- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

In early July, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported on a "preliminary planning document" for an invasion of Iraq. While it is likely an orchestrated attempt to mislead Saddam Hussein, the alternative is that, in the words of the New York Times: "The willingness of the officials to outline Pentagon thinking … suggest unhappiness in some quarters with the current drift of strategizing." If this is indeed the case, the release of these documents represents the escalation of political tactics carried out by senior military leaders under previous administrations. The potential response to such tactics raises important issues for civil-military relations under the Bush administration.

If this is a leak aimed at derailing administration policy, then it constitutes not simply atrocious security, but a direct challenge, an invitation to struggle in an increasingly politicized and polarized Washington. It would be easy to overstate the importance of the leak: This is not a coup, or mutiny, or even the broad defiance of Gen. Douglas MacArthur to President Harry Truman in 1951. However, the way the Bush administration responds will determine whether it will be able to reverse the civil-military tension of the Clinton years.

Even before Bill Clinton arrived in Washington, the civil-military relationship was becoming politicized, as was the way that high-level military officers were expected to operate. Gen. Colin Powell himself said: "There is not a general in Washington who is not political, not if he is going to be successful, because that is the nature of our system." Mr. Powell himself proved to be politically gifted as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That he today serves as secretary of state and enjoys near-universal respect suggests his track record of political actions was seen as legitimate and within his responsibilities.

What led to increased politicization was the Clinton administration's distrust of the military leadership, especially after the opening clash on gays in the military. In response over Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, budgets, and other issues the military was willing to go to the press, back-channel information to Congress, use recently retired flag officers as spokesmen, and even engage in direct debate. Military leaders took these political actions because they saw they were effective in countering questionable policy decisions by an administration that lacked a cohesive strategy and was not willing to pay the political price of opposing the military leadership.

Not all military leaders waged this form of guerrilla politics. Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald Fogleman, a general, resigned on principle when his advice was rejected. In return, the Clinton administration injected a higher degree of politicization in senior appointments than had been seen in the past, although the military was still able to ensure that presumed ability rather than gender equity or other considerations remained paramount in personnel selections. In the words of journalist Thomas Ricks, the Clinton-era military was "treated like an interest group by people who say 'Okay, you want to play politics, let's play politics.' "

Treating high-level leaks as a security matter, or even firing the guilty, is not by itself going to counter the escalation of political tactics employed in the Clinton years (which did not include leaking operational planning). A strong president is less likely to be affected by leaks or the appearance of disagreement with senior military leaders. Once these political tactics by military leaders, powerful during the Clinton administration, lose their efficacy, they will be used less often.

To avoid the civil-military politics of his predecessor through strong leadership, President Bush must present clear guidance to the military, even when implementing difficult and potentially politically costly decisions. Because much of the military's influence over national security direction is informal, this is an area where attitudes are often more important than formal institutional arrangements. Objectives must be detailed in a way that soldiers can explain to their families and legislators to their constituents, not concealed behind security concerns. It is hard to be clear about today's often ambiguous threats or to rally a popular response to them that will be less than national mobilization. Shadowy enemies and limited wars may make the heroic wartime leadership of a Lincoln or Churchill less of a model. However, the president can still no less than those two examples exhibit a commitment to victory (not to tomorrow's poll numbers) regardless of what is leaked and provide clear direction to his senior military leaders. He should expect from them, in return, not the political maneuvers of the 1990s, but rather effective policy implementation.


David C. Isby is a Washington-based national security consultant and author.

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