How Generals Should Talk to Presidents

In a recent speech in London, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top United States commander in Afghanistan, was blunt. Calling the military situation there “deteriorating,” he warned that the United States was going to have to “do things dramatically and even uncomfortably differently.” General McChrystal had already submitted a report, somehow leaked, requesting an additional 40,000 American troops. He acknowledged in his speech that in so speaking out while the issue was still under debate in the White House, he might have difficulties with his superiors.

Comparisons have been made between this situation and the unfortunate instance in 2003 when the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, was punished for advising Congress of the enormous effort it would take to defeat and pacify Iraq in any meaningful way. General Shinseki was not removed outright, but he was treated shabbily by the Bush administration in more subtle ways until his retirement later that year. But the two cases were different. General Shinseki was testifying under oath before Congress; General McChrystal was speaking voluntarily, on his own.

As a former Army officer, I tend to be sympathetic to the generals who are placed in impossible situations, created partly by the framers of the Constitution in 1787. They designated the president as the commander in chief, but at the same time they gave Congress the power to raise and support armies and navies.

This division of authority between two branches of government puts the head of a military service in an untenable position. Officers owe their loyalty to the president and have an obligation to resign if they are unable to carry out the commander in chief’s policies. At the same time, they must sometimes testify under oath to the Congress. Trapped in this way, most officers elect wisely to keep their public opinions vague.

In the past, speaking out has cost careers, or at least shortened them. The most noted instance was President Harry Truman’s firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the spring of 1951 — during the Korean War, the general was openly advocating taking measures against Communist China that the president and his advisers deemed dangerous to world peace.

My father, Dwight D. Eisenhower, declined to reappoint an Army chief of staff and a chief of naval operations because they had resisted his “New Look” policy, which restructured the Defense Department to better address the threat of nuclear war. But my father also believed that the Air Force — a beneficiary of the New Look — was demanding too much spending. That’s why he cautioned against the “unwarranted influence” of the military-industrial complex, a warning expressed in avuncular tones but with real anger behind it. Actually, in the case of the New Look, both the administration and the military services had legitimate viewpoints. The flaw is in the system.

Ideally, something could be worked out to make it easier for officers to express their views privately to the president without being subject to testifying before Congress. Perhaps the Joint Chiefs of Staff could be divorced from their roles as the heads of services. The service heads, charged with structure, would then be free to testify; the chiefs, advising the president on strategy, would be granted executive privilege. Unfortunately, such privilege will probably never be granted, and the military, among their other burdens, will have to cope with this balancing act.

General McChrystal has been gently but adequately chastised, but his great experience and ability preserved. As a strategy in Afghanistan is formulated, the president will have plenty more second-guessers on his hands. The military should not be among them — at least in public.

Johns D. S. Eisenhower, the author of Zachary Taylor and They Fought at Anzio.