Will Our Generals Ever Shut Up?

The Military’s Media Megaphone and the U.S. Global Military Presence

The fall issue of Foreign Policy magazine features Fred Kaplan's "The Transformer," an article-cum-interview with
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It received a flurry of attention
because Gates indicated he might leave his post "sometime in 2011." The
most significant two lines in the piece, however, were so ordinary that
the usual pundits thought them not worth pondering. Part of a Kaplan
summary of Gates's views, they read: "He favors substantial increases in
the military budget... He opposes any slacking off in America's global
military presence."

Now, if Kaplan had done a similar interview with Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton, such lines might have been throwaways, since a
secretary of state is today little more than a fancy facilitator, ever
less central to what that magazine, with its outmoded name, might still
call "foreign policy." Remind me: When was the last time you heard
anyone use that phrase -- part of a superannuated world in which
"diplomats" and "diplomacy" were considered important -- in a meaningful
way? These days "foreign policy" and "global policy" are increasingly a
single fused, militarized entity, at least across what used to be
called "the Greater Middle East," where what's at stake is neither war
nor peace, but that "military presence."

As a result, Gates's message couldn't be clearer: despite two disastrous wars and a global war on terror now considered "multigenerational" by those in the know, trillions of
lost dollars, and staggering numbers of deaths (if you happen to
include Iraqi and Afghan ones), the U.S. military mustn't in any way
slack off. The option of reducing the global mission -- the one that's
never on the table when "all options are on the table" -- should remain
nowhere in sight. That's Gates's bedrock conviction. And when he opposes any diminution of the global mission, it matters.

Slicing Up the World Like a Pie

As we know from a Peter Baker front-page New York Timesprofile of
Barack Obama as commander-in-chief, the 49-year-old president "with no
experience in uniform" has "bonded" with Gates, the 66-year-old former
spymaster, all-around-apparatchik,
and holdover from the last years of the Bush era. Baker describes
Gates as the president's "most important tutor," and on matters military
like the Afghan War, the president has reportedly "deferred to him

Let's face it, though: deference has become the norm for the
Pentagon and U.S. military commanders, which is not so surprising.
After all, in terms of where our money goes, the Pentagon is the
800-pound gorilla in just about any room. It has, for instance, left
the State Department in the proverbial dust. By now, it gets at least $12 dollars for
every dollar of funding that goes to the State Department, which in
critical areas of the world has become an adjunct of the military.

In addition, the Pentagon has taken under its pilotless predatory wing such previously civilian tasks as delivering humanitarian aid and "nation-building." As Secretary of Defense Gates has pointed out, there are more Americans in U.S. military bands than there are foreign service officers.

If it's true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then
you can gauge the power of the Pentagon by the fact that, at least in
Iraq after 2011, the State Department is planning to become a
mini-military -- an armed outfit
using equipment borrowed from the Pentagon and an "army" of mercenary
guards formed into "quick reaction forces," all housed in a series of
new billion-dollar "fortified compounds," no longer called "consulates" but "enduring presence posts"
(as the Pentagon once called its giant bases in Iraq "enduring
camps"). This level of militarization of what might once have been
considered the Department of Peaceful Solutions to Difficult Problems is
without precedent and an indicator of the degree to which the
government is being militarized.

Similarly, according to the Washington Post, the Pentagon has managed to take control of more than two-thirds of the "intelligence programs" in the vast world of the U.S. Intelligence Community,
with its 17 major agencies and organizations. Ever since the
mid-1980s, it has also divided much of the globe like a pie into slices
called "commands." (Our own continent joined the crew as the U.S.
Northern Command, or Northcom, in 2002, and Africa, as Africom in 2007.)

Before stepping down a notch to become Afghan war commander, General
David Petraeus was U.S. Central Command (Centcom) commander, which meant
military viceroy for an especially heavily garrisoned expanse of the planet stretching from Egypt to the Chinese border. Increasingly, in fact, there is no space, including outer space and virtual space, where our military is uninterested in maintaining or establishing a "presence."

