A reader writes:
Reading the accounts, especially the detailed ones in the NYT, in the background another narrative emerges in the Petraeus-Allen saga, one which is getting much less attention. That is how Obama is dealing systematically with the highly politicized military brass that was one of the seedier legacies of the Bush years.
The GOP loved to tout the glories of the military leaders it created, and to trot them out like so many sock puppets to embrace the GOP defense strategy of the moment. We must all fall in line behind our generals and pay them homage – we can't have a discussion about it. The generals have spoken. Now silence.
Of course, the generals, being generals, were merely doing the bidding of their civilian Pentagon masters. It may be that such glorification of military power is a natural part of right-wing politics. But it bears some real dangers for democracy, precisely because it short-circuits democratic dialogue and process and elevates the role of career military over elected and accountable officials.
As Tom Ricks points out, quite compellingly, in the first chapters of his new book, The Generals, what we have witnessed since Vietnam is a slow, steady, deconstruction of accountability mechanisms for the military that reached its high point under Bush. Now one of the distinguishing features of Obama is his subtle, skillful reversal of these precedents – in a way which was at once non-confrontational and beneath the radar of political Washington. The Petraeus case is an excellent example – he was denied the post he most cherished (chair of the JCS) and instead given CIA. But he was required to set aside his uniform and give up his entourage of 50 (amazing!) who followed him in his final appointments. He was denied "special" access to the White House and the president while he ran CENTCOM and Afghanistan. He and other generals were told to treat the chain of command seriously.
Obama also has become the biggest general slayer since Harry S. Truman. He fired Stanley McChrystal and now David Petraeus, the man who flogged rumors about his own suitability for high political office. I don't see anything remotely Machiavellian about this. It was all rigorously application of good governance principles and rules of command authority. But the result we are now coasting towards is an unwinding of the distortions introduced by Bush and a restoration of America's historic notions of civilian-military relations – under which the generals are to be kept firmly out of politics and clearly accountable to elected civilian authority.
This may well be one of Obama's major legacies. And no one is talking about it in the Beltway chatter room, which is intent on giving us another episode of The Real Housewives of Tampa. By contrast, I bet most of the brass understands what Obama is up to, and most of them are approving, even as they express regrets about the fall of Petraeus and McChrystal.