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Galston Vs. Cohen: Was McChrystal Right to Go Public?

I’m grateful to Michael Cohen for challenging my views on General McChrystal, because it invites me--indeed, compels me--to say more about how I reached my conclusion. (Click here to find out why Joe Biden flipped on Afghanistan.)

Let’s begin with some propositions about which I suspect there’s little disagreement: Entering or expanding a war is the gravest decision a political community can make. Lives, scarce resources, and honor are at stake, and the consequences of mistaken judgments are both large and lasting. Whatever may be the case for other regimes, a democracy cannot sustain the decision to enter or expand a war without the people’s informed assent.

I was a junior in college when LBJ made his fateful choice to escalate the war in Vietnam after assuring the American people that he would do nothing of the sort and winning the presidency in part on the basis of that assurance. The people were shut out of the process, and Congress lacked the information to object. It was not until years later, largely through leaks, that we learned about the doubts and dissent that attended that decision. Would it have made a difference if we had known? Who knows? But the fact is that we didn’t, with consequences that have persisted down to the present.

Nearly four decades later, George W. Bush made his fateful choice to invade Iraq on the basis of intelligence about Iraqi intentions and capacities that was fatally flawed and assumptions about post-invasion military requirements that were deeply mistaken. This time some dissent surfaced when Eric Shinseki publicly disagreed with Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld about troops levels. But civilian leaders quickly squelched Shinseki and forced him into premature retirement. Wouldn’t we have been better served if he had be able to offer--in public--the kind of detailed analysis contained in McChrystal’s 66-page memo and London speech … and to do so prior to President Bush’s request to Congress for the authorization to use military force?

Shinseki wasn’t challenging the Bush administration’s goals. In effect, he was saying, Mr. President, in my professional military judgment your civilian advisors are wildly underestimating the resources needed to accomplish your objectives. To be sure, a candid discussion about means can lead presidents to revise their ends; on the basis of information not previously considered, a president can decide that certain aims are simply too costly. But that’s the president’s call, and no one in the military thought otherwise.

Now comes McChrystal, making much the same kind of argument: Mr. President, if you meant what I took you to be saying on March 27, then I’ll need more troops and materiel to accomplish the mission you’ve assigned me. That argument is entirely consistent with our tradition of civil-military relations. And making it in public (which as far as I know wasn’t his original intention) contributed to the robust public debate in which we are now engaged. If we end up escalating in Afghanistan, the American people will know why, and they will have had a full opportunity to make their views known, directly and through their representatives. Whatever one thinks of the substance, that is the procedure most consistent with democracy.

So what are the counterarguments? Cohen contends, first, that McChrystal isn’t Shinseki, who was simply responding to a question while testifying under oath before Congress. I don’t think this argument is close to dispositive, but it would be more powerful if every Democratic senator had not voted against a resolution requiring McChrystal to give congressional testimony. How can McChrystal answer questions he can’t be asked?

Cohen argues, next, that “members of a deeply hierarchical organization like the US military having a no-holds barred public debate on matters of war and peace . . . is a recipe for civil-military disaster.” I’ll confess that I don’t see why. Let me repeat what I said the first time: The principle of civilian control means that once competent civilian authorities have made a binding decision, military leaders are obligated to support it and carry it out. If they cannot in good conscience do so, they should resign. The principle does not mean that military leaders are barred from publicly expressing their best judgment as to the strategy and tactics best suited to the problem at hand, and to do so before the civilian authorities have made their decision. Perhaps Michael Cohen has a different understanding of the core principle of civil-military relations. If so, he should put it on the table, as I have done.

We are told, next, that the only legitimate place for this public debate is the Congress. Our democracy will certainly go astray if Congress isn’t fully engaged. But how does it follow that Congress is the only legitimate venue for this debate, to the exclusion of other possibilities? Because of our constitutional arrangements and traditions, moreover, presidents tend to enjoy more deference on military matters than on domestic policy. Much depends on the judgments the president reaches and the recommendations he sends to Congress. To postpone the public debate until the president has made up his mind is often to truncate the discussion that American people need and deserve.

I am accused, finally, of handing a sword to the president’s adversaries: Rovian Republicans will use McChrystal to put pressure on Obama. That’s certainly possible. But let me make a confession: Although I’m a Democrat (and was a vocal public dissenter against the invasion of Iraq), my views on what is constitutionally appropriate are not governed by the short-term interests of either party. The fact that it is almost impossible to have arguments made in that spirit taken at face value in today’s Washington is further evidence (if any were needed) of the damage that hyper-polarization is doing to our politics.