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The Pentagon's House Philosopher

Just who is influencing the Pentagon's office politics?

November 27, 2002

Just who is influencing the Pentagon's office politics?

Today's Pentagon counts on the views of a strategist and professor of strategic studies at Washington’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies named Eliot Cohen.

That is why his slim new volume "Supreme Command" ought to be more than a passing interest to people around the world. In his book, Mr. Cohen proposes a bold thesis.

It runs counter to what has long been an established wisdom in the United States — and in all democratic countries. That wisdom is the rule that civilian political leaderships must keep firm control over their military.

It is political leaders — not generals — who are supposed to set the diplomatic dimensions and the strategic goals within which wars must be fought.

President Harry S. Truman certainly had this precept in mind when he fired General Douglas MacArthur as the U.S. commander in Korea in 1951. MacArthur had tried to expand his portfolio to political areas. He wished to broaden the Korean War to take on mainland China — and even use nuclear weapons in the war.

Those were decisions that President Truman believed were his — not MacArthur's — to make. And when MacArthur showed signs of wanting to publicly fight with Truman over the issue, Truman simply got rid of him.

The other side of this principle, however, is that political interference in tactical military matters is also unhealthy. In most democratic countries, it is understood that — once the war is being fought — it should be left to professionals. They are better placed than political leaders to take the correct operational decisions that will lead to victory.

Astoundingly, in his new book, Professor Cohen turns this long-established rule completely around. He argues that — in order to win decisive wars — democratic societies must allow their civilian leaders to decide not just the "big picture" items.

Rather, civilians in the Pentagon should also micromanage even the tactical direction of military operations.

This is a radical revision from accepted wisdom. Yet, Professor Cohen received a remarkably supportive and uncritical ride in the mainstream media when his book came out earlier this year.

But “Supreme Command” is not a work of comprehensive and dispassionate history. It is a well-written, but exceptionally selective and also distorted study with a very concrete and contemporary political goal.

Ultimately, that goal is to weaken the control of the senior officers of the U.S. Army and Marines over their own forces. It does so by giving intellectual ammunition to the far more bold — and gung-ho, if not reckless — civilians who currently occupy the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Pentagon sources suggest that the book has already been used as a chess piece in the ongoing struggle between the top civilian officials and the uniformed officers.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the Under Secretary for Policy Douglas Feith have apparently relied on the book's arguments to undercut and discredit career officers who oppose exceptionally bold operational plans in the coming confrontation with Iraq.

Yet, Professor Cohen's “Supreme Command” is also a curiously incomplete and misleading little volume. For Cohen chooses four examples of outstanding civilian leaders who micromanage their own military in times of war — but he completely misinterprets their experiences.

Even more astoundingly, he does not include the two most outstandingly successful examples of civilian leadership in war — from his own nation's history.

Cohen's four big heroes are Abraham Lincoln in the U.S. Civil War, French Premier Georges Clemenceau in World War I, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in World War II — and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen does not include U.S. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt among the examples in his book. Perhaps the fact that they were Democrats contributed to this curious omission.

But the main reason is this: These two men won the two biggest wars in human history — World Wars I and II — with exactly the opposite approach to the command model that Cohen advocates.

They selected first-class heads of the U.S. military — John J. Pershing in World War I and George Marshall in World War II — and then gave them a free hand to do the job.

It is an astonishing distortion of history in general, and U.S. history in particular, to produce a sweeping model of civilian-military in leadership interactions without including the two most important and successful examples in history — and American examples to boot.

It would be bad enough if the book could be faulted only for its cavalier dismissal from consideration of the exceptionally impressive achievements of Wilson and FDR. But in order to make its basic point, the book also highly distorts the very questionable records of military intervention by the heroes it does feature.

For while Abe Lincoln certainly won the Civil War and kept the Union together in doing so, his record in picking good generals and endlessly pestering them to attack had horrendous consequences.

Some 350,000 Union soldiers were killed during the War, around two-thirds of them in the narrow eastern theater of operations alone.

President Lincoln did not hit on a good general-in-chief until he finally appointed Ulysses S. Grant to the post in early 1864. And even then, Lincoln saddled Grant with General George Meade — an appallingly incompetent field commander — right up to the end of the war.

Cohen is right to conclude that Churchill’s record on his "largest political and strategic judgments" was "astonishingly good." And he even admits, "Churchill’s record at the operational level is more mixed."

But he then absolves the British warlord by concluding that whenever he was about to make "these undoubted errors" he allowed himself to be talked out of every one of them.

That is simply not true. In the early stages of the war, before U.S. entry, Winston Churchill had full freedom of operational decision. And he made one disastrous blunder after another.

He sent the battleship Prince of Wales and battle-cruiser Repulse to the Far East to deter the Japanese. But he sent them without any effective air cover — and they were sunk.

Against the pleadings of his military commanders on the spot, he withdrew key army formations from the Western Desert in early 1941 — and sent them to Greece instead.

As a result, General Richard O’Connor lacked the forces to capture the key Libyan port of Tripoli. This, in turn, allowed General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika korps to land there instead.

The Western Desert campaign was thus prolonged for more than two bitter years and nearly lost. Meanwhile, the British suffered more than 50,000 casualties in the Greek and Crete campaigns that Winston Churchill had foisted on them.

Churchill did not "allow himself to be talked out of" his many later equally reckless projects — such as abandoning D-Day to invade Europe through Portugal.

He was over-ruled by the combined pressure of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff. Being based in Washington, they were outside Churchill's power to browbeat and intimidate.

Cohen’s treatment of Clemenceau and Ben-Gurion is equally misleading. Clemenceau only became premier of France in November 1917 — and hence only for the last year of the Great War.

The French Army undertook no major independent offensives in all that time. Why? Because it was unable to do so, after the disaster of the 1917 Nivelle offensive and the many mutinies that followed.

Although Cohen fudges it, the essence of Clemenceau’s good judgment was in reining in — and resisting — his own offensive impulses.