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Dangers of a politicized military—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67

The following commentary was posted on Washingtonpost.com on October 1, 2010.

Dangers of a politicized military
By Bruce Ackerman ’67

Over the past quarter century, the high command has carved out a much more aggressive political role. Until 1986, the Joint Chiefs of Staff lacked the capacity to present a united front to its civilian bosses. It was a forum for intense inter-service rivalry, with each chief fiercely promoting his service's distinctive interests and weapon systems.

But the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 changed all that. It transformed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs into a political actor who could speak for the military as a whole. Colin Powell quickly exploited this new opportunity. As chairman under George H.W. Bush, he took the unprecedented step of formulating his own Powell Doctrine on the use of military force -- and then backed it up by writing a New York Times op-ed during the 1992 campaign, lecturing Bill Clinton on his foreign-policy responsibilities.

Subsequent chairmen have, in one way or another, followed Powell's example. Goldwater-Nichols also gave far greater powers to regional commanders-in-chief -- providing a high visibility platform that permits generals like David Petraeus to propel themselves to the center of American politics.

The military is also colonizing key civilian positions. Before 1980, national security advisors were almost invariably foreign-policy intellectuals like McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger, and Zbigniew Brzezinski -- men who often eclipsed their secretaries of state during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.

It was Ronald Reagan who made a fateful turn to the military, choosing Col. Robert "Bud" McFarlane, followed by Vice Adm. John Poindexter, to head the National Security Council –- where they played a key role in precipitating the Iran-Contra crisis. Despite the hand-wringing that followed, there was no inclination to consider whether the NSC should be reserved for civilian leadership.

When Barack Obama named the former commandant of the Marine Corps, James Jones, to serve as his national security advisor, nobody seriously questioned the propriety of his choice.

Military colonization has been accelerating within the Defense Department itself. In creating the Department in 1947, Congress wanted to guarantee civilian control of the army, navy, and air force -- explicitly barring retired officers from serving as service secretaries until they had spent five years in civilian life. Before 1980, the Senate confirmed 42 secretaries, and nearly all were civilians in fact as well as name. Only one had 15 years of military service, and only 17 percent had served for as many as five years; after 1980, 27 have been confirmed, and nearly a quarter had 15 years of service, while 44 percent had five years.

During the 1980s, retired officers began serving as “senior mentors” to active-duty officers, helping them plan strategy, and generally advise on high military matters. This system encourages top officers to turn to senior military statesmen for advice when the going gets tough -- there are now about 160 “mentors.” It also facilitates the informal process through which retired officers have become the unofficial spokesmen for the high command.

For example, retired officers organized a “revolt of the generals” against Donald Rumsfeld, setting the stage for his removal by President Bush after the 2006 election. As they led the charge against the civilian leadership, they made it plain that they were speaking for many of their active-duty colleagues. The generals’ complaints about Rumsfeld’s policies may well have had merit, but the next “revolt” may be spectacularly wrong-headed.

It is past time to take a hard-headed look at the cumulating impact of these trends. My book makes a series of concrete reform proposals, but it is premature to settle on an action plan. The best way forward is through a Presidential Commission on Civil-Military Relations, which could provide a forum for civilian and military leaders to confront the issues and fashion a serious structural response.