Who Controls the Civilians?
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
General Lloyd Austin, the outgoing head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recently testified before Congress, suggesting that Washington needed to up its troop levels in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, in his own congressional testimony, still-to-be-confirmed incoming CENTCOM chief General Joseph Votel, formerly head of U.S. Special Operations Command, seconded that recommendation and said he would reevaluate the American stance across the Greater Middle East with an eye, as the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman put it, to launching "a more aggressive fight against the Islamic State." In this light, both generals called for reviving a dismally failed $500 million program to train "moderate" Syrian rebels to support the U.S. fight against the Islamic State (IS). They both swear, of course, that they'll do it differently this time, and what could possibly go wrong?
Meanwhile, General David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), pressed by Senator John McCain in congressional testimony, called on the U.S. to "do more" to deal with IS supporters in Libya. And lo and behold, the New York Times reported that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had only recently presented an AFRICOM and Joint Special Operations Command plan to the president's "top national security advisers." They were evidently "surprised" to discover that it involved potentially wide-ranging air strikes against 30 to 40 IS targets across that country. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan -- U.S. Special Operations units and regular troops having recently been rushed once again into embattled Helmand Province in the heartland of that country's opium poppy trade -- General Austen and others are calling for a reconsideration of future American drawdowns and possibly the dispatch of more troops to that country.
Do you sense a trend here? In the war against the Islamic State, the Obama administration and the Pentagon have been engaged in the drip, drip, drip of what, in classic Vietnam terms, might be called "mission creep." They have been upping American troop levels a few hundred at a time in Iraq and Syria, along with air power, and loosing Special Operations forces in combat-like operations in both countries. Now, it looks like top military commanders are calling for mission speed-up across the region. (In Libya, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it already seems to have begun.)
And keep in mind, watching campaign 2016, that however militaristic the solutions of the Pentagon and our generals, they are regularly put in the shade by civilians, especially the Republican candidates for president, who can barely restrain their eagerness to let mission leap loose. As Donald Trump put it in the last Republican debate, calling for up to 30,000 U.S. boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, "I would listen to the generals." That might now be the refrain all American politicians are obliged to sing. Similarly, John Kasich called for a new "shock and awe" campaign in the Middle East to "wipe them out." And that's the way it's been in debate season -- including proposals to put boots on the ground big time from Libya and possibly even the Sinai peninsula to Afghanistan, bomb the region back to the stone age, and torture terror suspects in a fashion that would have embarrassed Stone Age peoples.
Put another way, almost 15 years after America's global war on terror was launched, we face a deeply embedded (and remarkably unsuccessful) American version of militarism and, as Gregory Foster writes today, a massive crisis in civil-military relations that is seldom recognized, no less discussed or debated. TomDispatch hopes to rectify that with a monumental post from a man who knows something about the realities of both the U.S. military and changing civilian relations to it. Foster, who teaches at National Defense University and is a decorated Vietnam veteran, suggests in "Pentagon Excess Has Fueled a Civil-Military Crisis" that it's time we finally ask: Whatever happened to old-fashioned civilian control over the U.S. military? Implicitly, he also asks a second question: These days, who controls the civilians?