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Will Civilians Control the Military? | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Will Civilians Control the Military?

President Bush's nomination of Air Force General Michael V. Hayden to direct the Central Intelligence Agency has opened a debate over whether the most fundamental principles of the American Republic remain will remain in place.

The founders who proposed to "chain the dogs of war" established civilian control over the military as an essential underpinning of the American experiment. Along with their determination to put in place a system of checks and balances, which they constructed to prevent presidents from leading the country into war without properly consulting Congress, Jefferson, Madison and their compatriots believed that giving civilians the means to manage the military was necessary if the nation they imagined was to be free.

Agonizingly aware of the abuses that had been imposed upon the former colonies by a British military accountable only to a distant and dictatorial king, the founders worried about the degeneration of the American experiment into a state of affairs similar to that of the Empire against which they had rebelled.

Sam Adams warned that, "Even when there is a necessity of military power, within the land... a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful & jealous eye over it." Elbridge Gerry, a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and the fifth vice president of the United States, argued that, "Standing armies in time of peace are inconsistent with the principles of republican Governments, dangerous to the liberties of a free people, and generally converted into destructive engines for establishing despotism."

Gerry was no radical. He expressed a common concern about the scope and power of the new nation's military, according to the essential review of thinking of the founders with regard to civilian control of the military compiled by Dr. Michael F. Cairo, a specialist in American foreign policy and the foreign policy process.

"At the beginnings of the Republic," recalls Dr. Cairo, in an explanation of the principle distributed by no less an authority than the U.S. State Department, "four basic premises conditioned how most Americans saw civilian control of the military. First, large military forces were viewed as a threat to liberty, a legacy of British history and the army's occupation in the colonial period. Second, large military forces threatened American democracy. This notion was linked to the ideal of the citizen-soldier and fears of establishing an aristocratic or autocratic military class. Third, large military forces threatened economic prosperity. Maintaining large standing armies represented an enormous burden on the fledgling economy of a new nation. Finally, large military forces threatened peace. The founders accepted the liberal proposition that arms races led to war. Thus, civilian control of the military arose from a set of historical circumstances and became embedded over time in American political thought through tradition, custom, and belief."

To cement those principles in place, the founders assured that a civilian, the president, would serve as commander-in-chief of the military. They also established the principle and the precedent that, as Alexander Hamilton noted in a discussion of the management of the military in the Federalist Papers, "the whole power of the proposed government is to be in the hands of the representatives of the people." To Hamilton's view, "This is the essential, and, after all, the only efficacious security for the rights and privileges of the people which is attainable in civil society."

In order to maintain meaningful civilian control of the military, however, one commodity has always been essential: honest intelligence about global threats and opportunities gathered and assessed by an independent agency that recognizes its responsibility to inform and empower civilian authorities -- as opposed to merely echoing the official line of the Pentagon.

This is a wall of separation every bit as important as the one the founders proposed to divide church and state. And the motivation was the same: a sense, born of painful experience, that only by maintaining a strict separation of powers and influences could the new Republic function across the long term as an entity distinct from the monarchical dictatorships of old Europe.

President Bush says his nominee to succeed scandal-hobbled Central Intelligence Agency director Porter Goss is "the right man to lead the CIA at this critical moment in our nation's history." But even if it was true that Hayden's background made him "the right man" for the job -- as assumption shot down by the fact of Hayden's involvement with the president's illegal program of eavesdropping on the phone conversations of Americans -- the appointment of a military commander to head the nation's premier civilian intelligence gathering and analysis agency would still by the wrong move at this or any other point in American history.

Any effort to collapse the wall of separation between an agency charged with gathering the intelligence needed to enable civilians to guide and manage the military -- as the Hayden appointment would surely do -- has to be seen as a radical assault on the founding principles of the Republic.

To his credit, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the Illinois Republican who rarely differs with the White House, does see it that way.

"The Speaker does not believe that a military person should be leading the CIA, a civilian agency," explains Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean.

Hastert argues that putting a general in charge of the "CIA would give too much influence over the U.S. intelligence community to the Pentagon."

The Speaker is right, and his position parallels that of House Intelligence Committee chair Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who has led the charge against Hayden's nomination. "I do believe he's the wrong person, the wrong place, at the wrong time," Hoekstra says of Hayden. "We should not have a military person leading a civilian agency at this time."

The only problem in Hoekstra's otherwise strong statement is his "at this time" qualification.

There is never a right time to undermine the fundamental American principle that civilians should control the military -- and that those civilians should have access to the independent intelligence that alone makes real the promise of such control.

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