Commander in Chief: Yes He Is

It has long been lamented that national security no longer stops at the water's edge. This expression derives from a Cold War consensus that pitted democratic capitalism against communism. It bound elected leaders and most of the American public together in a common cause. It disappeared in 1991, and has yet to be replaced by a compelling new framework. Simplicity is no easy task in a world of blurred boundaries and rapid communication. Lacking clarity, "security" has become vulnerable to fear profiteers who depend on an "us versus them" mindset. A glance through recent attacks against President Obama for exercising his commander-in-chief prerogative bears proof: Today, national security doesn't even stop at the gutter's edge.

It's like a bad dream "Groundhog Day" repeat: the Cheneys, Frank Gaffney, Bill Kristol, Karl Rove. They have been all over the place lately, criticizing President Obama's decision making style, even starting a new organization to carry the cudgel, (get the critical scoop on it at National Security Network). They are suggesting that he doesn't respect the military, is too deferential, lacks resolve.

The biggest jaw-bender, however, is that he's taking too much time to review our policy in Afghanistan. WHAT?!! This from the very same people who scorned in-depth analysis in 2003--during the run up to the Iraq war. In fact, back then they ignored military advice. I remember the last briefing I went to in 2003, just before the US invasion. It was with Army strategists--who laid out 140 tasks that were obligations for any occupying nation. Ignored. Like the rest of the credible information that was based on experience and reflection. I don't think I'm alone in believing that a roomful of toddlers with a typewriter could have written better memos in 2003 than this same gang of hectoring neoconservatives.

Today, America has a commander-in-chief who shows respect for the military by understanding the accurate division of labor in security policy. He and his team (and an increasing number of voices on Capitol Hill) know that, in today's world, security problems are beyond the purview of the military acting alone. Afghanistan is emblematic of this new situation. The worst thing the neocons can do to the military is to ignore the message being sent about the dramatic shifts on the ground--and the full complement of resources needed. Or by framing our challenge and our major commitment to that country in military terms alone. Conservatives need to stop picking a bogus fight between General McChrystal and the Administration over troop levels. Troops are just one of many possible contributions. And any troops sent must fit into a comprehensive strategy.

Important context: Keep in mind that--lacking capacity in our other agencies--the Pentagon has by default become the institutional memory of American post Cold War foreign policy. General McChrystal is part of a generation of officers whose understanding of security is both broad and deep. If his comments in London touched a nerve, it is a sign of a much bigger American civics issue about how to inform and educate ourselves in today's world, and who we are equipping to be the messengers of change. The bright-lines of military participation in public policy discussions have blurred because it is the institution disproportionately burdened with this task today. It happens that the Army and Marines have some pretty compelling knowledge and lessons. Evening out this responsibility is a vital longterm task for all Americans.

It still kills me that so many neoconservatives claim to value the military, yet demonstrate so few military values. Like: looking after the general welfare, shared risk, sacrifice for common goals and longterm planning. And here's the kicker: public service. Here are some other reminders of how progressive the military can be:

  • International human rights law: U.S. military lawyers have been human rights champions for Guantánamo prisoners and for the Geneva Conventions.
  • International treaties: The U.S. Navy is one of the strongest advocates for the Law of the Sea.
  • Nuclear arms control: The military generally finds nuclear weapons unusable.
  • Conflict resolution: The Air Force has a prize-winning office of dispute resolution.
  • Renewable energy: The U.S. military is the largest renewable consumer in the country.
  • AIDS prevention: The Defense Department has an extensive program to help foreign militaries.

The American military's changing worldview has resulted in identity conflicts within the institution. This tension will likely continue until younger generations move into leadership and bring with them very different notions of national security. This should be encouraged as much as possible. It should also involve all of us.

The idea that power comes not from dominance, but from the ability to influence change, is a lesson learned from recent experience. Contrast the tea-drinking and negotiating experience of Afghanistan with the linear, engineering mindset of the Cold War--where a rigid worldview fit nicely with hardware-heavy solutions. Low-tech is our future. Afghanistan is the test. Finally, we have a President who hears what the military has been saying for nearly twenty years now: Security is about people.