Alex Massie

The Chain of Command

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Rounding-up some reactions to the new Bob Woodward tome, James Joyner asks a good, if disturbing, question: what happened to civilian control?

Bernard Finel, a professor at the National War College and Atlantic Council contributing editor, goes further:  "President Obama seems to be in over his head in trying to deal with national security. He has not been able to control the process.  He’s been manipulated by his generals.  He’s been frustrated in his efforts to put his own stamp on Afghanistan policy.  Instead of setting policy, he’s been cast in the role of fighting a rear-guard battle against the Petraeus preference for a multi-decade, nation-building commitment to Afghanistan. Even now, forces continue to mobilize against any effort to impose a timeline on the commitment, and frankly, it is hard to imagine Obama being able to change course before 2012."

Pat Lang, a retired Special Forces colonel and Senior Intelligence Service executive, is sharper still: "The bottom line here is that President Obama does not really have the generals under control. This is a potentially disastrous portent for America's future. The president makes policy. The generals carry it out. "

Now, I happen to fall short of thinking, as Murphy puts it, that Obama was "rolled" by the generals. It's hard to come away from the snippets released thus far and come away with a view other than a president deeply aware of the strategic and political risks and rewards and making a cool decision based on the available options. But it's rather clear that the key generals, most notably McChrystal and Petraeus, were also political actors, using the prestige of their uniforms and their savvy at selective leaks to the press, to make it much more difficult for their Commander in Chief to deny them more time and troops. And that's cause for discomfort.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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