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Afghanistan: Should Military Advice Be Secret?

Afghanistan: Should Military Advice Be Secret?

What should we make of the tidbits from an administration’s private war council deliberations that seep out into the public view? When a president is weighing the kind of decision Barack Obama will present tonight, how appropriate is it for senior military leaders to make their views publicly known? According to the principle of civilian control of the military — a cornerstone of our democratic system — the armed services execute the orders of the commander in chief, whatever those orders may be, and leave all the decisions in the hands of their duly elected masters.

At the same time, of course, the military leadership is supposed to feed into those decisions by providing their best advice. This is where the question arises regarding how private or public that advice should be. According to Kori Schake over at the Shadow Government blog of, it’s entirely appropriate for military views to be publicly aired, and the White House has misconstrued the issue:

What the White House wanted was the military to give their advice solely in private, minimizing the cost to the president’s for ignoring that advice. ¬†They wrongly equated a public debate in advance of the president setting policy as insubordination.

For my fellow Democracy Arsenal blogger Michael Cohen on the other hand, there is no constitutional basis or historical tradition for according the military any special consideration in debates over war policy. Whether or not I join in Michael’s “grade-A silliness” rating of Kori, I definitely see problems.
Going back to underlying principles, let’s parse the relationship between military advice and political decision. In our republic, the military is an instrument of state — fighting the nation’s wars when called upon to do so. Being ready to execute whatever mission the country might ask means standing apart from the political process that decides what those missions should be. The role of military advice is to feed into those decisions with professional judgments on the feasibility of different options, the actions and resources they would require, and the likely consequences.
This is a tricky enough task in itself, requiring a lot of discipline and agnosticism to remain an honest broker. These are highly complex matters, not precise engineering calculations. So with all this in mind, how does Kori’s depiction square with the purpose of civilian control of the military?

The U.S. military has wide latitude to influence national security policy in the making; only once the president and Congress establish policy and law must they salute or resign. Thirty five years into an all-volunteer force, when so few Americans have military experience, it is crucial not only to good policy but to public understanding that our military give their judgment to educate our judgment.


But it’s the president’s choice. That’s what he gets elected for. ¬†He does not, however, get to make his choices without having to explain why he disregarded military advice.

Does the line Kori draws make sense — i.e. between latitude for the military before versus after a decision has been reached? Is there really no tension between the military’s obligation to salute sharply post-decision and their freedom to exert “influence” while the question is still under discussion? And if we believe civilians are the proper authority to determine the military’s missions, then should the prevalence of Americans with military experience matter? After all, if this is a fundamental principle, why should that be a factor? And then, how is the idea of a presidential burden of proof on military advice not a big fat asterisk on civilian control? For that matter, given the obligation for the military to advise presidents on their options, shouldn’t most of their advice fall outside a binary choice of acceptance or rejection?
I know there are a lot of readers here with military service; I’ll be interested in your views on this question. But also those without.
White House photo: Pete Souza

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6:06PM PDT on Jun 24, 2011

How about signing the international agreement that only the big 3 baddies, the US, Russia & China refused to sign, where war criminals can be arrested and put on trial in the world court.
Then it won't matter if the war criminals keep it secret or not, they can be arrested by interpol and be held accountable for their crimes which are actually totally unrelated to 'national security'.
Check out' and wake up to the fact that the US is run by the most heinous callous mass murdering torturing scum on the face of the earth!

6:05PM PDT on Jun 24, 2011

Cohen is right, the Constitution designates the Commander-in-Chief. On the other hand, if the White House felt they were sensitive enough, the CIC could classify the briefings. Assange notwithstanding, there are some things which need to be classified even in a democracy.

Our chief executive deserves the broadest possible latitude when making decisions about troops in harm's way; that includes not only military but diplomatic, economic, and political multi-dimensional strategy, in operational confidence. What Clausewitz said about war and diplomacy has a reversible corollary.

On the other hand Kori supports the Defense Establishment for pushing back publicly, not so much at the President but at the political pressure on him for a bigger drawdown. How much of this is shadow-boxing to appease different bases we can only guess, but I think much of it is real. It's true as Cohen says that Presidents make their own decisions regardless of generals, but I'd like to point out it's also true Presidents have sometimes made disastrous decisions by not listening to their experts; e.g. Cuba and Vietnam-both of which started their revolutions wanting friendly relations with the U.S.

But many Presidents' decisions have been correct and courageous, and they are not answerable to the generals or diplomats they choose to ignore, I agree that's silly. They ARE answerable to we the people, and to the verdict of history.

-retired FSO

8:58PM PDT on Jun 23, 2011

Publicly funded, citizens die and decisions are private??

4:56PM PDT on Jun 23, 2011

I was a 97B from 1981-92. YES, a lot of stuff needs to stay classified until disclosure would bring no possible harm to our troops or those who work for us. We are getting out of Afghanistan slowly but surely, and building smaller bases in several bordering countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. These bases will be within striking distance (by drone or Special Ops teams) of all of Central Asia, so we should be able to deny terrorists any real foothold. Like it or not, we need to keep an eye on the involvement of China and Iran in this region.
We all want to bring our troops home, so let's put pressure on big corporations to create jobs for them to return to. Thousands of jobs! Either that, or a "New Deal" type jobs program ( from which corporations would benefit, by having good infrastructure to transport their goods on.)

11:25AM PDT on Jun 23, 2011

This kind of 'war' was never meant to be 'won' in the first place. It's just 'beat your head against the wall'.

11:24AM PDT on Jun 23, 2011

It's an interesting issue. If they can't speak, then should they be responsible for war crimes if they're "just following orders"?

10:12AM PDT on Jun 23, 2011

Yes, it should be kept secret. We tell the entire world what were going to do before we do it and exactly when were going to do it. No wonder we have a hard time accomplishing what we sent out to do in the first place.

5:19AM PDT on Jun 23, 2011

There is something to be said for supporting the U N Millennial Development Goals THROUGH the U N. We should not need to have out troops on the ground to act as body guards for Afghanistan civilians building infrastructure in Afghanistan.

3:36AM PDT on Jun 23, 2011

The Corbett Report: Al Qaeda Doesn't Exist

Pt. 1:
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4:06PM PDT on Jun 22, 2011

either way there will be some fallout. at some point this govt needs to be responsible for themselves. we have done enough..more than enough. if we keep fighting in these countries and spending everything on the war machine, it will suck america dry and there will be nothing but shit for those people to come home to.

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Colleen H. Colleen H. is an Online Campaigner with Care2 and a recent transplant to San Francisco from the East... more
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