Bush and the Generals

In his article “Bush and the Generals” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007), Michael Desch charged that the Bush administration’s handling of military affairs in Iraq and elsewhere has been so intrusive and incompetent as to risk “discrediting … the whole notion of civilian control of the military.”

Now General Richard Myers, Vice Chairman and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2000 to 2005, fires back in the Foreign Affairs’ article “Salute and Disobey?”

President George W. Bush shakes the hand of General Richard Myers, retired Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during ceremonies November 9, 2005, at the White House. White House photo by Paul Morse.

President George W. Bush shakes the hand of General Richard Myers, retired Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during ceremonies November 9, 2005, at the White House. White House photo by Paul Morse.

Salute and Disobey?

by General Richard Myers

Summary: Did the Bush administration disregard military expertise before the Iraq war? Should military leaders have done more to protest in response?


Michael Desch’s “Bush and the Generals” (May/June 2007) contains significant errors of fact and interpretation. One of us, Richard Myers, has direct knowledge and personal experience with the subject; the other, Richard Kohn, has been studying and observing American civil-military relations for 45 years.

Bush administration officials did not, as Desch charges, “overrule” the military “on the number of troops to be sent” to Iraq or “the timing of … deployment.” Both were the result of over a year of questioning and discussion back and forth, and the final plan contained contingencies for different numbers of forces depending on the course of the campaign. To be sure, the combatant commander often found the probing and questioning of plans by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff distasteful. But in the end, all involved supported the final plan regardless of the disagreements along the way.

Contrary to Desch’s interpretation, the Kosovo intervention in 1999 was not evidence of poor civil-military relations. The Joint Chiefs, the secretary of defense, and President Bill Clinton all agreed on limiting the application of force in Kosovo – overruling the advice of General Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander for Europe, as was legitimate in the civil-military relationship.

There was no “truce” between the military and civilians after 9/11 because there had never been a war. There was just the friction and distrust (never open but exacerbated by Rumsfeld’s approach and style) inherent in U.S. civil-military relations.

Desch charges that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz‘s “cavalier dismissal of troop-requirement estimates by General Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff,” was “the clearest display of civilian willingness to override the professional military on tactical and operational matters.”

But it is not true that Shinseki’s offered advice was subsequently overruled. In his congressional testimony, Shinseki told senators that such estimates should come from the combatant commander, and he never offered these troop numbers to either the Joint Chiefs or to the president. Desch is correct, however, that criticism of Shinseki’s testimony by senior civilian officials was not conducive to proper civil-military relations.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold — another retired military official who has recently criticized the civilian leadership — left the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2002, before planning for the Iraq campaign was complete or the military was informed of a decision to go to war. Newbold never made his views known to the chairman or the vice chairman, for whom he worked directly.

Desch also implies that senior military officers were intimidated into silence on the number of troops needed in Iraq during the occupation. The truth, however, is that General John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command from July 2003 until March 2007, and his commanders thought more U.S. troops would be counterproductive, and the Joint Chiefs agreed. Only following the deterioration of the situation several months after the 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra was there support for a rise in U.S. troop levels among some of the most senior military officers.

The recommendations that Desch draws from his faulty analysis are dangerous. Certainly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates should “encourage, rather than stifle, candid advice from the senior military leadership.” But to imply that Rumsfeld stifled candid advice is misleading. Some may have been intimidated by him, but he insisted that General Myers, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, provide advice – and General Myers always did so, candidly. (If the chairman’s advice differs from that of the service chiefs, he is obligated by law to state their advice as well.)

Desch recommends returning to “an old division of labor” in which “civilians give due deference to military professional advice in the tactical and operational realms in return for complete military subordination in the grand strategic and political realms.”

In fact, that “old division of labor” never disappeared, even after nuclear weapons and limited and guerrilla war blurred the distinctions and injected civilians much more heavily into operations and tactics, largely through the setting of rules of engagement. But “due deference” does not mean automatic consent, as Desch implies: that clearly would negate civilian control of the military. Meanwhile, once military advice has been offered, automatic consent by the military in strategic and political matters is necessary – regardless of whether or not the military advice is heard, listened to, and considered.

Desch questions “salute and obey” as the norm for the U.S. military, but he seems to base this on a misinterpretation of H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. (Kohn supervised McMaster’s master’s and Ph.D. theses, which became the book.) This misinterpretation is common in the military.

In reality, the book argues and implies nothing other than this: during the Vietnam War, the Joint Chiefs should have spoken up forcefully in private to their superiors and candidly in testimony to Congress when asked specifically for their personal views, and they should have corrected misrepresentations of those views in private meetings with members of Congress.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a “proper civil-military balance.” What is necessary for effective policy, good decisions, and positive outcomes is a relationship of respect, candor, collaboration, cooperation – and subordination. Nothing would undermine that relationship more than a resignation by a senior military officer.

The role of the military is to advise and then carry out lawful policies and orders, not to make them. To threaten resignation – taking disagreement public – directly assaults civilian control of the military.