On October 1st, for instance, a new Cyber Command headed by a four-star general and staffed by 1,000 "elite military hackers and spies" is tohit
the keyboards typing. And there will be nothing shy about its
particular version of "presence" either. The Bush-era concept of
"preventive war" (that is, a war of aggression) may have been discarded
by the Obama administration, but the wizards of the new Cyber Command
are boldly trying to go where the Bush administration once went. They
are reportedly eager to establish a virtual war-fighting principle
(labeled "active defense") under which they could preemptively attack
and knock out the computer networks of adversaries.

And the White House and environs haven't been immune to creeping
militarization either. As presidents are now obliged to praise American
troops to the skies in any "foreign policy" speech -- "Our troops are the steel
in our ship of state" -- they also turn ever more regularly to military
figures in civilian life and for civilian posts. President Obama's
National Security Adviser, James Jones, is a retired Marine four-star
general, and from the Bush years the president kept on
Army Lieutenant General Douglas Lute as "war czar," just as he
appointed retired Army Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry as our
ambassador to Afghanistan, and recently replaced retired admiral Dennis
Blair with retired Air Force Lieutenant General James Clapper as the
Director of National Intelligence. (He also kept on David Petraeus,
George W. Bush's favorite general, and hiked the already staggering Pentagon budget in Bushian fashion.)

And this merely skims the surface of the nonstop growth of the
Pentagon and its influence. One irony of that process: even as the U.S.
military has failed repeatedly
to win wars, its budgets have grown ever more gargantuan, its sway in
Washington ever greater, and its power at home ever more obvious.

Generals and Admirals Mouthing Off

To grasp the changing nature of military influence domestically,
consider the military's relationship to the media. Its media megaphone
offers a measure of the reach and influence of that behemoth, what kinds
of pressures it can apply in support of its own version of foreign
policy, and just how, under its weight, the relationship between the
civilian and military high commands is changing.

It's true that, in June, the president relieved Afghan War commander
General Stanley McChrystal of duty after his war-frustrated associates
drank and mouthed off about administration officials in an inanely
derogatory manner in his presence -- and the presence of a Rolling Stone magazine reporter. ("Biden?... Did you say: Bite Me?") But think of that as the exception that proves the rule.

It's seldom noted that less obvious but more serious -- and egregious
-- breaches of civilian/military protocol are becoming the norm, and
increasingly no one blinks or acts. To take just a few recent examples,
in late August commandant of the Marine Corps General James Conway, due
to retire this fall, publicly attacked the president's
"conditions-based" July 2011 drawdown date in Afghanistan, saying, "In some ways, we think right now it is probably giving our enemy sustenance."

Or consider that, while the Obama administration has moved fiercely against government and military leaking of every sort,
when it came to the strategic leaking (assumedly by someone in, or
close to, the military) of the "McChrystal plan" for Afghanistan in the
fall of 2009, nothing at all happened even though the president was
backed into a policy-making corner. And yet, as Andrew Bacevich pointed out,
"The McChrystal leaker provid[ed] Osama bin Laden and the Taliban
leadership a detailed blueprint of exactly how the United States and its
allies were going to prosecute their war."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, on a
three-day cross-country "tour" of Midwestern business venues
(grandiloquently labeled "Conversations with the Country"), attacked
the national debt as "the most significant threat to our national
security." Anodyne as this might sound, with election 2010 approaching,
the national debt couldn't be a more political issue.

There should be, but no longer is, something startling about all
this. Generals and admirals now mouth off regularly on a wide range of
policy issues, appealing to the American public both directly and via
deferential (sometimes fawning) reporters, pundits, and commentators.
They and their underlings clearly leak news repeatedly for tactical
advantage in policy-making situations. They organize what are
essentially political-style barnstorming campaigns for what once would
have been "foreign policy" positions, and increasingly this is just the
way the game is played.

