The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Presidents and Their Generals: A Conversation with Eliot Cohen

When President Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal and sent General David Petraeus to Kabul in his stead, he wrote the latest chapter in a long narrative of civil-military tensions in America.

Published on September 1, 2010

AI: Let’s start with the Stanley McChrystal episode. What’s your take on this? Why did the general act with such inexplicable tactlessness? Did President Obama, in your view, respond appropriately?

Eliot Cohen: Obama handled it well. I’m not one of his greatest admirers, in general, but I thought he reacted quickly and decisively and that his speech hit all the right notes. It was also gracious and appropriate to ensure that General McChrystal retires at four-star rank.

For me, I have to say that this was a really painful episode. I know Stanley McChrystal, and I admire him enormously. I’ve been fortunate to see him do his thing when I was in the Department of State. Yet I agreed right from the start that he had to be relieved. As for why he (and much more, his staff) spoke that way in front of a Rolling Stone reporter, who knows? It was probably a perfect storm of people who were tired and a little bit relaxed because of being in Paris and a journalist who, if he had been a correspondent from one of the regular outlets, would have exercised some judicious self-censorship. It may have something to do with Special Operations culture, too.

AI: Meaning that McChrystal and his personal staff may not have been as familiar with dealing with the press as some others?

Eliot Cohen: Yes. Of course, he has dealt with the press before. But he’s not been long in that world, and his most recent experience has been in that very intense world of Special Operations. As Director of the Joint Staff, too, you’re not a public figure, so he hasn’t dealt with the press very much in recent years. Still, why the staff let that guy in is beyond me. If you spent just a minute or two Googling “Michael Hastings”, you’d immediately think, “Trouble. Don’t let this guy anywhere near the boss.” And Rolling Stone, for goodness’ sake. And finally in this regard, if you’re going to bring a journalist in that close, presumed to be adversarial or not, have it be one of the regular defense reporters, someone who not only knows the context but will want to work with you in the future.

AI: This Hastings fellow got his scoop and burned his source, but he doesn’t care.

Eliot Cohen: I doubt that he cares that his source has been burnt to a crisp—or about the damage that he did to a fine soldier, and indeed, the country. He was after a one-off and never intended to come back. McChrystal’s staff, I’m sure, feels devastated, as they should. They didn’t just fail to serve their boss; they helped to destroy him.

AI: Notwithstanding the venue in which McChrystal said what he said, did any of it make sense?

Eliot Cohen: Oh, much of it was true. It’s a classic Washington gaffe: You don’t get in trouble for saying things that are false; you get in trouble for saying things that are true, or largely true. It wasn’t stated diplomatically, of course, and it should never have been said in public.

AI: Is General Petraeus the right man to take his place? Even if he is at one level capable of managing the field in Afghanistan, is he the right person to take away from CENTCOM right now?

Eliot Cohen: It was certainly a plausible decision. There were also two Marine generals he might have chosen: James Mattis, Commander of Joint Forces Command, and John Allen, the Deputy Commander of CENTCOM. Both of them would have been fine. But Petraeus is, in many ways, the very best we’ve got.

I have to say, too, that I’ve enjoyed enormously the irony in watching President Obama turn to General Petraeus as his Afghan savior, and then watching as the Senate voted 99–0 to confirm him, this after the disgraceful way the Senators, including one Barack Obama, behaved toward him during his Iraq testimony in September 2007. But yes, I take the gist of your question, that there is an issue with taking him away from CENTCOM, particularly because of the Iran issue.

AI: Right, and because in strategic terms Iran, Iraq and Af-Pak, so-called, form a single issue set with interacting parts. Petraeus has been paying attention to this part of the world more assiduously than any other man of that stature in our military. He’s learned to appreciate the larger picture and how the dots connect. Leadership matters. So I’m a little bit anxious about this.

Eliot Cohen: John Allen really is very good, and there are a number of other four-stars you could plug in. You could pull Jim Stavridis from EUCOM or Jim Mattis from JFCOM, for instance. It’s not clear yet who will go there. But the appointment must not be long delayed.1

AI: I’m sure any of those men could do a fine job, but meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Petraeus has a hard row to hoe, doesn’t he?

