U.S. General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal speaks during a session called "Lessons in Leadership" at the Wall Street Journal's CEO Council meeting in Washington December 2, 2014.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

U.S. Commander Stanley McChrystal's very public participation in the Obama administration's internal debate about its Afghanistan strategy has highlighted the continuing challenges to civil-military relations that I wrote about in Foreign Affairs two years ago ("Bush and the Generals," May/June 2007).

McChrystal first waded into the strategy debate with his leaked assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, which concluded that the United States should shift its strategy to population security and dedicate more resources and up to 40,000 additional troops to the war. Days later, he revealed that he had spoken to the president only once since his appointment as commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and, in an address in London, went on to dismiss as "short-sighted" Vice President Joe Biden's preferred strategy of cutting U.S. losses and prosecuting the campaign using Predator and cruise-missile strikes.

Needless to say, senior Obama administration officials were not pleased. Obama's national security adviser, General James Jones, told CNN a few days later that it is "better for military advice to come up the chain of command." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reinforced this message in a speech
two days after that by saying, "It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations -- civilians and military alike -- provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately."

No one disputes McChrystal's right, indeed obligation, to provide the president with his candid assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and his frank advice on how to proceed. The issue is the public manner in which he did so. For his part, McChrystal maintained that his comments were simply intended to foster a healthier policy debate, and he promised to execute whatever policy the administration chose.

McChrystal's defenders argue that he did nothing different than former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who suggested in 2003 that the Bush administration's proposed force levels for the invasion of Iraq were too low. But there are important differences between Shinseki's and McChrystal's approaches. Shinseki registered his concerns about the Bush administration's Iraq strategy after having made the case privately. When he did make his reservations known, it was as sworn testimony during a congressional hearing. And rather than trying to shape policy, Shinseki was weighing in on the logistics of a policy that the administration had already chosen.

Moreover, Shinseki's concerns quickly proved prescient. The brief euphoria that followed Iraq's liberation from Saddam Hussein's tyranny quickly dissolved into disorder, and then into all-out ethnic civil war, precisely because there were insufficient numbers of troops to maintain Iraq's fragile post-conflict stability. But for his part, Shinseki quietly endured the humiliation of being publicly corrected and replaced early as the army chief of staff. Meanwhile, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's continued mismanagement of Iraq prompted six recently retired generals to make the unprecedented call for his replacement in the midst of the war.

As this history shows, civil-military rifts are not new. And as I argued in 2007, the approach to civil-military relations that Samuel Huntington called "objective civilian control" holds the most promise for overcoming tension between the generals and civilians. It argues that military leaders should be given wide latitude in the technical and operational realms of war in return for their complete subordination to civilian control of politics and grand strategy. This approach fosters military effectiveness while keeping the strategic decision of if and when to go to war in the hands of elected officials.

According to objective control, McChrystal was clearly in the wrong when he inserted himself into the public strategy debate. But his case also illustrates some real limitations to that approach to civilian oversight. In politico-military operations such as counterinsurgency, there is no sharp, bright line between the political and military realms but rather a vast gray area. The United States' commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan, for example, includes decisions that are at once military and political. Indeed, irregular warfare -- whether counterinsurgency in Vietnam in the 1960s or peacekeeping in the Balkans in the 1990s -- has historically been a source of civil-military friction precisely because it blurs that boundary.

Second, objective control is vague on how legitimate military dissent should be handled. McChrystal may be absolutely convinced that any strategy other than his own would lead to a huge risk of a resurgent al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But even if he were convinced of the need to dissent, he should have conveyed his advice privately rather than violate the chain of command by going public.

Had McChrystal handled his protest privately, and had the administration still ignored or disregarded his advice, he would have faced the same choice as the generals of the Bush administration and those before them: saluting and obeying or resigning in protest. In most cases, senior military officers will choose the former, but either course of action would have upheld the principle of civilian control better than McChrystal's public campaign to preordain the Obama administration's Afghan policy.

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  • MICHAEL C. DESCH is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.
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