"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 9, 2016

Too Many Generals In The Trump Administration? We Need More Not Fewer

Military rule has always been problematic.   It is by nature autocratic, and its autocracy always leads to abuse and arrogation of power.  Yet military rule can be an important, if temporary, solution to governance when civilian rule fails.  Pakistan, notorious for its succession of corrupt civilian administrations has periodically turned to the military to restore order, discipline, and a measure of limited authoritarian rule.  

The military in Egypt, despite Western exceptionalism and insistence on popular democracy, has been instrumental in inhibiting Islamic radicalism and maintaining civil order. 

In many countries the military has been the most efficient agency with which to institute social programs.  In Central America, for example, international agencies recruited to assist in improving public health, often turned first to military hospitals, clinics, and dispensaries to implement programs to fight HIV/AIDS.   Once the military authorities understood the threat of the disease and how it could debilitate its fighting forces, they applied all their hierarchical authority, command and obedience, and efficient administrative structure to carry out prevention programs.

Extended military rule – as contrasted to temporary authority and/or participation in programs of national interest – has always been problematic. South America, known for its long history of military governments starting with Bolivar, is an example of how governments have opted for discipline and authoritarian order over the messiness of democracy, and have paid the price.  The military is as subject to arrogation of power, corruption, and misrule as civilian institutions, and democracy has always been a countervailing force to such misrule.

The military will always lobby for more power, influence, and resources; and will exaggerate the threat to national security in order to secure them.  A professional soldier corps, organized, trained, and managed to fight and kill the enemy can never be satisfied with peace and harmony; and as such poses its own threat to world order.

It is normal, therefore, for politicians to be chary about military officers – active or retired – in civilian government.   Once a soldier, always a soldier, the politicians protest; and soldiers will always look to military solutions in the most civilian of contexts.  Not only that, dissenters claim, but that retired generals can never be free from the culture and ethos of authority, command, and absolute discipline  learned in the military.  Civilian democratic governance requires debate and compromise and the challenge of authority as a necessary instrument of participatory rule.

Yet these politicians and their constituents by focusing exclusively on militarism overlook the importance of military virtues – strength, courage, camaraderie, discipline, order, respect, duty, and patriotism.

Looking at the recent presidential campaign and American electoral politics in general, many observers have suggested that focus is wrongly placed on image, cachet, allure, and artfully-crafted policy.  Americans should assess candidates on their honesty, rectitude, principle, and moral judgment.  An intelligent man or woman operating from a strong moral and ethical center would at least guarantee a modicum of correctness in government.  Regardless of the successes and failures of their administrations, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were saluted as men of moral principle.
Reagan challenged the Soviet Union not because it was just in America’s geopolitical interest, but that Soviet communism was wrong.  His fight for small government was not simply an anti-bureaucratic distaste, but a belief in individual enterprise and the spiritual value of freedom.

Jimmy Carter’s compassion and religious faith were obvious, and no one – especially Carter – ever denied that his particular moral rectitude and principled moral philosophy guided his political decisions.

In his own way George H.W. Bush was cut from the same principled mold.  A man of inherited wealth and privilege, noblesse oblige was a duty.  Bush served his country as combat aviator in WWII, served in Congress and dutifully and responsibly carried out the responsibilities of high office – Director of the CIA, Ambassador, Vice-President, and President.  He had his many critics, but few could argue with his honesty and sense of duty.

While service in the high ranks of the military does not automatically confer such moral vision, it helps.  No military officer who has commanded troops in battle will eagerly send young men to probable if not certain death.  While good officers will always follow the orders of the President and his civilian advisers, they object to political policies which cause unnecessary casualties, protract war when it can be won quickly, and mandate battlefield approaches designed in Washington.   In other words, wars are for winning quickly and decisively.  If they cannot be, then they should not be fought.

What better candidate to run a key government department than a former general who, by dint of his training, character, and experience is committed to following the orders of his superiors, carrying them out efficiently and expeditiously, assuring cohesion and discipline among his employees, and commanding respect from them?

As importantly military officers understand the nature of large institutions and how they must be managed for efficiency and purposeful focus.  Commanding thousands or tens of thousands of men and women deployed in an array of technical and operational disciplines all interrelated and depending on universal efficiency and coordination, requires consummate management skill.

Therefore if a member of a presidential cabinet has these attributes – a sense of discipline, order, respect, and purpose -  is motivated by patriotism and moral rectitude; and understands the intricacies of managing large public institutions, why shouldn’t he serve as a high-ranking official of civilian government?

Of course such former generals can become befuddled, frustrated, angry, and undisciplined when faced with a venal and self-serving Congress, a brutally partisan political opposition, and the infighting that always and inevitably occurs within presidential administrations.   A man who has always given orders and seen them followed may not take lightly to even loyal opposition; and might turn vindictive and hostile.   The very strengths that make good military leaders may be their undoing in civilian rule.

Othello was one of the greatest generals Venice had ever seen – a battlefield leader, a strategic genius, and a man who commanded the loyalty and respect of his troops and his civilian masters.  Yet the very traits that made him such a consummate general betrayed him at home.  He was so used to battlefield loyalty that he never learned to read the more complex motivations of men left to their own devices.  While Iago might have been an ideal lieutenant in wartime, he was anything but in Venice.  Othello had never learned to look for ulterior motives, malicious intent, or murderous plotting; and as such was vulnerable to Iago’s evil.  In fact Othello knew nothing about women either and missed completely Desdemona’s independence, sexuality, and will.

Yet these are no reasons to reject a former general for high government office.  Particularly in a country which in many ways has lost its collective moral bearings and has drifted far from the principles espoused by Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and their colleagues, choosing someone who at least in principle should embody them makes perfect sense.

Cato the Elder developed a curriculum for the future military and civilian leaders of Ancient Rome.  In addition to the more practical aspects of governance, Cato included the teaching of moral principles – courage, duty, respect, honesty, and compassion – for he understood that no civilization had survived without the incorporation of these principles in its leadership. 

If there is any institution which has continued to respect and incorporate these principles, it is the military. 

This is not to say that militaries have not abandoned these principles and have fallen into the same corrupt, irresponsible, and immoral ways of their civilian counterparts.  It is only to suggest that the ethos of military is still a good one in principle and one which has important applications to civilian life.

If a cabinet Secretary or Administrator has retained the principles learned and applied in the military, then his or her technical qualifications for the post are of lesser importance.  Smart people learn quickly and delegate efficiently; and former military officers know how to delegate and to retain authority and discipline.  They will be loyal to the President and loyal to their Departmental troops.

It is worth a try.

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