Military Coup of 2012

Perhaps the biggest insight from Bob Woodward's latest book is the sharpness of the split between the military and civilian leadership.

Bob Woodward’s latest insider book, Obama’s Wars, reveals that the White House team has outsized egos, sharp disagreements over policy, petty bickering, and bureaucratic infighting.   It also tells us some things we didn’t know.

As I argue in my New Atlanticist piece “Obama’s Wars: Afghanistan and with His Generals,” perhaps the issue the book brings into sharpest relief is the deep  split between the military and civilian leadership.

This was obvious to those of us reading between the lines.  (See, for example, “Debating Afghanistan: Beyond the McChrystal Leak,” “McChrystal: Biden Afghanistan Plan ‘Short-Sighted’,” and “Obama vs. the Generals” — all written this time last year.)  But this is an issue that few pay much attention to unless it truly spills over.

BBC North America editor Mark Mardell asks, “Is Obama at war with the military?”   He observes, “Obama is portrayed as deeply frustrated with the constant military desire to expand the mission, eventually issuing a six-page document attempting to tie its leaders to the agreed policy.”   But Mardell reads the generals, David Petraeus in particular, as doing their level best to force the president to put “more time on the clock.”

Bernard Finel, a professor at the National War College and Atlantic Council contributing editor, goes further:  “President Obama seems to be in over his head in trying to deal with national security.  He has not been able to control the process.  He’s been manipulated by his generals.  He’s been frustrated in his efforts to put his own stamp on Afghanistan policy.  Instead of setting policy, he’s been cast in the role of fighting a rear-guard battle against the Petraeus preference for a multi-decade, nation-building commitment to Afghanistan.  Even now, forces continue to mobilize against any effort to impose a timeline on the commitment, and frankly, it is hard to imagine Obama being able to change course before 2012.”

Pat Lang, a retired Special Forces colonel and Senior Intelligence Service executive, is sharper still: “The bottom line here is that President Obama does not really have the generals under control.  This is a potentially disastrous portent for America’s future.  The president makes policy.  The generals carry it out. ”

Now, I happen to fall short of thinking, as Dan Murphy puts it, that Obama was “rolled” by the generals.   It’s hard to come away from the snippets released thus far and come away with a view other than a president deeply aware of the strategic and political risks and rewards and making a cool decision based on the available options.    But it’s rather clear that the key generals, most notably McChrystal and Petraeus, were also political actors, using the prestige of their uniforms and their savvy at selective leaks to the press, to make it much more difficult for their Commander in Chief to deny them more time and troops.   And that’s cause for discomfort.

I would call to readers’ attention a superb piece by then-Colonel Charles Dunlap (recently retired as a major general and the Air Force’s number two lawyer) in the Winter 1992-93 issue of Parameters titled “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” in which he traced a fictional failed attempt by serving officers to overthrow the government to “the massive diversion of military forces to civilian uses, the monolithic unification of the armed forces, and the insularity of the military community.”   While a coup remains unthinkable, the trends Dunlap identified nearly two decades ago continue.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tano says:

    I gotta say I get really tired of seeing these guys trying to grab some headlines by making rather outrageous charges against the president. If anyone seriously entertains the notion of Obama being unable to control his generals, then I suggest that might want to go back and look at what he claimed that he wanted to do in Afghanistan back during the campaign, back when the generals had no influence over him. Compare what he said then to what he has done as president. Then, if you can find some significant difference ( I cannot), you might at least have a little material to work with…
     
    For example:
    “It’s time to heed the call from General McKiernan and others for more troops. That’s why I’d send at least two or three additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. We also need more training for Afghan Security forces, more non-military assistance to help Afghans develop alternatives to poppy farming, more safeguards to prevent corruption, and a new effort to crack down on cross-border terrorism. Only a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda will succeed, and that’s the change I’ll bring to the White House.”
    This from a week or so before the election. Isn’t this pretty much exactly what he has done? How has he been “frustrated in his efforts to put his own stamp on Afghanistan policy.”?

  2. ponce says:

    I appreciate journalists who strive to inject drama into boring topics.

