Out of Order: Strengthening the Political-Military Relationship

Matthew Moten
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
September/October 2010
Council on Foreign Relations
In June, U.S. President Barack Obama acted swiftly and wisely in relieving General Stanley McChrystal of command of the war in Afghanistan. In removing McChrystal for making disparaging comments about civilian leaders in a Rolling Stone article, the president reasserted the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military. He also immediately appointed General David Petraeus as the new commanding general in Afghanistan, with the U.S. mission continuing as before. Republicans did not try to exploit the situation for political advantage. There was no crisis, no rending of the fabric of political-military relations, and no threat to the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the current state of relations between the United States' highest civilian and military leaders is quite good. This is a welcome change, and it began with the tenure of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who changed the climate at the Pentagon from one of suspicion to one of collaboration. Gates has established an atmosphere of trust and respect, combined with an unflinching demand for accountability. Although Donald Rumsfeld had a reputation for leading by fear and intimidation, in his six years as secretary of defense, he fired only one service secretary, Army Secretary Thomas White -- largely over personal differences -- and no flag officers (the hundreds of generals and admirals who compose the country's senior military leadership). In contrast, Gates has dismissed two service secretaries, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the air force chief of staff, the commanding admiral of Central Command, two commanding generals in Afghanistan, and the surgeon general of the army. Yet Gates and Obama have also shown forbearance. Last October, in the midst of the administration's review of the country's Afghanistan policy, McChrystal publicly warned of "mission failure" if a significant infusion of U.S. troops was not made. But instead of removing McChrystal, who had become commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan less than three months earlier, Gates and Obama gave McChrystal a clear message about his place in the political-military partnership. Obama had a private chat with the general on Air Force One, and Gates delivered a highly publicized speech in which he reminded his listeners that "it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations -- civilian and military alike -- provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately."
Political Geography
Afghanistan, United States