FOREIGN POLICY: Who’s in charge?

CIP colleague Melvin Goodman has served us all well with his sharp criticism of the duplicitous record of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose exit tour has only exposed him as the fakir he is and has been for over three decades (, June 23). Two overriding issues, both mentioned but neither the focus of Goodman’s examination of the problems awaiting incoming Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, invite separate comment.

Many of us have grown old grateful for President Harry Truman’s firm and swift dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur after the latter had presumed to challenge the political decision-making prerogatives of the White House, i.e., the elected civilian leadership of the United States. But, we’ve been inattentive.

As Goodman notes, “Panetta, having been undercut by Gates, will have to deal with continuing tension between the White House and the uniformed military [emphasis added] on troop withdrawals.” Why should there be tension once military leaders have been asked for, and then furnished, their advice? Why did President Obama not sack General Stanley McChrystal when the latter publicly promoted his own views on strategy in Afghanistan? And why, for that matter, has Obama proposed General David Petraeus to lead the CIA, and why has he named retired senior military officers to head American Embassies? Would it be cruel or thoughtless or naive to suggest that he is “under the gun”?

Secondly, Goodman reports that Gates “gave a blunt ‘no’ to the idea of transferring funds to the State Department from the budget of the Defense Department, which is more than ten times the budget for diplomacy.” That Gates could take such a stand with no real fear of contradiction can be easily understood in the context of the strong and unchallenged assumption of primacy in the making of foreign policy by Donald Rumsfeld before being replaced, to the joy and relief of his critics, by none other than Robert Gates. Goodman’s recital of the Pentagon’s presence in large numbers all over the globe underscores the seriousness and urgency of the problem.

(Concerning both the disturbing tendency of military officers to openly question or defy decisions made by their civilian superiors and the transfer of foreign policy from Foggy Bottom to the Pentagon, this blogger immodestly refers readers to his earlier comment in this space entitled “Back to Barracks, Boys” and his broader treatment of the issues in “W(h)ither State” at

By Alan Berlind.

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