  3. legion says:

    Even assuming everything Woodward says is accurate, would it be too much to point out that it’s basically the _exact_same_situation_ our Afghanistan “strategy” was in during the previous administration?
    President: We’re going to support our troops and give them whatever they need to finish the job!
    General: Uh, we need more troops and a clear mission statement, boss.
    President: Get me a new general!
    Lather, rinse, repeat.

  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Both Presidents and General officers swear to protect the United States of America.  Some people take that oath seriously.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Even assuming everything Woodward says is accurate

    The White House is decidedly not taking issue with anything.

    it’s basically the _exact_same_situation_ our Afghanistan “strategy” was in during the previous administration?

    I don’t see how.

    President: We’re going to support our troops and give them whatever they need to finish the job!
    General: Uh, we need more troops and a clear mission statement, boss.
    President: Get me a new general!

    Bush wasn’t exactly known for firing his generals.   Nor did they seem to be calling the shots in Afghanistan in the same way.  He’d settled on a policy of muddling through with a low footprint and, if the military was demanding more troops, nobody much noticed.
    Bush did occasionally hide behind the coattails of the generals, especially Petraeus.  And I objected to that.  But it was different:  Bush was an unpopular president using the generals as cover to do what he wanted, notably in the case of the Iraq Surge.

  6. Wayne says:

    What gets me about many is when a very few of many Generals spoke out against Bush, they were heroes who needed to be listen to. However when it is many generals against a very few who speak out against Obama, they need to shut up and support the Commander in Chief.

  7. As a Christian and one of a very few civilian graduates of the Army War College, I’m following this discussion. Does the administration’s decision making meet the two of the tests of the just war doctrine? 1) War should be started only by a legitimate authority? (This is a restraint on the power of governments (kings originally) to start wars. Our constitutional system places that authority in Congress and the President. Woodward’s book makes it doubtful that either are in charge of national security policy. 2) War must be fought for a just cause. Woodward’s book makes it seem that we don’t have a clear objective. We can’t even know if it is just or unjust.
    What are to say about a national security establishment that will send our sons and daughters into combat without knowing what they are to accomplish? Didn’t they learn from Vietnam that political and military objectives should be clearly defined.
    I hope Woodward is wrong, but I’m afraid he his correct.

  8. Wayne says:

    I saw Bush as someone who often was willing to defer to the Generals on the ground and willing to take political hits to accomplish what was needed. Obama strikes me just the opposite.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    I wonder who elevated McChrystal and Petraeus to these positions where they could exert such influence over AfPak policy?

    Someone here recently referenced Grant’s memoirs.  I think they provide a useful analogy here.  In those memoirs, Grant commented on Jefferson Davis’ decision to remove General Johnston during Sherman’s march on Atlanta, and replace him with General Hood.  Johnston’s strategy had been to conserve resources and protract the war until the other side was exhausted.  Hood’s strategy was to attack wherever he could find the enemy.

    Grant thought the better of Johnston’s strategy for the South, though he respected Hood.  But since Davis had replaced Johnston with public rebuke and Hood immediately went on the offensive, Grant reasoned the ultimate strategic choice had been that of Davis and the fault, if any, lie with Davis.

    Obama has elevated generals of a known type and the most reasonable inference is that they are the types of generals he wishes to advance.  He simply appears to not like the price.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    I agree with Tano on this:

    “…go back and look at what he claimed that he wanted to do in Afghanistan back during the campaign, back when the generals had no influence over him. Compare what he said then to what he has done as president. Then, if you can find some significant difference ( I cannot), you might at least have a little material to work with…”

  11. ratufa says:

    Petraeus and the other members of our military leadership tend to be smart, confident, ambitious people. They are not comfortable with failure. ** Of course ** they are going to want to stay in Afghanistan until they achieve what they consider success. What’s more, a “big-picture” counter-insurgency guy like Petraeus will think of success in terms of nation-building, which is a long-term project in a country like Afghanistan.

    But, Petraeus and the other generals are not the people who make the decision about whether or not pursuing their idea of success in Afghanistan is in the best interests of the US. Is staying in Afghanistan another 10+ years worth the money given what we might accomplish (don’t forget the opportunity cost)? Is it politically feasible, given the public’s aversion to long-term military conflicts? How much does it actually protect the US against terrorism (our original reason for invading)? The answers to those questions are, to a great extent, not based on military considerations. But, answering them is necessary to correctly decide if it’s worth it to stay in Afghanistan.

