Do the troops love Obama or hate him?

By Michael Desch

I was at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas this week at the invitation of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, which prepares majors to become the next generation of leaders for the Army, to participate on panel on Civil-Military Relations, not surprisingly an important component of the CGSC curriculum. 

The theme of the panel came from noted military historian Richard Kohn's recent piece "Coming Soon: A Crisis in Civil-Military Relations." Some readers may recall that Kohn created quite a stir in 1994 with a provocatively titled piece in The National Interest "Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil Military Relations," in which he argued that an increasingly Republican officer corps was becoming less amenable to civilian control, particularly under Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Of course, there was lots of evidence for his thesis during the Clinton administration, including the furor about allowing gays to serve openly in the military and the intense debates about humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere. Exhibit A was then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell who, even before Clinton took office, wrote pieces for The New York Times and Foreign Affairs explaining why civilian politicians made generals nervous when they pushed to use military force outside of the strictures of his eponymously named doctrine.

Many people thought that after Clinton, who one Air Force general had publicly referred to as his "pot-smoking, draft-dodging, skirt-chasing Commander-in-Chief," the new Bush administration, which campaigned on the promise to the military that "help is on the way," would enjoy a new era of civil-military harmony.

What they failed to see was that behind the overtly pro-military rhetoric of the Bush campaign, many of the key figures in the new administration's defense team actually harbored mixed feelings about the American armed forces. Beginning his second tour as Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had apparently come to believe that left to its own devices the U.S. military was incapable of making the organization and doctrinal changes necessary to modernize itself so as to take advantage of what he and other visionaries anticipated would be a revolution in military affairs. Thus, he made it his mission to drag the military kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, and stepped on a lot of toes in the process.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives blamed military realists like Colin Powell for dragging their feet in the face of the Clinton administration's humanitarian interventions in the 1990s, and they no doubt understood that same impulse would lead many military officers to be skeptical of their global crusade for regime change. 

Reflecting the more general schizophrenia of the American public who patriotically affixed magnetic "support our troops" yellow ribbons to their gas guzzling SUVs, many on the Bush national security team similarly combined noisy pro-military rhetoric with wariness, sometimes bordering upon contempt, for actual military expertise. Nothing epitomized this better than Wolfowitz's brusque dismissal of Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's suggestion that we would need a couple of hundred thousand troops for stability and support operations in Iraq as "wildly off the mark."  

By the fall of 2003, the mounting insurgency in Iraq had made it clear that Shinseki's estimate had not been so far off the mark after all. Indeed, six prominent retired generals would subsequently call for Rumsfeld's resignation over his mishandling of the war. This lead the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to conclude that rebuilding the relationship of trust and confidence between the military and civilian leaders was an urgent task. Kohn, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers, Naval War College Professor Mackubin Owens, and I debated my take on this period in a subsequent exchange in Foreign Affairs.

In his most recent piece, Kohn points to four continuing issues that could make the relationship between the U.S. military and the new Obama administration tense. These include: the messy end games in Iraq and Afghanistan, a growing mismatch between defense spending and a federal budget being stretched in too many other directions, the challenge of transforming the nation's armed forces to meet future great power challenges while simultaneously fighting a global counterinsurgency war on a number of fronts today, and the recrudescence of polarizing social issues like the status of open homosexuals in the military and the aggressive proselytizing of Evangelical Christians in uniform. Without adroit leadership from the Obama Administration, and a willingness among senior military leaders to assume a more submissive posture, Kohn fears another breakdown in their relationship.

Despite the pessimistic tone of Kohn's article, he was surprisingly up-beat at our panel. The root of this optimism was his belief that both the senior military leadership and the Obama administration are eager to reestablish better relations after the acrimony of the last sixteen years. 

Kohn was impressed with Obama's pragmatism on this front: The new President  had taken steps to cover his flank by appointing a number of retired senior officers to his cabinet and other high-level positions, including General James Jones as National Security Advisor, General Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence. 

Also, Kohn thought that Obama's decision to keep on Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was an astute move, not only given the secretary's success in rebuilding the bridges to the military that his predecessor burned, but also because having a Republican in this position will make it hard for Republicans to criticize Obama's draw-down in Iraq or conduct of the war in Afghanistan. 

Finally, at the purely atmospheric level, he commended the Obama for striking the right cord in dealing with the troops, sending the First Lady on her first official trip to visit Ft. Bragg and shying away from rekindling the military culture wars by taking a lower key approach to such hot-button issues as rescinding the gay ban.

I agree with Kohn that both President Obama and the current military leadership have so far taken positive steps to try to heal the civil-military rupture. But I have an even simpler explanation for the apparent change in atmospherics: After the last eight years of the Bush administration's meddling in, and mismanagement of, military affairs, even a Democrat doesn't look too bad these days to our men and women in uniform. That's at least one thing for which we can thank the last administration.

If you want to get the soldiers' take on our panel, see their blog

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