Outspoken Retired Generals and Civilian Control, Redux
Kevin Drum, reflecting on the recent spate of retired generals speaking out both both for and against Donald Rumsfeld’s being replaced as SECDEF, remarks, “Regardless of whether or not we agree with the generals’ criticism, I think it’s wise to be uneasy about something that has a bit of a sense of a palace revolt against the current civilian leadership of the military.”
Steven Taylor thinks this concern odd, arguing that that “employing the ‘civilian control of the military’ card in this context is a non sequitur, because the generals in question are retired, and therefore are civilians and are exercising their rights as such to critique the sitting government.” In follow-up posts, he notes that guys like Wesley Clark have spoken out without similar criticisms and, citing an Explainer piece noting that there are “about 4700 retired generals,” the pronouncements of a few of them will hardly undermine civilian control.
While I am sympathetic to the “civilian control” argument and would like to see retired generals (and, indeed, public officials period) be silent, I ultimately agree with Taylor on this one. As I’ve noted before, we’ve had much more aggregious cases at even more inauspicious times without undermining the Republic.
Update: Steve Bainbridge examines the issue from the standpoint of institutional economics:
It does not impugn the patriotism or courage of members of the military to point out that the military as an institution tends to be plagued with careerism and politics. . . . Ambitious generals at the end of their career, facing imminent mandatory retirement, seem especially unlikely to buck those who control their prospects for advancement.
In contrast, recently retired generals provide a source of external monitoring that has many of the advantages of insider oversight. They have access to information about the SecDef that is nearly as good as their active duty counterparts, without the political and carrier constraints. To be sure, one must take it all with a grain of salt, because the retirees may well have their own political axes to grind (or career scores to settle).
Yet, in thinking about the problem as one of monitoring within organizations, critiques by recent retirees strikes me as a useful combination of external and internal review. We get the informational advantages of insiders coupled with the freedom to criticize of external forces. It isn’t perfect, but in a system in which civilian control must be held accountable, this strikes me as a legitimate form of accountability.
While the warrior culture and the nature of esprit de corps makes any analogy between the military and other businesses imperfect, I agree. While having recently retired generals criticizing their former bosses is somewhat problematic, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Even if it were a push, one seldom goes wrong chosing the side of freedom.