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It's Time for America's Military to Give Up Politics
Published on Monday, August 14, 2000 in the International Herald Tribune
It's Time for America's Military to Give Up Politics
by William Pfaff
PARIS - The military display arranged by the Pentagon, at considerable cost to taxpayers, at the recent Republican convention in Philadelphia marked a further intrusion of the American military into a political realm from which in the past it considered itself banned by constitutional interpretation and convention, and by the American officer's own conception of his duty and role.

It was another validation of the continued pertinence of President Dwight Eisenhower's frequently cited but consistently neglected warning to the United States about the ''military-industrial complex.''

The mercantile relationships between the manufacturers of the weaponry displayed in Philadelphia, its purchasers in the military and those in Congress who appropriate the money to pay for it became long ago, in serious and not always unconsidered respects, a conspiracy against the electorate.

The military's practice of lobbying Congress, a Cold War development, was consolidated years ago in cooperation with the manufacturers. This is well known and cynically accepted as part of the pork-barrel politics that make America work.

What is new is that America's military leadership has acquired a distinctly partisan political coloring in recent years, and seems no longer content to be the silent servant of civilian authority. Civilian leadership no longer is willing to exercise its full constitutional authority over military commanders.

One reason for this, of course, has been President Bill Clinton's need to defer to military authority, given his own evasion of military service in the Vietnam War.

Neither Vice President Al Gore, who at least went to Vietnam (although in a secure job as an enlisted journalist) nor Governor George W. Bush, who spent the period in the United States (in a favored situation flying obsolescent aircraft for the state militia of Texas) are in a position fully to re-establish civilian authority.

Military officers express deep pessimism about the moral health of American civilian society, which they see in need of military virtues; they consider civilian leadership incompetent to deal with military matters, and they are overtly partisan in a way that would have been inadmissible in the prewar and wartime U.S. Army.

A study by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in North Carolina found that officers today ''believe that it is their role to insist and advocate rather than merely advise on key elements of decisions concerning the use of force.''

This is perhaps not surprising, in view of the trauma inflicted by the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, according to the authors of the study, ''the implications for civil-military cooperation, civilian control and indeed American democracy are profound.''

A parallel development has been the militarization of civilian thought in government. There is now consistent recourse to military remedies when dealing not only with foreign policy challenges, but also such civil society issues as terrorism and the drug trade.

As public and platform statements in both parties demonstrate, the country's international relations tend to be defined in terms of threat and violence, rather than political rivalry and competition.

The use of force has become an early, rather than late, option when policy is considered. Yet while scenarios exist for future warlike relations with China, or a resurgent Russia, there has been no serious military danger to the United States since the Cold War ended. Civilian issues overwhelmingly dominate America's relations with the world today - matters of trade, finance and investment, commercial relations, human-rights concerns, tourism and travel.

There is violence in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Kashmir, West Africa - but none of this threatens the United States. Terrorism is recurrent but is essentially a police problem. Yet in response to its assumed importance, Washington recently established an army command with unprecedented emergency powers over civilian matters.

The clearest current example of what has to be called paranoid policymaking concerns national missile defense, which Robert Levine of the Rand Corporation recently described as a system that ''doesn't work, may never work and would serve no useful purpose if it did work'' (IHT, Aug. 9). Both political parties nonetheless are committed to building such a system because the vision of an impenetrable shield over America is politically and psychologically irresistible.

It would be meant to protect Americans not only against the wretched and impoverished ''rogue nations,'' but also against their national insecurities.

The fundamental international relationships today are civilian. These are shaping what the next decades will bring. It is time for the military to give up politics, and for the politicians to think like civilians.

Copyright 2000 International Herald Tribune.


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