiness about this practice, Schweich makes no argument that these people aren’t doing a good job. Beyond that, there will be oodles of civilians in “key subsidiary positions,” anyway; there always have been and fewer Ivy League PhDs are veterans these days.
4. Above all, he should let his appointees with military backgrounds know swiftly and firmly that, under the Constitution, he is their commander, and that he will not tolerate the well-rehearsed lip service that the military gave to civilian agencies and even President Bush over the past four years.
Again, he’s adduced precisely no evidence that the military — let alone those “with military backgrounds” — are insubordinate to the president. If anything, the charge would seem to be that they’ve been too quick to say, “Yes, Sir! Three bags full!” To the extent that civilian agencies have been given short shrift, it’s because Bush and his team has made that decision.