    It’s the job of the President, having been given advice and information from the military and other government agencies, to make the decision as to whether or not we should stay in Afghanistan. If he isn’t making that decision and, in making it, inevitably clashing with his generals, who will be loathe to admit failure, he’s not doing his job.

  12. sam says:

    @PD

    Obama has elevated generals of a known type and the most reasonable inference is that they are the types of generals he wishes to advance. He simply appears to not like the price.
     

    We have to make some distinctions here, I think. He certainly didn’t bargain for McChrystal, or, more properly, the general’s staff (but the general was responsible for his staff). And what US president, faced with that situation, could have acted differently than Obama did?  Had Obama not taken the course he did when faced with straight insubordination and the demeaning of himself and his office, then James’s headline might have be more than fanciful. As for Pretraeus, well, I dunno. Obama may well have anticipated the price, but thought that Gen. Pretraeus was still the best man he could get for the job. As James says:

    It’s hard to come away from the snippets released thus far and come away with a view other than a president deeply aware of the strategic and political risks and rewards and making a cool decision based on the available options.

    There’s more recent history than the Civil War to consider. Truman always felt that MacArthur was a pain in the ass, but he recognized the general’s military genius and cut him a lot of slack because of that. It was only when MacArthur became publicly political in Truman’s eyes that he fired him, when Truman perceived MacArthur as making a direct political assault on his, Truman’s, prerogatives as president. McChrylstal suffered because he didn’t exert control over his staff, and exercised supremely poor judgement, imo, by letting a Rolling Stone reporter tag along when the staff went barhopping (I mean, really, c’mon, Rolling Stone?). I’ve not read of Petraeus ever doing anything like that, not the merest whiff.

  13. Tano says:

    So James, c’mon – its your thesis, defend it.
     
    You claim the existence of a “deep  split between the military and civilian leadership.” And further, that the leading generals were acting as political players to get the president to do things that they wanted to do, rather than what he wanted to do.
     
    And I challenge you on that. Simply because I look to the things that Obama promised to do in Afghanistan during the campaign, and I look to the things that he has actually done, and I don’t see any real difference.
     
    How can he be manipulated by the generals (I appreciate that you demur on “rolled”) if he is doing exactly what he said he would do? So what am I missing here?

  14. madawaskan says:

    A lot of these experts seem to think that generals are <i><b>NOT</i></b> political appointees.
     
    Really Obama is being “forced” by <i>his</i> generals?
     
    Who hired Stan McChrystal anyway?

  15. madawaskan says:

    Basically I think I am in agreement with Tano here.
    The military was trying to follow the plan sold to the American electorate and what was supposedly debated in good faith in front of the electorate.
    Now if you want to get into the sticky wicket of missile defense…all your bases are covered, or not.

  16. James Joyner says:

    And I challenge you on that. Simply because I look to the things that Obama promised to do in Afghanistan during the campaign, and I look to the things that he has actually done, and I don’t see any real difference.

    How can he be manipulated by the generals (I appreciate that you demur on “rolled”) if he is doing exactly what he said he would do? So what am I missing here?

    If you look at the debate leading up to the Aghan Surge — see the 2009 articles linked above — it’s pretty clear that Obama and company were very, very hesitant.  Whether or not they believed their “necessary war” rhetoric from 18 months earlier, they’d come to be very skeptical of our being able to achieve goals worth the blood and treasure.
    But they’d just replaced McKiernan with McChrystal, touting him as the “A team”.  And the new guy then leaks a report to the press saying it was militarily necessary to vastly increase the number of troops.  He went over and confronted McChrystal, letting him know such conduct was unacceptable, but the damage was done. It put Obama into a political bind he couldn’t easily escape.
    Petraeus’ sins have been venial.  But he has definitely made it clear that he thinks the July 2011 deadline announced by the president is stupid and that he assumes it’s just a milestone, not the beginning of the end.