Political and international strategic considerations are the responsibility of civilians, elected and appointed. No military officer, even at the very top, can know all that is involved in the highest levels of decision-making, which is inherently political (in the generic, not partisan, sense). In other walks of life, professionals can resign, but a military leader sworn to defend the country would be abandoning it, along with the people under his or her care or command.

There may be some extraordinary or dire situation in which an officer must for personal reasons ask to be relieved or retired: for example, when people would be slaughtered for no explicable or conceivable reason or the existence of the country jeopardized with no conceivable justification. But one individual’s definition of what is moral, ethical, and even professional can differ from someone else’s.

There is no tradition of military resignation in the United States, no precedent – and for good reason. Even the hint of resignation would encourage civilians to choose officers more for compliance and loyalty than for competence, experience, intelligence, candor, moral courage, professionalism, integrity, and character.

The fact is that the president and the secretary of defense have the authority and the right to reject or ignore military advice whenever they wish. That is the law, in accordance with the Constitution and consistent with U.S. historical practice. Even if Desch does not understand or accept that, the military does – and so, too, do the American people.




Like Lawrence Korb, I deplore how the Bush administration has cynically used military professionals to advance its political agenda.

The most egregious example of this is how after years of ignoring military advice it did not like, the administration now deflects calls from members of Congress to reduce troops in Iraq with the pious injunction that Washington ought not substitute “the opinions of politicians for the judgments of our military commanders,” as President Bush put it after vetoing Congress’ Iraq spending bill.

I am not sure, however, that I share Korb’s assessments of Generals Petraeus and Pace. I will withhold judgment of Petraeus’ independence and candor until mid-September, when he delivers his report to Congress on the situation in Iraq. Unlike Korb, I do not think that Pace was denied a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs simply because his role in the Iraq war would have made his confirmation hearings contentious.

I believe Pace’s inappropriate public statements on nonmilitary issues – his condemnation of homosexuality and his support for clemency for Lewis “Scooter” Libby – also played a role in the decision.

The most important issue Mackubin Thomas Owens raises concerns the respective roles of military and civilian leaders in wartime decision-making. The best system is one that allows for substantial military autonomy in the military, technical, and tactical realms (how to fight wars) in return for complete subordination to civilian authority in the political realm (when and if to fight them).

Admittedly, this approach is not perfect, but, like Samuel Huntington, I believe that it strikes the best possible balance between military effectiveness and civilian control. It is also consistent with Clausewitz‘s dictum that war has “a grammar of its own, but its logic is not peculiar to itself.” Civilians should have the final say, in Clausewitz’s view, not because they have any greater expertise than military officers in the narrow military realm (the grammar of war) but because the political rationale for war (its logic) should be paramount in guiding state policy.

This important distinction highlights just how radical a departure the Bush administration’s approach to civilian control has been. That approach, which Owens endorses, is that civilians are more competent than military professionals not only in the larger political sphere (a point on which we all agree) but also in the narrower military realm. This latter argument defies common sense: professionals by definition have greater expertise in their particular fields than do those who deal with them in only part of their careers and then only episodically, as is the case for most senior civilian leaders in regard to the military.

There is not much evidence supporting the proposition that civilians make superior decisions in the narrow military realm than do military professionals. The single study that Owens cites – Cohen’s Supreme Command – is flawed. Rather than looking at all the instances in which civilians “probed” into the military realm, Cohen chooses only a handful of cases, and only ones in which civilians did so successfully.

And even among the handful of cases Cohen examines, the record of civilian strategists is mixed. Winston Churchill, whatever his heroic political leadership during World War II, pushed more than his share of harebrained military schemes that resulted in disaster (Gallipoli in World War I and Norway early in World War II) or would have had they been implemented (landings in the Balkans instead of western Europe).

General Richard Myers offers his “direct knowledge and personal experience” as reasons to accept his and Richard Kohn’s remarkable claim that the intense civil-military “friction and distrust” in the run-up to the Iraq war was normal. Of course, throughout his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Myers was a good team player for the Bush administration and put the best face on the increasingly bad situation in Iraq. If he thought that the war was going swimmingly, it is not surprising that he also thought that all was as it should be in civil-military relations.

The first evidence that civil-military relations were broken was the torrent of leaks that came out in the run-up to the war from senior officers within the planning process who were unhappy with Rumsfeld’s numerous interventions into the details of the operation. At the time, Myers dismissed these stories as untrue and attacked the critics as unpatriotic. Subsequently, six retired generals who were intimately involved in either the Washington or the Iraqi side of the war’s planning and execution issued calls for Rumsfeld’s removal on the grounds that his meddling had crippled U.S. efforts.

Perhaps Kohn can think of instances when U.S. civil-military relations have been worse over his 45-year career studying the subject, but I cannot, save perhaps for the later phases of the Vietnam War. And even if that period is comparable to the situation under Rumsfeld, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of the state of U.S. civil-military relations.

