The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Latest on U.S. Militarism

March 19, 2010

In my U.S. Foreign Policy class this semester, students read the latest book from historian Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008). As in his prior work, Bacevich is critical of the apparent militarism in American foreign policy. Primarily, he argues that the U.S. is too willing to use military force as an instrument of policy and that the American people and its leaders overestimate the effectiveness of military power.

Arguably, another indicator of American militarism is its willingness to place former top military leaders into security policy posts that could well be topped by civilians. Already, the top military brass is very influential on U.S. foreign policy in their roles as military leaders. In fact, it sometimes seems as if Generals Petraeus and McChrystal have made all the key U.S. decisions bout Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most recently, for example, Barack Obama has selected retired Major General Robert Harding to head the Transportation Security Administration. Why should TSA be headed by a former general?By the way, Harding started a company that apparently overbilled the government millions of dollars for “interrogation” work in Iraq, so his nomination might not be assured.

Independent of that potential scandal, why should former military officials also currently serve in other top security posts? The former generals and admirals may well be qualified, but the U.S. assures greater civilian control of security policy if it keeps these positions in civilian hands. Yet, the Director of National Intelligence is former Admiral Dennis Blair. The current National Security Advisor is retired Marine General James Jones.

The practice of placing former military leaders into security positions in U.S. foreign policy is not unique to the Obama administration.

On my personal blog, I often wrote posts highlighting the fact that many former military leaders opposed the U.S. war in Iraq. Thus, I don’t mean to argue that all these leaders are dangerous hawks that threaten American democracy. Nor was I previously trying to argue that military opinion should trump the ideas pursued by civilian policymakers. Indeed, in those years, President Bush often said that he listened to his active Generals in regard to Iraq, so “the military’s” views were presumably heard (as if “the military” singular existed).

In this particular instance, I’m worried about the lack of civilian input on security policy issues. I’m in favor of listening to the views of people with military experience, but I also think that diverse perspectives should play a prominent role.

+ posts

Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.