The ‘Military-Academic Complex’ and US Government Policy
Michael Flynn, “The Surge of Ideas” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, June 24, 2010)
Michael Flynn from the Institute for Policy Studies writes this week about the influence of the ‘military-academic complex’, and how key American military officers have used independent think tanks to influence the US government’s policies on Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Flynn, “In recent years there has been a tendency for like-minded think tanks and military officers to jointly pursue policy objectives, sometimes in direct conflict with the stated preferences of the president and his advisers. According to some observers, this trend raises questions about the appropriate role of both military officers, who are part of a chain of command, and think tanks, which present themselves as ‘non-partisan’ appraisers of public policy”.
Flynn relates how earlier this year General David Petraeus, who will now head American operations in Afghanistan in place of General Stanley McChrystal, spoke about US involvement in the Middle East at an event in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Institute for the Study of War. At the event Petraeus praised the think tank for their contribution to a report entitled ‘Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq’, which he referred to as a “study and analysis that did indeed have a strategic impact unlike that of any other study or analysis that I can think of”. This report was central to building public support for America’s ‘surge’ of troops into Iraq in 2007, which increased the US military presence by 30,000 soldiers. Petraeus said the think tank had provided, “the rationale for the additional forces that were required [and] described how they might be used in Iraq … I think it played a very significant role in helping to shape the intellectual concepts and indeed, in helping to shape the ultimate policy decision that was made”.
While it is no surprise that the private academic world of think tanks can have a significant impact lobbying the government for certain policies, it may be of more concern that the US military plays an active role in assisting them. Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress points out that as the commander in Iraq, Petraeus supported the work of journalists like Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack with military-sponsored tours of the nation, hand-picking them because he knew they favoured the ‘surge’ policy. By giving these analysts unrivalled access to sites and personnel Petraeus turned them into media ‘experts’, in comparison to whom the critics of the surge policy appeared to be outsiders who could be ignored. As Foreign Policy blogger Laura Rozen wrote last year, Petraeus’ promotion of the Iraq surge was part of “the Petraeus team’s famous counterinsurgency doctrine: In the campaign to win hearts and minds, don’t forget the home front”.
The recently-removed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed U.S. forces in Afghanistan until the recent controversy surrounding an article in Rolling Stone magazine, also waged a public relations campaign against the new Obama administration. During 2009 McChrystal manoeuvred to promote his preferred counter-insurgency plan despite resistance from President Obama, using a ‘strategic assessment’ team including: the Kagans from the Institute for the Study of War, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution. Flynn writes that “these civilian experts … began appearing on major media outlets promoting ideas largely in line with General McChrystal’s, defending his decision to publicly contradict the administration in a speech, or pushing an optimistic view of the Afghan situation”. They also ran a series of public events at which Petraeus and other high-ranking military officials could present their perspectives on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These ‘objective experts’ and ‘non-partisan forums’ were all part of a campaign by the military to influence public discussion, and ultimately put additional pressure on the country’s elected leadership to give-in to military demands.
Also part of this military-academic complex is the practice of policy groups recruiting retired officers to their advisory boards, many of whom simultaneously take up defence industry jobs (completing the military-industrial-academic complex triangle). “As the New York Times reported in 2008, some of these retired officers—like Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, a CSP advisor, and Gen. Barry McCaffery, a former board member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq—have developed reputations as ‘impartial’ experts, appearing on TV news programs while surreptitiously receiving talking points from the Pentagon”. As the Democratic Party have always struggled to be taken seriously on national security issues, some say that many Democrats have over-compensated by taking non-critical and even hawkish positions in regards to the military, thus even lessening the amount of government constraint over the military hierarchy.
While most would agree that a government should listen to what its military has to say, two points that should be clear are that: in the end the elected, civilian government is who should make the final decisions; and the military should not be able to collude with independent lobbyists in the public arena to deceptively influence discussions on government policy, and to even undermine a government’s electoral support. As there are also rumours that General Petraeus may be planning to run for the US presidency in the not too distant future, the degree to which his actions and decisions are already part of a long election campaign must be considered. The United States rails against regimes overseas in which the military is a dominant political force – perhaps this issue also requires greater attention at home.