Eliot Cohen: Yes. I am more and more struck by the fact that the self-inflicted wound here is the July 2011 withdrawal deadline that the President announced on December 1, 2009. My heart sank when Karzai fired Hanif Atmar and Amrullah Saleh, both of whom I know. Those were two of the best officials in his cabinet. They were also two individuals, however, who were problematic in terms of his cutting a deal with the Taliban through the Pakistanis.

Why is Karzai doing this, and why, for that matter, are the Pakistanis pursuing this now? I’m not a Karzai-basher, and I don’t think what’s happening now is really about his personality. The basic message Obama sent on December 1 is that we’re getting out of there, that our heart isn’t in this. This decision and the attitude it suggested is having colossal consequences. Everyone is behaving accordingly: from Karzai to Pakistani intelligence operatives, to the Haqqani network, to goatherds outside American bases…

AI: That’s certainly what we’re seeing now from the Pakistani point of view, from General Kayani’s point of view. If we leave, that opens up more space for the Indians, and the Pakistanis remain paranoid about the Indians. If we’re on the way out, they have to fill as much of the vacuum as they can as soon as they can. That’s what we’re seeing happen before our very eyes.

Eliot Cohen: It’s really an extraordinary thing, when you think about it, how just one sentence in one presidential speech can set so much in motion. I’m sure his speechwriters were trying to aim very carefully at a certain slice of the Democratic Party and thought little or nothing about how they were inadvertently lighting half a dozen diplomatic fuses in the region that, for all we know, might cause a huge mess and a great deal of violence stretching far into the future.

AI: What might the effects of the shift of command be, not just in the region, but in terms of how we manage the politics of the Afghan war here in Washington? It seems to me that his new role puts General Petraeus in a delicate position, in this sense: The better he does on the battlefield, the more likely he and other military decision-makers will see successes as gates passed through to eventually drive a negotiated conclusion that suits our interests. But the same successes will probably be seen by the White House as political markers against which to justify a faster withdrawal. The irony may be that the better Petraeus does militarily, the less space and time he may have politically.

Eliot Cohen: I think that’s basically right, although, on the other hand, the White House has hired someone it can’t fire, somebody who’s really flameproof. In doing so they have tilted the civil-military balance in Petraeus’s direction. We’ll see how that plays out. The general is very careful, however, and I cannot imagine him misusing that favorable balance. But he will be aware of it.

AI: It seems inevitable to me that, as we draw closer to July 2011, and as the military guys think one way about the right torque point for negotiations and the White House, for political reasons, thinks about it in a different way, we’re not going to have de facto unity of command where it matters most: translating military effort into political results. Therefore, our civil-military tensions over this, which are in temporary remission, are going to return and probably get worse.

Eliot Cohen: I agree, but there’s another factor to consider. Political Washington doesn’t understand this as well as military Washington does. The military consensus, as far as I can see—and this includes people like myself who are huge admirers of McChrystal and had very warm feelings for him—is that the President had to do what he did. The President therefore has bought himself some real credibility with the military as a result, so if there is an argument in the future of the Petraeus-Obama partnership over Afghanistan, it might not be as unequal as one might suppose. Remember that Bill Clinton’s mistake was not being tough enough when people in the military were badmouthing him. That showed weakness. If he had fired a couple generals over that, he would have had a much better relationship with them.

In a way this gets at your larger question. One of the great challenges we have is that, on the one hand, the American public is more supportive of the military than it ever has been before, certainly more than it was during the Vietnam War. But there’s a great temptation—and you see this in Obama, too—to think of military personnel as victims and to feel sorry for them, rather than to understand their value system.

AI: Victims, you say? That surprises me. Guys in the military don’t think that way about themselves at all. They’re warriors.

Eliot Cohen: Of course. But how often have you heard Barack Obama celebrate warrior virtues?

AI: Never.

Let’s keep on the civil-military track, but deepen it. How is the McChrystal-Obama incident different from its historical antecedents—Lincoln takes McClellan’s hat, Truman fires MacArthur, and of course there have been less dramatic others. What’s the same, and what’s different, now and then?

Eliot Cohen: I just finished a chapter for the book I’m working on that covers, among other things, the court-martial of General Arthur St. Clair, who evacuated Fort Ticonderoga in 1777. Afterward, John Adams told his wife Abigail, “We’re not going to get anywhere until we shoot a couple of generals.” General St. Clair was criticized in Congress, too, but the general and some of his staff replied that civilians don’t know the situation, don’t understand the real choices, and refuse to hold themselves to the same standard in civilian life. My point is that at one level none of this is new. A lot of what goes on, now as well as in earlier times, is built into democratic politics. If you have a serious military there is going to be friction between military and civilian leaders, and certainly in times of war. Per se that should not trouble us. But we should be mindful of the challenge for both sides.

