What if America’s trust in military leadership erodes?

November 13, 2012

Generals John R. Allen, left, and David Petraeus, center, talk with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. (Paul J. Richards -- Getty Images)

It's not just that 78 percent of Americans trust their military. A four-decades Gallup poll has long found that they trust it consistently and significantly more than any other institution, political or cultural, included in their annual survey. When it comes to public confidence, everyone else falls short: schools, police, the media, government, the church, even small business. And trust in the military actually has been improving, even as public trust in other institutions is trending downward.

But it's been a rough year for the leadership class of the half-trillion-dollar American military, and a bruising week for some of its most visible and well-placed stars. The investigation into CIA Director David Petraeus, who built his reputation as a four-star general in Iraq and Afghanistan, has also now ensnared General John R. Allen, who leads U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

The extent of the possible allegations against Allen is still unclear – investigators found "potentially inappropriate" e-mails between the married general and a married civilian woman who also received threatening e-mails from Petraeus's alleged paramour – but it has attached a second very senior military name to the greater Petraeus scandal.

The growing scandal adds to "a worrisomely large number of senior officers [who] have been investigated and even fired for poor judgment, malfeasance and sexual improprieties or sexual violence," Thom Shanker writes in The New York Times, and "just in the last year." Shanker added, "The episodes have prompted concern that something may be broken, or at least fractured, across the military’s culture of leadership." He cited a Navy study that 20 commanding officers had been fired for inappropriate conduct just in the last year.

Gallup's study found that "Americans tend to express much greater confidence in the military when the U.S. is actively engaged in military operations," which has now been true for over 10 years and is expected to continue at least another two in Afghanistan. But, if this trust could lead military commanders to grant themselves permission to digress, could it actually be counterproductive for both the military and the American national interests that it serves?

Shanker cites "some military officers and Pentagon officials" as suggesting that "commanders may come to view their sacrifice as earning them the right to disregard rules of conduct" because of the wide berth – perhaps even deference – they are granted by a grateful and highly trusting society.

But if this week's still-unraveling scandal puts a dent in the military's vaunted and "apart" reputation in America, is it possible that the drumbeat of scandals in the top brass (as I type this, former four-star general Kip Ward has been ordered to repay $82,000 in misused funds) could actually be good for the military, pulling its commanders out of their bubble and back down to planet Earth? Foreign Policy's Dan Drezner argues that greater humility among and public skepticism about America's generals and admirals could improve U.S. national security policy (emphasis in bold is mine):

The military and intelligence communities have been doing a lot of things over the past decade that fall outside the bounds of traditional American foreign policy practices.  I'm not saying all of these new things are bad -- it's a new century, new threats, and so forth.  But most Americans have passively gifted these agencies an awful lot of goodwill for them to do what they want.  I wonder whether a sex scandal will change all that.

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Olga Khazan · November 13, 2012