Myers and Kohn criticize my claim that professional military judgment was ignored on the matters of troop levels and deployment timing. Newbold, the former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admits he should have spoken out sooner. But others did speak out before the war, including Shinseki. Myers and Kohn claim that Shinseki never offered advice on the matter of troop levels to the rest of the Joint Chiefs or to the president. But in his much-discussed congressional testimony in February 2003, Shinseki suggested that “several hundreds of thousands” might be needed to occupy Iraq, even if he ultimately deferred to General Franks’ judgment.

And in their book Cobra II, Michael Gordon and Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor report that at a White House meeting on January 20, 2003, Shinseki raised a number of issues, including troop numbers and the timing of their deployment, as qualifications of his endorsement of the war plan.

If taken at face value, Myers and Kohn’s assertion that “in the end, all involved supported the final plan” is a damning indictment of the competence of the senior military leadership, including Myers himself, who assures us he had Rumsfeld’s ear. I see it, instead, as an indication that after enough time and pressure, generals will eventually give their civilian bosses the answers they want.

Otherwise, as the Shinseki affair so clearly demonstrated, other generals will be found to replace them. Although Myers and Kohn concede that Wolfowitz’s public humiliation of Shinseki “was not conducive to proper civil-military relations,” they understate the chilling effect this incident had on other senior officers who dissented from Rumsfeld’s policies. The fact that Rumsfeld and his team were, through a year and a half of “probing and questioning” (which Myers and Kohn concede the combatant commander found “distasteful”), able to whittle the final troop number to less than half of the 380,000 the original war plans called for does not alter the fact that civilian views on force levels prevailed over the military consensus – with disastrous results after the fall of Baghdad.

Kohn has chided me for years about my reading of McMaster’s influential Dereliction of Duty, a misreading that according to him and to Owens, many military officers have made as well. But in defense of his interpretation of McMaster’s argument as simply a plea that senior military leaders speak candidly, Kohn cites not the book itself but rather his own authority as McMaster’s thesis adviser.

I read McMaster’s message as being that unqualified allegiance to the commander in chief needs to be rethought, based on a number of vignettes he presents involving senior military leaders who went, or should have gone, well beyond offering candid advice. Telling is McMaster’s account of Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson’s despair when he realized that he “was to preside over the disintegration of the Army” because “he did not resign, resist, or object to the president’s decision.”

Today, the turmoil inside the U.S. Army is so great that many junior officers reportedly believe – and one, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, has publicly charged – that the general officer corps is guilty of a similar dereliction of duty for going along with policies foisted on the military by intrusive civilian leaders. If one reader misconstrues an author’s argument, the reader is probably at fault. When numerous readers all come to the same erroneous conclusion, the author was probably just not clear.

Finally, Myers and Kohn warn that my policy recommendations are “dangerous.” My suggested civil-military division of labor implies, they charge, “automatic consent” to military preferences. And they claim that my suggestion that senior generals who protested Rumsfeld’s Iraq policies would have been more effective had they resigned while on active duty undermines civilian control. In fact, I do not argue that civilian leaders should rubber-stamp military policies, even in the tactical or operational realms, so this charge is a red herring. The problem with civilian meddling in the run-up to the Iraq war was not that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz overruled the senior army leadership on the number of troops necessary for “Phase IV,” or reconstruction, but that they did so claiming superior military expertise, rather than offering a compelling political reason for ignoring these military recommendations.

I suspect that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had political reasons for reducing the size of the force – public support for the war would likely have been less if it could not have been sold as a “cakewalk” – but they were unwilling to subject their reasoning to critical scrutiny and wanted to confine the debate to the more esoteric realm of military strategy, on which most of the public was unlikely to challenge them.

Their second charge is based on the questionable assumption that the fear of senior officers’ requesting retirement or relief of duty in protest against policies they found objectionable would lead civilians to appoint senior officers based on “compliance and loyalty.” Myers and Kohn cannot seriously maintain that during the golden age when protest was rare, senior officers were never appointed for their pliability. Moreover, it does not follow logically that such behavior would undermine civilian control. Indeed, by raising the bar for military dissent, it would make it more likely that serving officers would “salute and obey” in response to orders with which they disagreed in all save the most extreme circumstances.

Myers and Kohn conclude that “what is necessary for effective policy, good decisions, and positive outcomes is a relationship of respect, candor, collaboration, cooperation — and subordination.” It is hard to characterize our Iraq policy in such positive terms. The civil-military relationship under Rumsfeld lacked respect, candor, collaboration, and cooperation. If the best we can say is that the U.S. military did not become openly insubordinate, that is damning with faint praise.

Reprinted with kindly permission of The Council on Foreign Relations.


One Response to Bush and the Generals

  1. Ken Larson says:

    I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak. I believed another Vietnam could be avoided with defined missions and the best armaments in the world.

    It made no difference.

    We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read how this happens please see:


    Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous.

    There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.

    The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

    So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

    This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

    The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.

    For more details see:


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