Last Sunday the New York Times detailed how the administration has used retired military offices as a “Trojan horse” to sell the Iraq war. We owe it to the soldiers serving there to ask some hard questions in response.
For more on pruning back executive power see Pruning Shears.
The war in Iraq refuses to be dismissed. Its ongoing cost in blood and treasure will be at or near the top of our concerns for as long as it lasts. It stays there no matter how much political elites want us to look elsewhere or media elites want to keep from highlighting the painful, ongoing slog. I believe the vast majority of us grieves a little each time we hear the day’s price. If it is nothing more than a dry recitation of the latest handful of dead in the latest attack, if the report is stuck at the end of a segment or broadcast, if it is treated with the same numerical curiosity as a minor fluctuation of the stock market – it still casts a long shadow with us. We understand that they died by our command, and we feel the weight of the morality that decision has had and continues to have. The “chickenhawk” epithet has some validity in the following sense: Those who advocate forcefully for war without having participated in one up close may be fairly questioned on whether they regard the inevitable horrors (intended and otherwise) too lightly. I believe the lack of such experience among our civilian leaders – and indeed their affirmative action to avoid it – has led them to run the armed services with a shocking lack of empathy or humanity. Those of us with no pride on the line or vanity at stake are justified in questioning its continuation with each new piece of tragic news.
When America goes to war it expands the power of the executive almost by its very nature, and our leaders have been eager to take advantage. In wartime all eyes turn to the President; s/he can use the attention as a powerful platform. Presidents are more likely to make extraordinary claims (our most celebrated President suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War) and citizens are more likely to tolerate them out of a sense of patriotism and national emergency. Our current President has used commander in chief as a title, not a role, and seems to regard himself as a kind of modern proconsul. In the best of times a domineering head of the military can cow his ostensible coequals. This is even truer in a time of war, more so still when there is a failure of courage and leadership among those charged with checking abuses. We have lived through both these past six years, and one key part of the administration’s campaign of intimidation was an orchestrated effort to fill the media with partisans posing as objective analysts.
David Barstow described the effort in the New York Times on Sunday. It was well beyond the usual stuff; every White House tries to shape opinion and get its surrogates talking up the latest spin. His report raises new questions. For example, is there any generally accepted practice for how closely retired military officers may be to the Pentagon when they lobby for its favored policies? How trustworthy is a recently retired general in analyzing the plans and performance of officers of long and fond acquaintance? There is a waiting period between leaving Congress and starting work as a paid lobbyist – is there any similar requirement for the military? Is it acceptable for them to pursue military and intelligence contracts immediately upon leaving? How does the administration justify using taxpayer funds to pay for its sympathizers to travel back and forth to Iraq? Barstow mentions “three Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq” for one supporter, and in a follow up Q & A article noted that
when a group of analysts were taken to Iraq in 2003, they were flown each morning on military transport planes from their hotel in Kuwait to Baghdad, and then back to Kuwait at day’s end. They traveled around Iraq in heavily guarded convoys. In recent years, the Pentagon has paid the commercial airfare of some analysts who participated in trips to Iraq.
Forget about custom or the appearance of impropriety, is it even legal for us to be paying for executive branch cheerleaders to go back and forth to Iraq?
Could anyone ask some of these questions of the candidates? Will they take a position on the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry? How about publicly funded junkets for favored partisans? Are there any war-related claims of power that trouble them? If they take a position will it include a promise of concrete action or will it just be feel-good blather that has wiggle room for continuing the status quo? These may seem like just so many abstract ideas but they have had real world consequences. Continuing national support for the war deserves to be based on a clear understanding of these new revelations. The soldiers who suffer and die in our name, and their loved ones, deserve at least that much honesty.