Monday, June 28, 2010

Senator Robert C. Byrd, Jr.

The longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history, Senator Robert C. Byrd, Jr. of West Virginia, has died at 92. All those who love the U.S. Constitution, those wise restraints that make men free, and all those who respect the U.S. Senate should honor his memory.

Senator Byrd had his flaws and quirks, but he outgrew his prejudices and became a towering statesman. He steadfastly defended the Senate and its institutional role and responsibilities under the Constitution. While he supported Senate traditions like the filibuster -- as a guarantor of the rights of the parliamentary minority -- he also helped the Senate craft rules and precedents that prevented even greater obstructionist tactics. He also was a consistent defender of congressional powers over war and peace.

He won repeated elections because he served and satisfied the people of West Virginia. He used his legislative positions to channel vast sums of federal money into his state -- a practice many criticize but few would fail to do, given the chance.

It's a shame that there are so few Senators today who understand and defend the institution of the Senate as well as he did.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

bad-mouthing the boss

General Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to Washington to apologize in person for remarks he and his staff made to a reporter for Rolling Stone that are highly critical of several senior U.S. officials. It is shocking to see that the famously self-disciplined McChrystal has such an ill-disciplined staff.

I know that bureaucratic sub-units often build their own esprit de corps by complaining about their superiors -- and often the criticisms are quite valid. But to do so in wartime, in front of a reporter, risks undermining the military mission and perhaps costing lives. This is a serious offense.

As I read the quotes attributed to McChrystal, they seem more like tactical complaints and routine frustrations rather than fundamental opposition. But his staff felt free to make comments that cross the line into territory forbidden by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One of the dysfunctions of military culture, especially in elite units like the special forces from which McChrystal and most of his staff come, is a tendency to disparage the will, the skill, and the patriotism of anyone outside their tight circle. That appears to be the case here.

President Obama would be fully justified in removing McChrystal from his post in order to assert proper civilian control over an unruly military contingent. There are, however, many other factors to consider, including the impact of such action on the war in Afghanistan. It's a shame we have this distraction from that most difficult campaign.

Monday, June 14, 2010

an explanation

Summertime, and the livin' is easy.
Fish are jumpin' and the blogging is slow.

-- with apologies to the Gershwins

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

generals in civilian posts

Yale's Bruce Ackerman makes a valuable point on civil-military relations in his piece in the Washington Post. While supporting the nomination of retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper as Director of National Intelligence, he notes that more and more long-serving military officers are now being put in key jobs traditionally reserved for civilians.

The constitutional principle of civilian control is losing its basis in sociological reality: Senior officers are talking to (retired) senior officers about high matters of policy on a regular basis -- and then forwarding their advice to more retired military men with privileged access to the Oval Office.

We owe our present situation more to drift than to design. When making individual appointments, presidents and Cabinet secretaries naturally focus on the abilities of particular candidates. It is easy to lose sight of the overall pattern of appointments. Yet it is precisely this pattern that puts the Founders' commitment to civilian control at risk.

That historic principal has been reasserted in many ways. The Constitution makes the president, not any senior general, "commander-in-chief." The 1947 law creating what is now the Defense Department requires that the Secretary of Defense be appointed "from civilian life." [A temporary change in the law was voted in 1950 to allow retired General George C. Marshall to take the post.] The only statutory position on the National Security Council staff, the staff secretary, is required to be a civilian. The law for the CIA used to require that at least one of the top two slots be a civilian.

These laws did not presume that military officers were unqualified for these positions, but rather that a civilian perspective and ultimately civilian ultimate control was necessary to preserve liberty. There were too many historical examples of generals on horseback becoming dictators. Our lawmakers also wanted to guard against an insular military elite that was separate from civilian life and concerns.

Of course, many senior officers are highly qualified for national security positions, and they should be assigned to those posts as conscious exceptions to the preferred pattern of civilian appointees. But the Senate and presidents should also monitor the pattern of military appointments and try to re-balance toward experienced civilians.