From Combat to Commentary

There's a history still to be written about how our highest military commanders came to never shut up.

Certainly, in 1990 as Gulf War I was approaching, Americans
experienced the first full flowering of a new form of militarized
"journalism" in which, among other things, retired high military
officers, like so many play-by-play analysts on Monday Night Football,
became regular TV news consultants. They were called upon to narrate
and analyze the upcoming battle ("showdown in the Gulf"), the brief
offensive that followed, and the aftermath in something close to real
time. Amid nifty logos, dazzling Star Wars-style graphics,
theme music, and instant-replay nose-cone snuff films of "precision"
weapons wiping out the enemy, they offered a running commentary on the
progress of battle as well as on the work of commanders in the field,
some of whom they might have once served with.

And that was just the beginning of the way, after years of
post-Vietnam War planning, the Pentagon took control of the media
battlefield and so the popular portrayal of American-style war. In the
past, the reporting of war had often been successfully controlled by
governments, while generals had polished their images with the press or
-- like Omar Bradley and Douglas MacArthur -- even employed public
relations staffs to do it for them. But never had generals and war
planners gone before the public as actors, supported by all the means a
studio could muster on their behalf and determined to produce a program
that would fill the day across the dial for the full time of a war. The
military even had a version of a network Standards and Practices
department with its guidelines for on-air acceptability. Military
handlers made decisions -- like refusing to clear for publication the
fact that Stealth pilots viewed X-rated movies before missions --
reminiscent of network show-vetting practices.

When it came time for Gulf War II, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the
military had added the practice of putting reporters through pre-war
weeklong "boot camps" and then "embedding" them with the troops (a Stockholm Syndrome-type experience that many American reporters grew to love). It also built itself a quarter-million-dollar
stage set for nonstop war briefings at Centcom headquarters in Doha,
Qatar. All of this was still remarkably new in the history of relations
between the Pentagon and the media, but it meant that the military
could address the public more or less directly both through those
embedded reporters and over the shoulders of that assembled gaggle of
media types in Doha.

As long as war took its traditional form, this approach worked well,
but once it turned into a protracted and inchoate guerrilla struggle,
and "war" and "wartime" became the endless (often dismal) norm,
something new was needed. In the Bush years, the Pentagon responded to
endless war in part by sending out
an endless stream of well-coached, well-choreographed retired military
"experts" to fill the gaping maw of cable news. In the meantime,
something quite new has developed.

you no longer need to be a retired military officer to offer
play-by-play commentary on and analysis of our wars. Now, at certain
moments, the main narrators of those wars turn out to be none other than
the generals running, or overseeing, them. They regularly get major
airtime to explain to the American public how those wars are going, as
well as to expound on their views on more general issues.

This is something new. Among the American commanders of World War II
and the Korean War, only Douglas MacArthur did anything faintly like
this, which made him an outlier (or perhaps an omen) and in a sense
that's why President Harry Truman fired him. Generals Eisenhower,
Patton, Ridgeway, et al., did not think to go on media tours touting
their own political lines while in uniform.

Admittedly, Vietnam War commander General William Westmoreland was an
early pioneer of the form. He had, however, been pushed onto the stage
to put a public face on the American war effort by President Lyndon
Johnson, who was desperate to buck up public opinion. Westmoreland returned from Vietnam
in 1968 just before the disastrous Tet Offensive for a "whirlwind tour"
of the country and uplifting testimony before Congress. In a speech at
the National Press Club, he spoke of reaching "an important point where
the end begins to come into view," and later in a televised press
conference, even more infamously used the phrase "the light at the end
of tunnel." Events would soon discredit his optimism.

Still, we've reached quite a different level of military/media
confluence today. Take the two generals now fighting our Afghan and
Iraq wars: General Petraeus and General Ray Odierno -- one arriving, the
other leaving.

