Johns Hopkins University Professor Eliot Cohen recently penned a Washington Post op-ed decrying U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He charges the general with breaching “proper civil-military relations” and tacitly violating our Constitution by publicly expressing misgivings about the likelihood of solving our problems with Syria by meddling in the nation’s civil war.
But the professor is wrong about Dempsey’s unique role in this debate and owes the general an apology.
Dempsey ran afoul of Cohen apparently because he has urged caution in the rush to war against the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad. The general announced that while the application of U.S. power might tip the balance in the ongoing civil war pitting Assad against a wide range of insurgent groups, it likely would fail to resolve or mitigate “the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.”
Most people read those words for what they are—the wise advice given by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to his boss, the president, and the wider democracy currently mulling another U.S. war in the Middle East. They also would realize that the man uttering them might know what he’s talking about since he has experienced firsthand the futility of trying to end Civil Wars in the Middle East at the barrel of an American gun.
But Cohen isn’t like most people. He thinks Dempsey committed a sin against the Constitution by telegraphing his “skepticism about any use of force in Syria.”
The reality is that America should have heard more realistic and cautious views about the likelihood of military success on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Wiser counsel might have spared the wastage of trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives in a fanciful campaign to morph Iraqi society into a democratic and capitalistic society at the barrel of a gun.
Drunk with neoconservative fantasies of how a swift overthrow of the brutal Saddam Hussein regime would transform Baghdad into a sort of American Utopia, our policymakers instead embarked on a long and bloody occupation of Iraq.
Today, the nation we invaded and the government we propped up is pitted against us in Syria, as is the Iranian regime we strengthened by destroying its most formidable foe, Hussein.
We continue to wage war in Afghanistan. Had our political leaders received better advice from our generals in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, however, we might have been spared the expensive nation building experiment that followed the quick defeat of the Taliban and our chief ideological enemies, al-Qaeda. Instead, we remain mired in a trillion-dollar effort to radically transform an ancient culture.
No longer focused directly on our real enemies, al-Qaeda, the trillion-dollar U.S. campaign has achieved few of our foreign policy objectives in the region and cannot be balanced with the vast expenditures in blood and treasure required to sustain it for the past dozen years.
In 2005—two years into the Iraqi debacle and long after Americans realized that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found or a peaceful democracy likely to emerge—Cohen would cluck that the rationale for invading the nation was still “sound.”
As our campaign in Afghanistan crumbled in 2009, Cohen became a chief cheerleader in the myths being spread about the efficacy of counterinsurgency campaigns scripted by a pair of celebrity U.S. Army generals, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. By adopting their COIN plans for Kabul, Cohen predicted that President Barack Obama had sized a sound “theory for victory” in Afghanistan.
The theories of professors often fail when confronted with the facts of war, and Cohen’s prognostications about Afghanistan have not fared well. Today, the embattled nation is recording higher levels of violence than it did in 2009, and our democracy has grown weary of the blood-spattered experiment.
Despite his track record, Cohen has reemerged as a leading hawk calling for American intervention in Syria’s internal war. As an American, he most certainly is entitled to his opinion, and he’s right that generals usually should remain above the political fray when the democracy debates war.
But that does not necessarily apply to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Statutorily, Dempsey uniquely serves as the leading voice of the generals and admirals of the services when they dispense advice to civilian policymakers.
If their civilian overseers decide to commit American troops to Syria, the Chiefs and their generals will do their jobs bravely and zealously, regardless of their misgivings about the likely outcome of the battle. But before we commit our sons and daughters to war, should not the President, our Congress, and the wider democracy debate our path to battle and our plans for winning for it?
By raising concerns about traditional civil-military separations, Cohen really is seeking to marginalize the informed expertise of one of the few high-ranking officers who should be talking aloud about military options and the likelihood of their success.
While generals always should be subservient to their civilian masters, Dempsey was chosen specifically to speak aloud at moments like this in our history.
For once, maybe we should listen.
Gian Gentile is a serving army colonel. In 2006 he commanded a combat battalion in West Baghdad and he holds a PhD in history from Stanford University. He is the author of Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.