The challenge for military people is to be politically literate without being politicized. That can be a very fine line. For the civilians, the challenge is to be neither morbidly suspicious, mistrustful and manipulative of the military, nor to put them on a pedestal, which does happen.

I remember during the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004 some Congressman spouting nonsense about how none of our soldiers would ever do that sort of thing. Of course some of our soldiers would do those things. The military has a smaller proportion than the rest of society of brutes, sadists and creeps, but it does have them. For political leaders the challenge is to understand the military’s value system and to understand the variety within the military, including the variety among commanders, who by the way are not interchangeable cogs in a machine. Civilian leaders must hold the military to their own values, admiring those who are admirable but never shying away from exercising authority when it’s appropriate to do so.

This, too, goes way back. Look at Winfield Scott dealing with James Polk, or some of the quasi-mutinies—they were more like strikes—in the Continental Army. This has always gone on. As long as the civilians are forceful but fair, there’s no reason to think we won’t be able to navigate our way through.

AI: What about the contention that what’s different now is the huge and growing gap between the professional military’s cultural ethos and that of the society at large? Popular or not as an institution, do you think the value systems inside and outside what has been a post-draftee, professional military now for more than two full generations are diverging?

Eliot Cohen: There is a gap, and that’s why, for instance, I favor pushing a ROTC presence on elite university campuses. Most of the opposition to that comes from universities, but unfortunately some comes from the military. This is why we have political authority to crack heads together and say, “No, we need to do this.” I also think the gap is probably wider in wartime, all else equal. One part of society is going into the furnace for a year at a time, coming out for a year, going in for a year. It’s no picnic lately for many Americans outside the military with our economic difficulties, but it’s not the same kind of trial.

The gap is also exacerbated because parts of the military are consolidating into megabases like Fort Benning. We’d be much better off if the military lived in the middle of civil society, or at least if a large chunk of it did. That’s why I was not in favor of the Federal government’s selling off San Francisco’s Presidio to build a bunch of condominiums. You want military people to have civilian neighbors. It is a problem if the military lives in a completely isolated world.

AI: It’s also a problem, is it not, if you’re fighting a war over which political divisions break down sharply along party lines? Today we have the somewhat unusual case where a liberal Democrat in the White House is waging what he terms a war of necessity, but his own party’s rank and file seem not to believe or support him as much as his Republican political opposition. Despite Obama’s show of resolve over the McChrystal affair, it’s still harder for this President to fire or otherwise boss around generals than it would be for a conservative Republican President.

Eliot Cohen: Well, that’s still right in general, but interesting changes are afoot. It has been less difficult for Obama—even though he is more liberal than his immediate Democratic predecessors in the White House—than it was for Clinton or even George W. Bush. And part of the reason, I think, is that he is a post-Vietnam political figure. He lacks that special, noxious baggage. The passing of the Vietnam generation is a good thing in this respect, and I sometimes think that the faster it leaves the American political stage, the better off we’ll be.

AI: Even if there were no blue sky between the professional military and the rest of society, there would still be formidable challenges for the future of the U.S. armed forces. I basically see four big issues that could shape the future: how civilian authority organizes the military, how the services learn, how the services plan and, as a subset of that, how and what the services buy.

The organization issue is perennial. Some years ago Admiral William Owens proposed that we homogenize all the current services into a single, deep purple joint force. This was an impractical suggestion, but it did have some logic. Others say, “Let’s leave it as it is”, but if we leave it as it is, we have by some counts four air forces that are not very well integrated on the battlefield. Is there anything between all and nothing to be done about this?

Eliot Cohen: Well, first, don’t get rid of the services. We have a logical set of divisions. Basically, people either function on the ground, in the air, or in the water, and those physical differences have some bearing on how you organize. The Marine Corps is an anomaly, but a uniquely valuable one. It’s a deep, old and valued institution, but if it did not exist would we see a reason to invent it today? Probably not, but that’s not the point. The point is that it has an extraordinary value through its accumulated culture and traditions, and those are what hold all the people in all the services together.