  17. PD Shaw says:

    sam, the question is why was McKiernan replaced?  The reporting at the time was the Obama wanted bold, new action from a general with a unique set of COIN skills.  They replaced a general waging a minimum-level hold-space type of war.  Replacing a general, particularly in the middle of war, is a decisive act of policy.

    The circumstances by which McChrystal was was replaced with Peterus are fairly irrelevant to this discussion, except that it removes any ambiguity that the President wants a COIN intensive operation in Afghanistan.

    The comments from Pat Lang and others about Obama being duped by his generals simply doesn’t match the record.  He put these generals there.

  18. Tano says:

    …they’d come to be very skeptical of our being able to achieve goals worth the blood and treasure.
    But they’d just replaced McKiernan with McChrystal,

     
    How do you square these two facts? How is it that replacing McKieran with McChrystal is some kind of evidence for skepticism about a substantial mission? Or did Obama et.al. quickly change their mind immediately after appointing McChrystal?
     
    Sorry James, but it seems that to support your thesis you need to 1) claim that Obama didn’t mean everything he said in the campaign or 2) that he meant it up until the moment he actually started implementing it, then changed his mind and 3) that now that he is actually doing what he said all along he wanted to do, it must be because of pressure from the generals.
     
    I am not convinced.

  19. James Joyner says:

    Sorry James, but it seems that to support your thesis you need to 1) claim that Obama didn’t mean everything he said in the campaign or 2) that he meant it up until the moment he actually started implementing it, then changed his mind and 3) that now that he is actually doing what he said all along he wanted to do, it must be because of pressure from the generals.

    Again, go read the links to the discussion from this time last year, especially “Obama and the Generals.”   The team was absolutely furious that McChrystal and company were leaking reports to put pressure on the White House.

    I think Obama meant what he was saying in early 2008 but came to understand how bad the options were by the summer and early fall of 2009.   I can’t prove that, of course, because he’s obviously not going to say that he was wrong all along — especially not until he actually implements a change.   But look how long he dithered between getting the McChrystal report and announcing the “new” strategy.  And the Woodward excerpts do seem to make clear that he was really struggling with the choice.

    Beyond that, my assertion isn’t so much that Obama is yielding to the power of the generals but that the generals have played hard ball politics, making it much harder for their commander-in-chief to maneuver.  That’s not exactly unprecedented but it’s a dangerous thing.

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    He has given the  armyenough rope to hang themselves. When was the last time a general admitted he was going to lose. Afghanistan is a bleeding ulcer as is becoming gradually more apparent by the day to the bulk of Americans a majority of whom no longer support the war and want the drawdown to start next year. The neocon crowd maybe supported by some of the generals will make a big fuss when the plug is pulled but no one will be listening Jim. I honestly think your interpretation is entirely wrong, he’s playing the generals rather than the other way around.

  21. Tano says:

    But look how long he dithered between getting the McChrystal report and announcing the “new” strategy.  And the Woodward excerpts do seem to make clear that he was really struggling with the choice.

     
    “Dithered” and “struggling” are loaded words. I think he handled the decision in exactly the manner that he should – with the seriousness it deserved. Even though he had a preconceived notion of what he wanted to do, now that he was actually the “decider” he was going to do a thorough review of all the facts, all the models, and listen to all the ideas before moving ahead. Everything that we know about his personality and character indicated that that would be the process he would follow. And also, of course, it was such a contrast to Bush’s approach, and the promise not to follow the “go with your gut’ approach was part of the promise of his campaign. I think one would need to start with the intention of insulting the president in order to conclude that this process was “dithering”.
     
    I agree that the team was furious with McChyrstal for leaking in a manner to advance his own agenda. But that does not mean that his agenda was the opposite of the White Houes’s agenda. Even if they were the same agenda, the WH would demand control over their own public relations, and would not want their generals operating on their own. Obama did replace McChyrstal with Petraeus – and I think that is a pretty loud statement as to where Obama was wanting to go. Not exactly the same as McChrystal’s agenda, but certainly pretty similar.
     

    the generals have played hard ball politics, making it much harder for their commander-in-chief to maneuver.  That’s not exactly unprecedented but it’s a dangerous thing.

     
    Yeah, except that Obama seems to have it pretty well under control Ask Stan McChrystal about that….