The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere. It’s time to stop the mission creep.
By Thomas A. Schweich
Sunday, December 21, 2008
We no longer have a civilian-led government. It is hard for a lifelong Republican
and son of a retired Air Force colonel to say this, but the most unnerving legacy
of the Bush administration is the encroachment of the Department of Defense
into a striking number of aspects of civilian government. Our Constitution is
President-elect Barack Obama’s selections of James L. Jones, a retired four-star
Marine general, to be his national security adviser and, it appears, retired
Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be his director of national intelligence present
the incoming administration with an important opportunity — and a major risk.
These appointments could pave the way for these respected military officers
to reverse the current trend of Pentagon encroachment upon civilian government
functions, or they could complete the silent military coup d’etat that has been
steadily gaining ground below the radar screen of most Americans and the media.
While serving the State Department in several senior capacities over the past
four years, I witnessed firsthand the quiet, de facto military takeover of much
of the U.S. government. The first assault on civilian government occurred in
faraway places — Iraq and Afghanistan — and was, in theory, justified by the
exigencies of war.
The White House, which basically let the Defense Department call the budgetary
shots, vastly underfunded efforts by the State Department, the Justice Department
and the U.S. Agency for International Development to train civilian police forces,
build functioning judicial systems and provide basic development services to
those war-torn countries. For example, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the
Justice Department and the State Department said that they needed at least 6,000
police trainers in the country. Pentagon officials told some of my former staffers
that they doubted so many would be needed. The civilians’ recommendation “was
quickly reduced to 1,500 [trainers] by powers-that-be above our pay grade,”
Gerald F. Burke, a retired major in the Massachusetts State Police who trained
Iraqi cops from 2003 to 2006, told Congress last April. Just a few hundred trainers
ultimately wound up being fielded, according to Burke’s testimony.
Until this year, the State Department received an average of about $40 million
a year for rule-of-law programs in Afghanistan, according to the department’s
Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs — in stark contrast
to the billions that the Pentagon got to train the Afghan army. Under then-Defense
Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Defense Department failed to provide even
basic security for the meager force of civilian police mentors, rule-of-law
advisers and aid workers from other U.S. agencies operating in Afghanistan and
Iraq, driving policymakers to turn to such contracting firms as Blackwater Worldwide.
After having set the rest of the U.S. government up for failure, military authorities
then declared that the other agencies’ unsuccessful police-training efforts
required military leadership and took them over — after brutal interagency
battles at the White House.
The result of letting the Pentagon take such thorough charge of the programs
to create local police forces is that these units, in both Iraq and Afghanistan,
have been unnecessarily militarized — producing police officers who look more
like militia members than ordinary beat cops. These forces now risk becoming
paramilitary groups, well armed with U.S. equipment, that could run roughshod
over Iraq and Afghanistan’s nascent democracies once we leave.
Or consider another problem with the rising influence of the Pentagon: the
failure to address the ongoing plague of poppy farming and heroin production
in Afghanistan. This fiasco was in large part the result of the work of non-expert
military personnel, who discounted the corrosive effects of the Afghan heroin
trade on our efforts to rebuild the country and failed to support civilian-run
counter-narcotics programs. During my tenure as the Bush administration’s anti-drug
envoy to Afghanistan, I also witnessed JAG officers hiring their own manifestly
unqualified Afghan legal “experts,” some of whom even lacked law degrees,
to operate outside the internationally agreed-upon, Afghan-led program to bring
impartial justice to the people of Afghanistan. This resulted in confusion and
One can also see the Pentagon’s growing muscle in the recent creation of the
U.S. military command for Africa, known as Africom. This new command supposedly
has a joint civilian-military purpose: to coordinate soft power and traditional
hard power to stop al-Qaeda and its allies from gaining a foothold on the continent.
But Africom has gotten a chilly reception in post-colonial Africa. Meanwhile,
U.S. competitors such as China are pursuing large African development projects
that are being welcomed with open arms. Since the Bush administration has had
real successes with its anti-AIDS and other health programs in Africa, why exactly
do we need a military command there running civilian reconstruction, if not
to usurp the efforts led by well-respected U.S. embassies and aid officials?
And, of course, I need not even elaborate on the most notorious effect of the
military’s growing reach: the damage that the military tribunals at Guantánamo
Bay, Cuba, and such military prisons as Abu Ghraib have done to U.S. credibility
around the world.
