Middle East, public diplomacy

The Troubling Power of the US Military over Foreign Policymaking

In reading about the difficulties confronting American policymakers in Afghanistan, one point struck me as especially troubling. The New York Times reported

“Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end. Their resistance puts Mr. Obama in a quandary, as he balances how to hasten what is increasingly becoming a messy withdrawal while still painting a portrait of success for NATO allies and the American people.

The Times is reporting that the “resistance” of the Pentagon to what many of the president’s civilian advisors are saying creates a dilemma for him.  This quandary arises because open knowledge of Pentagon resistance forces the president to balance his administration’s apparent desire to “hasten” US military withdrawal against his need to maintain support from NATO allies and American citizens—support that would be undermined were the commander in chief to appear to overrule the Pentagon’s “stiff opposition.”  In other words, the military’s willingness to publicize its opposition to civilian policymakers creates pressure to which the president must respond.

"The military’s willingness to publicize its opposition to civilian policymakers creates pressure to which the president must respond."

Is it healthy for a democracy when elected leaders worry about winning the military’s support as much as winning that of the country’s citizens’ or allies’?

Not only does it seem problematic for the military to implicitly threaten open opposition should the president choose a policy the Pentagon dislikes. It’s also worrisome because any seeming “Pentagon” consensus in opposition might be nothing of the sort.  The institutional voice of the Joint Chiefs could largely reflect who won out in bureaucratic maneuvers, turf battles and individual jockeying for career advancement. The Pentagon’s stands do not necessarily reflect rational deliberation or application of neutral technical expertise.

America’s unhappy experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq could yield at least one benefit if they spurred systematic renewal of mechanisms ensuring civilian control of the US military.


About Robert M. Entman

Robert M. Entman is J.B. and M.C. Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Robert Entman's newest book is Scandal and Silence: Media Responses to Presidential Misconduct (Polity, 2012). Dr. Entman’s Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy (University of Chicago, 2004) is winner of the 2011 Graber Award for Outstanding Book from the Political Communication Section of the American Political Science Association (APSA). He spent 2012 as a Humboldt Award scholar at Free University-Berlin and was Visiting Professor at the JFK Institute of North American Studies at FU-B April-July 2016. He is Bonniers Visiting Professor at the University of Stockholm May-June 2017.

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