Having spent six weeks assessing the Afghan situation and convinced
that he needed to buy more time for his war from the American public, in
mid-August Petraeus launched a full-blown, well-organized media tour
from his headquarters in Kabul. In it, he touted "progress" in
Afghanistan, offered comments subtly but visibly at odds with the president's promised July 2011 drawdown date, and generally evangelized for his war. He began with an hour-long interview with Dexter Filkins of the New York Times and another with Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post.
These were timed to be released on August 15th, the morning he
appeared on NBC's Sunday political show "Meet the Press." (Moderator
David Gregory traveled to the Afghan capital to toss softball questions
at Washington's greatest general and watch him do push-ups in a "special edition" of the show.) Petraeus then followed up with a Katie Couric interview on CBS Evening News, as part of an all-fronts "media blitz" that would include Fox News, AP, Wired magazine's Danger Room blog, and in a bow to the allies, the BBC and even NATO TV, among other places.

At almost the same moment, General Odierno was ending his tour of
duty as Iraq war commander by launching a goodbye media blitz of his own
from Baghdad, which included interviews with ABC's "This Week," Bob Schieffer of CBS's "Face the Nation," MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, CNN's "State of the Union," PBS Newshour, and the New York Times, among
others. He, too, had a policy line to promote and he, too, expressed
himself in ways subtly but visibly at odds with an official Obama
position, emphasizing the possibility that some number of U.S. troops
might need to stay in Iraq beyond the 2011 departure deadline. As he
said to Schieffer, "If [the Iraqis] ask us that they might want us to
stay longer, we certainly would consider that." Offering another
scenario as well, he also suggested that, as Reuters put it,
"U.S. troops... could move back to a combat role if there was 'a
complete failure of the security forces' or if political divisions split
Iraqi security forces." (He then covered his flanks by adding, "but we
don't see that happening.")

This urge to stay represents one long-term strain of thinking in the military and among Pentagon civilians, and it will undoubtedly prove a powerful force for the president to deal with or defer to in 2011. In February 2009, less than a month after Obama took office, Odierno was already broadcasting his desire to have up to 35,000 troops remain in Iraq after 2011, and at the end of 2009, Gates was already suggesting
that a new round of negotiations with a future Iraqi government might
extend our stay for years. All this, of course, could qualify as part
of a more general campaign to maintain the Pentagon's 800-pound status,
the military's clout, and that global military presence.

A Chorus of Military Intellectuals

foreign policy is regularly seconded by a growing cadre of what might
be called military intellectuals at think tanks scattered around
Washington. Such figures, many of them qualifying as "warrior pundits"
and "warrior journalists," include: Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and Petraeus adviser; former U.S. Army officer Andrew Exum, fellow at the Center for a New American Security, founder of the Abu Muqawama website, and a McChrystal advisor; former Australian infantry officer and Petraeus adviser David Kilcullen, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security; Thomas Ricks, formerly of the Washington Post, author of the bestselling Iraq War books Fiasco and The Gamble, Petraeus admirer, and senior fellow at the same center; Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, the man Gates credits with turning around his thinking on Afghanistan and a recent Petraeus hiree in Afghanistan; Kimberley Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War, an adviser to both Petraeus and McChrystal;Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution;andStephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and another Petraeus as well as McChrystal adviser.These
figures, and numerous others like them, are repeatedly invited to U.S.
war zones by the military, flattered, toured, given face time with
commanders, sometimes hired
by them, and sometimes even given the sense that they are the ones
planning our wars. They then return to Washington to offer
sophisticated, "objective" versions of the military line.

Toss into this mix the former neocons who caused so much of the damage in the early Bush years and who regularly return at key moments as esteemed media "experts" (not the fools and knaves they were), including former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz,former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) L. Paul Bremer III, and former senior advisor to the CPA Noah Feldman,
among others. For them, being wrong means never having to say you're
sorry. And, of course, they and their thoughts are dealt with
remarkably respectfully, while those who were against the Iraq War from
the beginning remain scarce commodities on op-ed pages, as sources in news articles, and on the national radio and TV news.