But these initial military takeovers of civilian functions all took place a
long distance from home. “We are in a war, after all,” Ronald Neumann,
a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told me by way of explaining the military’s
huge role in that country — just before the Pentagon seemingly had him removed
in 2007 because of his admirable efforts to balance military and civilian needs.
(I heard angry accounts of the Pentagon’s role in Neumann’s “retirement”
at the time from knowledgeable diplomats, one of them very senior.) But our
military forces, in a bureaucratic sense, soon marched on Washington itself.
As military officers sought to take over the role played by civilian development
experts abroad, Pentagon bureaucrats quietly populated the National Security
Council and the State Department with their own personnel (some civilians, some
consultants, some retired officers, some officers on “detail” from
the Pentagon) to ensure that the Defense Department could keep an eye on its
rival agencies. Vice President Cheney, himself a former secretary of defense,
and his good friend Rumsfeld ensured the success of this seeding effort by some
fairly forceful means. At least twice, I saw Cheney staffers show up unannounced
at State Department meetings, and I heard other State Department officials grumble
about this habit. The Rumsfeld officials could play hardball, sometimes even
leaking to the press the results of classified meetings that did not go their
way in order to get the decisions reversed. After I got wind of the Pentagon’s
dislike for the approved interagency anti-drug strategy for Afghanistan, details
of the plan quickly wound up in the hands of foreign countries sympathetic to
the Pentagon view. I’ve heard other, similarly troubling stories about leaks
of classified information to the press.
Many of Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s cronies still work at the Pentagon and elsewhere.
Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert M. Gates, has spoken of increasing America’s “soft
power,” its ability to attract others by our example, culture and values,
but thus far, this push to reestablish civilian leadership has been largely
talk and little action. Gates is clearly sincere about chipping away at the
military’s expanding role, but many of his subordinates are not.
The encroachment within America’s borders continued with the military’s increased
involvement in domestic surveillance and its attempts to usurp the role of the
federal courts in reviewing detainee cases. The Pentagon also resisted ceding
any authority over its extensive intelligence operations to the first director
of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte — a State Department official
who eventually gave up his post to Mike McConnell, a former Navy admiral. The
Bush administration also appointed Michael V. Hayden, a four-star Air Force
general, to be the director of the CIA. National Security Adviser Stephen J.
Hadley saw much of the responsibility for developing and implementing policy
on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — surely the national security adviser’s
job — given to Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, Bush’s new “war czar.” By
2008, the military was running much of the national security apparatus.
The Pentagon opened a southern front earlier this year when it attempted to
dominate the new Merida Initiative, a promising $400 million program to help
Mexico battle drug cartels. Despite the admirable efforts of the federal drug
czar, John P. Walters, to keep the White House focused on the civilian law-enforcement
purpose of the Merida Initiative, the military runs a big chunk of that program
Now the Pentagon has drawn up plans to deploy 20,000 U.S. soldiers inside our
borders by 2011, ostensibly to help state and local officials respond to terrorist
attacks or other catastrophes. But that mission could easily spill over from
emergency counterterrorism work into border-patrol efforts, intelligence gathering
and law enforcement operations — which would run smack into the Posse Comitatus
Act, the long-standing law restricting the military’s role in domestic law enforcement.
So the generals are not only dominating our government activities abroad, at
our borders and in Washington, but they also seem to intend to spread out across
the heartland of America.
If President-elect Obama wants to reverse this trend, he must take four steps
— and very quickly:
1. Direct — or, better yet, order — Gates, Jones, Blair and the other military
leaders in his Cabinet to rid the Pentagon’s lower ranks of Rumsfeld holdovers
whose only mission is to increase the power of the Pentagon.
2. Turn Gates’s speeches on the need to promote soft power into reality with
a massive transfer of funds from the Pentagon to the State Department, the Justice
Department and USAID.
3. Put senior, respected civilians — not retired or active military personnel
— into key subsidiary positions in the intelligence community and the National
4. Above all, he should let his appointees with military backgrounds know swiftly
and firmly that, under the Constitution, he is their commander, and that he
will not tolerate the well-rehearsed lip service that the military gave to civilian
agencies and even President Bush over the past four years.
In short, he should retake the government before it devours him and us — and
return civilian-led government to the people of the United States.
Thomas A. Schweich served the Bush administration as ambassador for counter-narcotics
in Afghanistan and deputy assistant secretary of state for international law