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The risks of playing politics with the military—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67

The following commentary was published in the Financial Times on September 5, 2007.

The risks of playing politics with the military
By Bruce Ackerman ’67

President George W. Bush's campaign to stay the course in Iraq is taking a new and constitutionally dangerous turn. When Senator John Warner recently called for a troop withdrawal by Christmas, the White House did not mount its usual counterattack. It allowed a surprising champion to take its place. Major General Rick Lynch, a field commander in Iraq, summoned reporters to condemn Mr Warner's proposal as "a giant step backwards".

It was Maj Gen Lynch who was making the giant step into forbidden territory. He had no business engaging in a public debate with a US senator. His remarks represent an assault on the principle of civilian control - the most blatant so far during the Iraq war.

Nobody remarked on the breach. But this only makes it more troubling and should serve as prologue for the next large event in civilian-military relations: the president's effort to manipulate General David Petraeus's report to Congress.

Once again, nobody is noticing the threat to civilian control. Mr Bush has pushed Gen Petraeus into the foreground to shore up his badly damaged credibility. But in doing so, he has made himself a hostage. He needs the general more than the general needs him. Despite the president's grandiose pretensions as commander-in-chief, the future of the Iraq war is up to Gen Petraeus.

The general's impact on Congress will be equally profound. If he brings in a negative report, Republicans will abandon the sinking ship in droves; if he accentuates the positive, it is the Democrats who will be spinning.

In fact, if not in name, it will be an army general who is calling the shots - not the duly elected representatives of the American people.

Wars are tough on constitutions, but losing wars is particularly tough on the American separation of powers. Especially when Congress and the presidency are in different hands, the constitutional dynamics invite both sides to politicise the military. With the war going badly, it is tempting to push the generals on to centre stage and escape responsibility for the tragic outcomes that lie ahead. But as Iraq follows on from Vietnam, this dynamic may generate a politicised military that is embittered by its repeated defeats in the field.

From this perspective, the US owes a great debt to Harry Truman. It would have been politically convenient for the president to defer to General Douglas Mac-Arthur's advice and invade China in the Korean war. But Truman fired MacArthur instead, opening the way for General Dwight Eisenhower to win the next election. While the Democratic party was a big loser, the principle of civilian control remained intact.

Mr Bush is no Truman. He has used Gen Petraeus as a pawn in a game to defer congressional judgment from the spring to the autumn. Now he is transforming him into a mythic figure, scheduling his report to Congress for September 11. As the nation pauses to remember that terrible day in 2001, the president wants his general to appear on television as the steely-eyed hero of the hour, leading the country to ultimate victory in "the war on terror".

This puts Gen Petraeus in a difficult constitutional position. Paradoxically, it is now up to a military man to defend the principle of civilian control. Gen Petraeus should make his priorities clear by immediately disciplining Gen Lynch for his thoughtless breach of constitutional principle. When his moment of truth comes, he should make every effort to avoid being a shill for either the Republicans or the Democrats - emphasising that the important questions are political, not military. He should restrict himself to an impartial statement of the facts and refuse to judge the success of the surge.

Easier said than done. We all know that facts do not speak for themselves and that Gen Petraeus will be making countless value judgments even if he re- frains from explicitly assessing the success or failure of his mission. This is why the president should not have pum- ped up this moment in the first place.

But he has, and it will not be any better if Gen Petraeus and the joint chiefs of staff blind themselves to the constitutional precedent that they are establishing. They should not allow themselves to be left holding the bag for the tough choices involved in extricating the country from its blunders in Iraq. They should stringently limit themselves to an impartial statement of the facts and insist that it is up to the president and Congress to come up with the least-bad exit strategy.

The writer is Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale and author of Before the Next Attack.