But your question gets to how we put the services together to deter or win wars. Here, a lot has changed in recent times, nearly all for the better. A joint headquarters today doesn’t look anything like it would have thirty or forty years ago. People are moving around back and forth. For instance, we’ve had a lot of Navy and Air Force folks serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The services’ organization is not the key issue. I think the biggest challenge the military faces, which doesn’t fit exactly into any of your four slots—maybe it’s part of what you mean by how the services learn—is how to grow its senior leadership. Everything else, you can fix. If you don’t have the right people dominating the institutions, nothing will be fixed. Education and selection of leaders are the heart of any country’s long-term military capacity—that and a certain level of funding. That’s what matters above all else.

AI: Let’s skip to a different sort of question that bears on learning, leadership, planning and more besides. We’ve been at war for eight-plus years. We’ve been militarily more active over the past twenty years, too, than is typical of our history. Nearly all we’ve done over this period has been less than conventional and less than fully major land battles. (Obviously, Desert Storm was largely conventional, but it wasn’t a full-force effort.) All these wars and engagements have differed to one degree or another from the Cold War mindset we occupied ourselves with for so long. How has that affected the services? We know that people learn from proximate experience. We know that it’s possible to over-learn from proximate experience, too. What path has the experience of the past eight to twenty years put us on, for better or worse?

Eliot Cohen: This question requires a service-by-service assessment. As far as operational skills and routines go, the Navy has been affected least of all. The SEALs are in the thick of the fight, of course; they usually are. Carrier-based aircraft drop bombs on land; they’ve done that for a very long time. You have the SeaBees building things; SeaBees have always built things. The contingencies of the past several years haven’t engaged our full naval power, however, and while all this was going on, one wonders how much creative thinking the Navy has done about its future challenges, China above all.

The Air Force has been very responsive to these contingencies. It has brought unmanned aerial vehicles onto the battlefield and made them an accepted part of the force structure. That’s good but, as with the Navy, I’m not sure the Air Force leadership has done enough systematic thinking about airpower at a higher level. It now thinks of airpower primarily in terms of hauling people around, precision close air support and some surveillance and reconnaissance. But they’re not really thinking about airpower in any large, deep, operational way—again, vis-à-vis China among other contingencies. For example, you wonder, where’s their long-range bomber concept? That doesn’t seem to be what they are thinking hard about.

The Army and the Marine Corps have borne much of the strain of the past eight years and the past two decades. On the one hand, they’re stressed; you see it in the suicide rates and other indices. On the other hand, they now have an extraordinarily experienced group of non-commissioned officers and company- and field-grade officers. Just the nature of the experience has made them adaptable and tough in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be the case. The system is growing people who are really good at what they do—but only at a certain level. If you look at the officer corps, for example, you see that the Army is really good at growing capable brigade commanders. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re growing great generals or military thinkers for the next generation—which gets back to the main point about leadership.

AI: I think having to worry about the urgent, which wartime serves up with no respite, ends up privileging tactical thinking over strategic thinking. If that goes on for too long, people begin to confuse the two.

Eliot Cohen: Right, and that’s exactly the problem the Army faces. The Marines have come out of this period better, in part because they’ve always had this kind of gritty, expeditionary culture. Their warrior culture is very much intact, and they’ve grown some very interesting general officers. But the basic issue is, as you say, about the distinction between the tactical and the strategic. In general we’re suffering from a real deficiency in strategic debate about the world after Iraq and Afghanistan. There were huge contests about whether to go into these wars to begin with, but after they happened questions about how to fight them sucked up all the intellectual energy. Very little intellectual energy has gone into the question of what are the broader things for which we need armed forces, and which kind of armed forces.

AI: Have you sensed any generic learning process about the relationship between technology and doctrine, or about the relationship between combat and the intelligence function? Those are definable as “teachable moments”, too, for growing leadership.

Eliot Cohen: The military has become even more adaptable than in the past. It has gotten much better at using civilian technology to put together solutions on the fly, and that’s a good thing. They’ve done a better job adapting to a computer-literate enlisted force, which can now be used to do all kinds of new things. If you go to a command center, you see everyone using online chat, which increases efficiency because people can coordinate very quickly and then go out and get things done.

