An Invitation to Meddlers

An Invitation to Meddlers

"The Surprising Logic of Transparency" by Bernard I. Finel and Kristin M. Lord, in International Studies Quarterly (June 1999), Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 350 Main St., Malden, Mass. 02148.

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"Military Success Requires Political Direction" by Ian Bryan, in Strategic Review (Fall 1999), United States Strategic Institute, P.O. Box 15618, Kenmore Station, Boston, Mass. 02215.

Ever since the Vietnam War, when President Lyndon Johnson and other civilians allegedly "meddled" in military matters with disastrous results, the view has taken hold in Washington that once America’s elected leaders decide to go to war, they should then step aside and let the generals and admirals determine how best to achieve victory. But history suggests just the opposite lesson, contends Bryan, a U.S. Air Force captain. "Political leaders should intervene in military affairs when necessary to ensure that military action supports national policy."

What is purported to be the objective "military view" on employing force in a particular situation may largely reflect the military’s bureaucratic imperatives or interservice rivalries, Bryan notes. The air force, for instance, "has historically been more interested in promoting strategic bombing," with itself in control, while the army naturally prefers close air support of ground forces, with an army commander in charge. Sometimes the factions collude, Bryan says, leaving "the country paying for unnecessarily redundant capabilities, or fighting its wars inefficiently so that each service gets a piece of the action." Because all the services took major roles in the attempted Iranian hostage rescue in 1979 and in the invasion of tiny Grenada in 1983, some analysts say, the operational complexity and risks involved were needlessly increased.

Sometimes, the judgments involved in military action go well beyond simple military expertise, Bryan observes. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, the military wanted to intercept Soviet ships 800 miles from Cuba. But President John F. Kennedy ordered a 500-mile line instead, giving the Soviets more time to consider the ramifications of challenging the blockade. "Fortunately," Bryan adds, "since we now know there were about 100 tactical nuclear weapons and 43,000 Soviet troops in Cuba, Kennedy also rejected the Joint Chiefs’ unanimous recommendation to invade the island even after the Soviet ships turned around."

Civilian direction was also vital in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Bryan contends. Most U.S. military leaders initially failed to grasp the political importance of destroying mobile SCUD missiles, which were inaccurate and posed little military danger. The SCUDs, he notes, could have drawn Israel into the war, shattering the Arab coalition.

Even in the case of Vietnam, says Bryan, Johnson’s micromanagement of the war has been much exaggerated. "Johnson’s real blunder was that he pursued a flawed overall policy in Vietnam, not that he forced military action in line with that policy. . . . In fact, there were many areas"— such as General William Westmoreland’s counterproductive attrition strategy— "where the Johnson administration should have intervened to change military policy in Vietnam, but failed to do so."


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