This combined crew of former warriors, war-zone bureaucrats, and warrior pundits are, like Odierno, now plunking
for a sizeable residual U.S. military force to stay in Iraq until hell
freezes over. They regularly compare Iraq to post-war South Korea,
where U.S. troops are still garrisoned nearly 60 years after the Korean
War and which, after decades of U.S.-supported dictators, now has a
flourishing democracy.

Combine the military intellectuals, the former neocons, the war
commanders, the retired military-officer-commentators, the Secretary of
Defense and other Pentagon civilians and you have an impressive array of
firepower of a sort that no Eisenhower, Ridgeway, or even MacArthur
could have imagined. They may disagree fiercely with each other on tactical matters
when it comes to pursuing American-style war, and they certainly don't
represent the views of a monolithic military. There are undoubtedly
generals who have quite a different view of what the defense of the
United States entails. As a crew, though, civilian and military, in and
out of uniform, in the Pentagon or in a war zone, they agree forcefully
on the need to maintain that American global military presence over the
long term.

Producing War

Other than Gates, the key figure of the moment is clearly Petraeus,
who might be thought of as our Teflon general. He could represent a
genuine challenge to the fading tradition of civilian control of the
military. Treated
as a demi-god and genius of battle on both sides of the aisle in
Washington, he would be hard for any president, especially this one, to
remove from office. As a four-star who would have to throw a punch at
Michelle Obama on national television to get fired, he minimally has
significant latitude to pursue the war policies of his choice in
Afghanistan. He also has -- should he care to exercise it -- the
potential and the opening to pursue much more. It's not completely
farfetched to imagine him as the first mini-Caesar-in-waiting of our
American times.

As of yet, he and other top figures may plan their individual media
blitzes, but they are not consciously planning a media strategy for a
coherent Pentagon foreign policy. The result is all the more chilling
for not being fully coordinated, and for being so little noticed or
attended to by the media that play such a role in promoting it. What's
at stake here goes well beyond the specific issue of military
insubordination that usually comes up when military-civilian relations
are discussed. After all, we could be seeing, in however inchoate form,
the beginning of a genuine Pentagon/military production in support of Pentagon timing (as in the new bases now being built
in Afghanistan that won't even be completed until late 2011), our
global military presence, and the global mission that goes with it.

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, you can see that Pentagon
version of an American foreign policy straining to be born. In the end,
of course, it could be stillborn, but it could also become an
all-enveloping system offering Americans a strange, skewed vision of a
world constantly at war and of the importance of planning for more of
the same.

To the extent that it now exists, it is dominated by the vision of
figures who, judging from the last near decade, have a particularly
constrained sense of American priorities, have been deeply immersed in
the imperial mayhem that our wars have created, have left us armed to
the teeth and flailing
at ghosts and demons, and are still enmeshed in the process by which
American treasure has been squandered to worse than no purpose in
distant lands.

Nothing in the record indicates that anyone should listen to what
these men have to say. Nothing in the record indicates that Washington
won't be all ears, the media won't remain an enthusiastic conduit, and
Americans won't follow their lead.

[Source note: For a basic source on the decline of the State Department, Stephen Glain's 2009 Nation piece "The American Leviathan"
is still the place to start. For those of you who would like more on
the history of how the Pentagon organized war in the post-Vietnam era
and the tumultuous Bush years, consider getting your hands on the
revised, updated version of my book, The End of Victory Culture,
and checking out the sections entitled "Afterlife" and "Victory
Culture, the Sequel." Among the recent "all options on the table"
statements, this one from Petraeus's
Washington Post
interview caught my attention: "One policy [General Petraeus] has opted
not to continue, however, is his predecessor's asceticism. He suggested
that the fast-food restaurants McChrystal ordered closed on bases
probably will reopen soon. 'With respect to Burger Kings, all options are on the table,' he said."]

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