Courtesy Reuters

Calling the Shots: Should Politicians or Generals Run Our Wars?

In This Review

Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime

By Eliot A. Cohen
Free Press, 2002
288 pp. $25.00
Purchase

What qualities should we look for in our political leaders in a time of war? The standard answer these days is that they must be able to set precise objectives for the military to meet and then resist any inclination to meddle as the military meets them. They must also sustain popular support and international understanding without revising war aims or interfering in the conduct of operations, for the only thing worse than mission creep is micromanagement.

It is no surprise to find that military organizations, at least, take this position. The supposed spinelessness and ineptitude of politicians is often one of the few things about which military officers can agree. Coping with a resolute and wily enemy is difficult enough without having to deal with pesky and often amateurish civilians on one's own side, especially now that modern communications have made it possible for politicians to keep in touch with soldiers on the battlefield. Vietnam is usually cited as the prime example

of what happens when these rules are disobeyed. In that war, civilians, it is claimed, imposed intrusive restraints on military operations in the name of dubious theories of controlled escalation, and the result was a debacle.

So accepted has this new conventional wisdom become, however, that now even politicians themselves are intimidated by it. Thus President George H.W. Bush, writing after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, noted his determination to give Colin Powell, the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "the freedom of action to do the job once the political decision had been made. I would avoid micromanaging the military." The reason? Bush "did not want to repeat the problems of the Vietnam War (or numerous wars throughout history), where the political leadership meddled with military operations."

The ill-fated interventions in Beirut in 1983-84 and in Somalia a decade later are also often held up as object lessons, with politicians blamed in both cases for becoming too ambitious and carelessly shifting objectives mid-mission, causing the

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