15 March 2009

The Pentagon and the Presidency

One of my military colleagues recently lent me a fascinating book on the relationship between the US military leadership (Chiefs of Staff) and the Presidency, covering every President from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush.

It is written by Dale R. Herspring, who served in the State Department in Washington (running the Office of Security Affairs) and various Embassies including in Moscow, where he was responsible for political-military affairs. He also had two assignments in the Pentagon – one in the office of the Secretary of Defense, and one in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published books on the Soviet High Command, on Russian civil-military relations, on Putin’s Russia, and on “Rumsfeld’s Wars”.

In each chapter of The Pentagon and the Presidency: Civil Military Relations from FDR to George W. Bush, University Press of Kansas, 2005, Herspring analyses the leadership style of the President (they vary greatly) and how that style fits with the military leadership culture. He then analyses the relationship through the lens of the major issues of the day – the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the attempted rescue of the embassy hostages from Tehran, the First Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq, and a host of others – usually two or three for each presidency.

This book is essential background reading for anyone who is following the emerging story of the relationship between President Obama and the current military leadership. On 2 February columnist Gareth Porter reported in the political newsletter Counter Punch that Central Command commander General David Petraeus, supported by Defence Secretary Robert Gates, tried on 21 January to persuade the President that he had to back down on his campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 18 months.

The President did not agree and according to Porter Petraeus was visibly unhappy when he left the Oval Office. Porter reports that Obama's decision to override Petraeus's recommendation has not ended the conflict over the troop withdrawal and that there are indications that Petraeus and his allies in the military and the Pentagon, including General Ray Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, have already begun to try to pressure Obama to change his withdrawal policy.

The key political risk for Obama in all of this is, of course, the risk that any adverse developments in Iraq will be attributed to his failure to listen to his military advisers, and Porter reports that a network of military opponents is already preparing a campaign against the withdrawal, which will begin with adverse backgrounding of the media. Porter’s full report can be found here.

A convenient way to access book titles that are out of print or unlikely to be in the local bookstore is Abebooks, which offers second hand and new books from world-wide booksellers. It has a good search engine – you can search by author and/or title, do not need to put in a complete title (eg searching on “Pentagon” will throw up every offering with the word Pentagon in the title), you can narrow your search within the results of a search, you can ask for Australian and New Zealand booksellers to be listed first, and you can ask for titles to be listed in ascending order of price so that the cheapest offerings come first. In my experience the descriptions of the condition for second hand books is reliable.

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