This has surprisingly broad application. I remember lecturing in the United Kingdom during the early part of the Iraq War, before I went into government, and someone in the audience said, “Well, everyone knows that insurgency has nothing to do with technology.” I told her that was not exactly so. There are all sorts of technologies that are absolutely critical in a counterinsurgency fight, and we’re using many of them. They’re different technologies than what you would use in a conventional war—things like biometrics, for example—but these have been very technology-intensive fights, and we have learned from them at the bottom of the ranks and at the top.

AI: How does that optimistic assessment match up against the complaint you often hear, within the services and outside them, that for all the changes and adaptations we’ve made, the force as a whole still looks way too much like the Cold War legacy force we inherited twenty or so years ago? For all the Quadrennial Defense Reviews we’ve been through, not a lot has changed in the gross sense. I don’t know any military professional who is completely satisfied with how well we’ve kept up with a changing threat environment.

Eliot Cohen: That’s true, although there have been some important changes. For example, the Army is now a brigade modular force. That’s not the way it was in the days of the Fulda Gap, which was a division-based army. I do think, particularly with the Army but to some extent with all the services, that a rather rigid progression to general officer accounts for a good deal of the resistance to bigger changes, because the definition of what an officer is and does is linked to the main platforms with which he is associated.

More than that, you have to go through all the wickets on the way up, and that doesn’t really allow time to get people out of the system, whether for civilian education or sending the really good ones off to do an internship in business, say, to pick up interesting ideas. We’re getting more than we would like of people settling too deep and too fast into the institutional groove. If you want to adapt quickly, you have to give rising leaders the chance to expand the range of their imagination. It has to work in that direction. Civilians cannot impose change on large bureaucracies from the outside, even assuming they had good ideas to impose.

AI: One last question. Suppose that we don’t maintain a healthy civil-military relationship. Suppose we’re not organized properly. Suppose we don’t learn and plan very well, and suppose all the inefficiencies that surround the Defense Department get even worse in a time of protracted fiscal austerity. What difference will it make? What’s at stake here? Does the U.S. global role still depend as it once did on its military prowess, or is that an atavistic way of thinking in a globalized, soft-power dominated world?

Eliot Cohen: Of course it matters. First, if you get a lot of this stuff wrong, you can find yourself getting into a confrontation where you don’t have the capabilities you thought you had, and a lot of people get killed because you thought you could do something you couldn’t do. Second, American military power underwrote a world where people can even talk about soft power, and some people dwell on that term as if that underwriting by hard power does not and never did exist. If we ever get to the point where the United States is not seen as the world’s preeminent military power, we will have stepped into a world that’s a lot nastier. Nuclear weapons are liable to go off, major regional wars will be much more likely, the international economic order we all value so much may break down. There’s a good reason why every President in our lifetime has said he’ll make sure the United States is the strongest power on earth. Some have believed it more than others, but God forbid we ever get a President who doesn’t think that’s part of his job.

AI: Well, some think we have that President right now, a President who considers American power a burden because it frightens adversaries we could be engaging, or because it is something whose past manifestations require present-day apologies. It’s not this President’s fault, but I think most Americans are increasingly oblivious to the role of U.S. military power. People know that military forces sometimes fight, and when they do they want them to win. What they don’t understand as readily is what these forces do when they’re not fighting. America really is a world island from a geostrategic point of view, just as Halford Mackinder said many years ago. Our global presence, enabled by our basing footprint and alliance structure, suppresses dangerous security competitions that would otherwise arise. This is the nastier world you just spoke of, but I don’t think most Americans understand anymore why there is a vital national interest in doing these things. And I don’t think we’ve had a President in quite a while who has been able to explain this to the American people.

Eliot Cohen: Exactly. Thinking about who our next President is going to be: Domestically we need a “green eyeshade” guy, someone to be “Mr. No” and balance the books. Internationally, we need somebody who can explain to the American people what our role in the world is, and how American primacy still exists but is far more contested in some ways than it was even at the height of the Cold War. The future of the U.S. military depends to a large extent on how well American leadership, civilian and military, understands and can articulate this truth. Almost needless to say, too, is that consensus on the purposes of American power will make whatever civil-military tensions we do experience in the years to come less dangerous and damaging.

1On July 8, 2010, James Mattis was nominated as Commander of CENTCOM and is currently awaiting Senate confirmation. John Allen is the Acting Commander.

Eliot Cohen, a former counselor of the U.S. Department of State, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is the author of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (2002).