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At Pentagon, a delicate civilian-military balance

Behind calls for Rumsfeld's resignation are issues about who does what - a distrust going back to Vietnam.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 2006



WASHINGTON

In their denouncements of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, seven retired generals have directed their criticism mostly toward his handling of the Iraq war.

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In some respects, however, the issue goes much deeper.

It is a matter of the military's distrust of its civilian decisionmakers, which emerged in Vietnam and has never fully dissipated. It is concern over an administration that has sought not only to ramrod major changes through the military, but also - some say - to micromanage battlefield tactics.

Iraq has lit the fuse, as those who dislike the style and substance of Mr. Rumsfeld's tenure point to the war as a failure of his policy. But a deeper concern is that Iraq is worsening the delicate relationship between the military and its civilian leaders.

It is highly unusual for retired or active officers to openly question their leaders. At stake, experts say, is the effectiveness of a primary constitutional tenet: civilian control of the military.

"[The criticism] does undermine civilian control," says Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "It is an attempt to change policy - to go over the heads of the civilian leaders to the president."

Principles from the nation's founding

The framers of the Constitution believed that the military could be held in check and serve the needs of the nation only if it were guided and governed by civilians. When lawmakers created the Defense Department in 1947, the same principles applied: It is run by both civilian secretaries and military officers, but the civilians always have the final word.

Traditionally, the military has embraced this role. It has advised the civilian leadership and carried out orders. Under this arrangement, it would leave the policy decisions to the civilians, and the civilians would leave the on-the-ground tactical decisions to the officers.

Recent weeks have offered an example of when this order has broken down publicly. But other examples are rare. Most famously, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was relieved of his duties in 1951 for criticizing President Truman's cold-war strategies.

Even today, the fact that a vast number of generals have stayed silent about this shows that public criticism remains the exception, says Professor Kohn. One reason: "Do the American people really want the secretary of Defense and the president accountable to the Army?"

Yet the relationship between military officers and their civilian leadership at the Pentagon has clearly evolved during the past few decades.

"This has been a trend ever since the Vietnam War," says Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

In Vietnam, many officers felt betrayed by the civilian leadership. As a result, "the officer corps is very wary of civilian leaders' willingness to embed the military in unwinnable wars, and then to leave them holding the bag," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who is now a professor at Boston University.

By that reckoning, the retired generals are trying to strike first, laying blame for Iraq at the doorstep of the civilian leadership, not the military brass.

Indeed, to some, this administration has changed the traditional bargain: Not only has it laid out an ambitious policy for the military, they say, but it has made a practice of shaping the tactical decisions that were once the province of the military.

The most obvious example, say critics, is the insistence that America go to war in Iraq with a small, quick force, rather than a large, occupying force. "It wasn't a debate just about going to war, it was a debate about operational issues," says Michael Desch, a military analyst at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Defense this week for Rumsfeld

Many Pentagon leaders, both civilian and military, say that all decisions were properly vetted through military channels. Over the weekend, the Pentagon took the unusual step of releasing a memo that states that Rumsfeld has met with the most senior Pentagon officers 139 times since 2005.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - the military's highest- ranking officer - stressed that the decisionmaking process under Rumsfeld is collaborative. "There are multiple opportunities for all of us, whatever opinions we have, to put them on the table," said Gen. Peter Pace in a briefing. "And all the opinions are put on the table."

But even Rumsfeld acknowledged that his policies and personality have stirred up resentment - especially in a military that was largely allowed to set its own policy during the Clinton years. He came into office intent on proving that the force of the future was one that needed fewer people, but could be just as powerful through technology.

"There's a lot of change going on. It's challenging for people, it's difficult for people," he said at the same briefing. "We have to, I think, be reasonably tolerant with respect to things that get said."

In this sense, it is nothing less than a fight for the future of the military, and some resent Rumsfeld for his ideas as well as his hardheadedness. "He came in from Day 1 ready to challenge the military on some pretty core issues," says Professor Desch. "There were a lot of toes that were stepped on."

Yet the willingness to speak out publicly, no matter the merits or demerits of the case, is a worrisome trend, say analysts. "It poisons the civilian-military relationship," says Kohn. "If the military and the civilians aren't talking to each other, you get much worse decisions."

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