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MediaWatch:Print
Smackdown
Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Slams Critic
Richard Myers Spars With Academic in Letters to Foreign Affairs
08/13/2007 1:59 PM ET
WASHINGTON, : US Joint Chiefs of Staff US Chairman Air Force General Richard B. Myers answers questions as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (R) looks on during a press briefing 21 February 2002.
Joyce Naltchayan/Getty
WASHINGTON, : US Joint Chiefs of Staff US Chairman Air Force General Richard B. Myers answers questions as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (R) looks on during a press briefing 21 February 2002.

The typically staid content of Foreign Affairs has been invaded by a heated exchange over the proper civilian-military balance of DOD affairs, and a revisionist assessment of the advice of military leadership in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

Michael Desch's wrote a long piece in the May/June 2007 Foreign Affairs in which he examined a common accusation that President Bush and his top civilian advisers at the Pentagon disregarded the expertise of the generals in planning for the invasion of Iraq.

Desch reported that by overruling the advice of military commanders, the DOD under Rumsfeld engendered a state of severely strained civilian-military relations, and advised that one of Secretary Robert Gates's most important tasks would be to restore the balance and repair the damage done by his predecessors.

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers took issue with Desch's account of the civilian leadership overruling military advice, and joins with military historian Richard Kohn to rebut Desch's piece in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs.

Myers and Kohn charge Desch with "significant errors of fact and interpretation," and argue that decisions regarding the timing of the invasion and the number of troops it would require were taken in consultation with the military leadership.

Both were the result of over a year of questioning and discussion back and forth, and the final plan contained contingencies for different numbers of forces depending on the course of the campaign. To be sure, the combatant commander often found the probing and questioning of plans by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff distasteful. But in the end, all involved supported the final plan regardless of the disagreements along the way.

But even after going to great lengths to make the case that the military was not overruled, the pair concludes that the president and the secretary of defense have "the authority and the right to reject or ignore military advice whenever they wish."

The piece concludes with a dig at Desch's intellect: "Even if Desch does not understand or accept that, the military does -- and so, too, do the American people."

Desch responds to the substance of the criticisms with specific examples illustrating the displeasure of military leaders, and doesn't restrain himself from taking a shot at the motivation of his critics.

If taken at face value, Myers and Kohn's assertion that "in the end, all involved supported the final plan" is a damning indictment of the competence of the senior military leadership, including Myers himself, who assures us he had Rumsfeld's ear. I see it, instead, as an indication that after enough time and pressure, generals will eventually give their civilian bosses the answers they want.

Beyond the thrill of reading military academics get respectfully bitchy with each other, Desch's original piece and the editorial responses to it offers a good starting point for readers interested in the debate over the proper balance of civilian control over military affairs.

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