Lessons in Gates memoir on civilian-military ties

The tell-all book by former defense chief Robert Gates reveals how President Obama dealt with a military he distrusted. Other nations, such as Egypt, need such lessons in civilian rule.

Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledges applause as President Barack Obama and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (obscured) participate in Gates' farewell ceremony at the Pentagon in 2011.

A new memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates helps illuminate the difficulty a democracy and its military have in keeping the peace – with each other. According to his book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” President Obama was at times suspicious of his top generals, believing they sought to limit his options in Afghanistan.

Despite a long history of civilian rule over the military, the United States still grapples with maintaining trust between elected leaders and the top brass – and resolving the values that each brings to their respective roles in safeguarding the country.

Mr. Obama now stands in good company. Many US presidents have had to deal with military defiance. Lincoln had his McLellan to fire and Truman his MacArthur. In 2010, Obama let go Gen. Stanley McChrystal over published complaints that seemed to criticize the president. George W. Bush clashed with an Army general over troop levels in Iraq. Bill Clinton faced military opposition to his intervention in Bosnia.

These cases of the US resolving civilian-military tensions serve as lessons for other nations still dealing with a military hand in government. They give the US credibility in nudging nations away from “rule by gun” to “rule by ballot.”

A good candidate for US influence right now is in Egypt. After ousting an elected government last July, the top military officer, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, hints he may run for president under a proposed constitution written to favor the Army. Despite a desire for order among Egyptians, Sisi needs to understand that the Army must have a plan to return to the barracks, not govern the country.

In Myanmar (Burma), the US did play a role in that country’s recent move away from military rule toward elected government. But such a move remains tentative and uncertain. The Army’s power still lurks in the shadows. In nearby Thailand, political turmoil against an elected government has the US and others warning against a military overthrow, as has happened too often in the past.

Perhaps the most difficult case for the US is in Pakistan, whose military often pushes elected leaders around. The US relies on the military there in the struggle against terrorists, which may be a factor in how much Washington supports the country’s shaky democracy. Even now, Pakistan finds it difficult to put former Army chief Pervez Musharraf on trial for treason for imposing emergency rule in 2007.

Sometimes a military intervenes to create a democracy, as happened in the Philippines in 1986. Even in such cases, officers find it hard not to see themselves as democratic tutors, lingering on the sidelines to influence the course of events.

Why do military-civilian tensions persist? One reason is that a democracy relies on the value of individual self-governance, expressed through democratic ideals, while soldiers are trained in selfless discipline and the hierarchy of command. When an Army sees a society in political chaos, its pride in knowing how to keep order can lead it to believe it can control civilians.

The late scholar Samuel Huntington referred to this as “a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon.” His solution: The military must maintain high levels of professionalism in military matters, leaving questions about the morality of war or the ideals of governance to civilians.

Much of the Gates book is controversial, such as the timing of a memoir by someone who has worked for a sitting president. But by revealing how a president and the military had to come to grips with each other, the book does a service for the US, and perhaps the world.

[Editor's note: An earlier version had the incorrect month for the government overthrow in Egypt.]

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