Militarization and the Implications of Eisenhower’s Prescience

Cross-posted at The Agitator.

This article titled “The Slow Motion Coup: Militarization and the Implications of Eisenhower’s Prescience” is certainly one of the most important articles I’ve read all year; the author is William J. Olsen, Chairman of the Department of Strategic Studies at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University:

President Eisenhower made these observations on the eve of leaving office in 1961.  Close on fifty years ago he warned of the dangers to America—heart, body, and soul—of a threat from the militarization of US social, economic, and political life.  Little heeded, the concern he raised then has had two generations to work its work ever more surely than he foresaw.  The consequence today is the militarization of our foreign policy and the dominance of the military in planning and implementing broad areas of domestic policy as well.  It is, in effect, a slow motion coup in which increasingly military officers and military counsel dominates strategic thinking and significant parts of the political agenda, in a reversal of Clausewitz’s dictum that war is an extension of politics.  Unlike most military coup d’etat, however, this is not the result of a small cabal of military officers plotting, ala Seven Days in May, to seize the government in a bold, overnight military take over.  Instead, it has been years in the making and is the result of contributions from a broad spectrum of politicians, businessmen, think tanks and lobbyists, a complacent public, and the military responding to real and genuine threats to national survival for over 70 years.  This is not a story, yet, of sinister conspirators.  The question is, is there any way to undo what is done and walk back from a situation that so concerned Eisenhower for the fate of the country he served so long and so well.

The rest of the article is hard to excerpt, but:

There is no shortage of advice, but advice will not help in this situation…

Take just one simple question: Does the United States need a military establishment as large as it now has?  Two simple answers: yes, which is the default position that will be pushed by those with a stake—and they are legion—in the answer; and no, which is the subject matter for an intense and excruciating soul searching that goes all the way down leaving nothing untouched.  But, on what criteria would an answer be based?  Interest in the outcome or concern by itself are not adequate.  And how does one establish any sort of consensus on the necessary criteria?  Or establish convincingly that any analysis arriving at the criteria is not self-interested, biased, or partisan?  And who is the best source to bring such an issue to the table?  There is no shortage of opinion.  But where does wisdom lie?  And how to know it?  It is a simple question.  There are no easy answers.  To ask it is only the beginning.

To take one example.  If ‘small wars’ are the most likely circumstance for the future of conflict, these, of necessity, require ‘small’ responses.  Not just an appropriate force structure but a support establishment short of the scale and scope of the current Department of Defense with all its rococo embellishments.  There is a need for specialized, scaled components specific to the need and not large, general purpose forces.  But if this is the case, then promotion opportunities, justifications for large, regular military formations and the resources necessary are likely to follow the requirements of a much reduced overall force structure.  The system as outlined above, however, is not only not geared to such a need but is designed to resist any effort to reduce the current establishment or to accept missions that suggest such a course.  This is one reason why China is increasingly seen as a military threat.  It putatively offers a threat of a ‘regular’ sort on a scale to justify a large force structure, which, according to the argument, is then more than capable of dealing with ‘lesser’ threats.  Whether this is strategically valid is less a consideration.  And the shift is itself not part of a politically considered strategy but a process driven by the military and its imperatives that now drives the process.

The current military establishment rejects the logic of small responses expect as ‘other duties as assigned’.  Such a mentality, which pervades military leadership, leads to an insistence on wars that will employ large, regular forces or turning lesser circumstances into those wars it is equipped to fight, creating a capability-requirement mismatch.  Thus, for example, although the United States was engaged in Iraq for almost ten years, the military that the US took to war was only trained and equipped for the first eight weeks of the ten years.

Or another simple question: Why do we have Combatant Commanders?  This is a model drawn from WWII, made formal and deeply rooted as the result of the Cold War.  Both are over.  Why does the establishment linger?  And if we are to have a pro-consul per region, why a military officer?  Why not a senior civilian with a military adviser?

Despite the comment above on commissions, there is one commissioner that needs to engage to follow up on the dialogue that President Eisenhower began.  To echo Cohen’s argument, that commissioner is the President, now and all his colleagues as former presidents.  The immediate demands of the office generally overwhelm the ability of presidents to deal in grand issues, which is one reason why Eisenhower made his observations at the end of his tenure.  It needs to begin the tenure and sustain itself through successive presidents, regardless of party.  It needs presidents to engage members of Congress in the discussion.  It needs leadership and patience and a serious, sustained dialogue with the public.

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