Outlook: Make Sure Civilians Call the Shots

Thomas A. Schweich
Outlook Contributor
Monday, December 22, 2008; 11:00 AM

"We no longer have a civilian-led government. It is hard for a lifelong Republican and son of a retired Air Force colonel to say this, but the most unnerving legacy of the Bush administration is the encroachment of the Department of Defense into a striking number of aspects of civilian government. Our Constitution is at risk.

"The decisions by President-elect Barack Obama to nominate James L. Jones, a retired four-star Marine general, to be his national security adviser and, it appears, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be his director of national intelligence present the incoming administration with an important opportunity -- and a major risk. These appointments could pave the way for these respected military officers to reverse the current trend of Pentagon encroachment upon civilian government functions, or they could complete the silent military coup d'etat that has been steadily gaining ground below the radar screen of most Americans and the media."

Thomas A. Schweich, a former Bush Administration official, was online Monday, December 22 to discuss his Outlook article on the increasing influence of the military in many areas of our government. Schweich served the Bush administration as ambassador for counter-narcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement affairs and chief of staff to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Thomas A. Schweich: Good morning everyone. Thanks for so many interesting questions. I will try to answer as many as I can given my 45-word a minute typing skills and the time limitations.

Tom Schweich


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: I appreciated your column. A good read and a good think.

Do you suppose Barack Obama will be "manly" enough to resist the Pentagon agents provocateur metastasizing throughout our national identity (government, industry, letters, infotainment) like so many cancer cells? He won't be able to do much about anything other than his government, but there's a start anyway. (I don't recall this level of societal embed when I served on active duty in the military during the end game days of Vietnam).

Or do you suppose the president-elect will achieve nothing more than George Walker Bush's third term? President Rollover or Placeholder or some nom de guerre like that? After all, he managed to avoid military service to his country - something he shares with Clinton, Bush Jr. (unless you equate duty in the champagne air force with active service), Cheney, and the rest of the chicken hawks who worked for Bush these last 8 years.

The buck has to stop somewhere. And until the White House has a chief who can publicly and honestly admit mistake making on a grand scale when it occurs (hasn't happened since I was in grade school, anyway), there's not much likelihood of removing our troops from the self-made mire of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thanks much.

Thomas A. Schweich: Thanks for your question. The reason I wrote the piece was in the hope that the new President will make a change for the better. My fear was that he is appointing a lot of ex-generals to key posts and that could cut either way. I think President-elect Obama comes with a lot of clout and goodwill, and he can reverse the trend if he knows about it, fully understands it, and gives General Jones and the others the right marching orders.


St. Louis, Mo.: First of all , thank you for your years of service.

You make increasing Defense Dept influence sound alarming. But granting that what you say is true, isn't that always the case when we are at war? Isn't it, in fact, normal for wartime? Do you accept the notion that we are at war? And that it was a war we did not choose or create?

Thank you.

Thomas A. Schweich: Several of you have asked variations on this question. The answer is yes, of course, when we are at war, the military by definition has more influence. But my concern is that the military is turning into a law enforcement, aid delivery, and political policy organization under the rubric of fighting a war, and that they are not that good at these other tasks, and expose our efforts in those areas to dangerous levels of mililtarization.

This is a different kind of war. You can argue that we are fighting in every country in the world, at our borders, and inside our borders every day, yet there is no clear enemy, no clear battlefield, very few acts of violence outside of Iraq and Afghanistan (but severe ones when they occur). That does not mean, therefore, that the military should now run our entire foreign and domestic policy. A new war needs new boundaries between civilian and military activity and authority, but not a blank check to the military. Or worse yet, an opportunity for Pentagon bureaucrats to use 'war' as an excuse to do everything that the other agencies are experts at.

We are at war. The US military is the best fighting machine in history. I remain unbelieveably impressed with what I have seen them doing under difficult circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they should take the lead in fighting wars and serve to support the rest of the government in building peace.


Lyme, Conn.: I share your concern, and I am concerned there may be a further layer of concern that not only is the military increasing its influence but it is altering its messages to those that best suit the top military brass as opposed to unbiased reporting. I wonder if the people closest to the situation are having their messages filtered and altered by higher levels of military management so that by the time it reaches the White House, there may be distorted information. Have you seen this as a problem?

Thomas A. Schweich: I did see sometimes that even the top brass at the Pentagon got filtered versions of what was going on, for example, with training Afghan security forces -- designed to look like the Pentagon efforts were a resounding success while everyone else was failing. (In fact, for a long time, no one was succeeding.) That distortion made it to the White House and the Congress. I think that aspect of the problem is improving. In Afghanistan, Generals McNeill, McKiernan, Durbin and Cone really went a long way toward open and honest reporting of the situation.


Washington, D.C. - Civilian USG Employee: Mr. Schweich, the insidious takeover of the US Government by its armed forces began with the civil service, not with the appointed executives. Federal personnel regulations used to strip retired military personnel of their pensions during post-retirement civilian service. That hasn't been the case since the Reagan administration. Now, in dozens of agencies, the key analytic, advisory, policy and administrative positions are all filled by retired 05 personnel who were unable to secure merit promotions in the DoD system. That, coupled with the Veterans' Preference system which assures that any veteran (even a totally unqualified veteran) will automatically be awarded any civil service job merely for the asking, has turned much of the Federal establishment into yet another entitlement program for otherwise-unemployable military personnel. The veterans' preference simply must be eliminated, as a Federal imperative.

Thomas A. Schweich: I cannot endorse a withdrawal of the veterans' preference. When you risk your life the way these people do, make huge personal and family sacrifices, you have earned a preference. But I do agree that rules regarding retirement and the like enable this process of populating other agencies with retired military personnel. Many of them -- most of them -- are top rate people, totally dedicated to the mission of their new agency; some are still working for the Pentagon no matter where they end up.


Austin, Tex.: I think your concern may be misplaced. The retired generals that Obama is appointing seem to be a very thoughtful, intelligent bunch. The fact that they spent their careers in the military doesn't necessarily bother me.

Indeed, it seems to me that the most troubling military-related excesses of the Bush Administration were spearheaded by people like Cheney and the neocons (few of whom, famously, ever served).

And remember, a lot of us thought that Colin Powell was one of the saner (if not more effective) members of the Bush team.

Your thoughts?

Thomas A. Schweich: You make a valid point. When I referred to the military, I meant uniformed and non-uniformed people (civilians) who work at the Pentagon. When referred to "civilians", I was referring to non-Pentagon people -- i.e. those who work at State, Justice, etc. I should have been clearer. Many of the people that have caused this encroachment that worries me are Pentagon bureaucrats who either never served in the military or did so a long time ago. And I agree that the retired generals appointed by President-elect Obama are both thoughtful and brilliant. But they need a commander in chief who is going to ensure that the energy and action of these generals is devoted to carefully redefining the roles of the various agencies in foreign and domestic policy, recognizing that the military is not the right organizaton to lead development, police training, and other such activity.


Melbourne, Fla.: Initially DoD did not seem interested in being involved in the counternarcotics aspect of the mission in Afghanistan. If fact, they were not supportive of State Department efforts in this arena. Now, they have made the declaration that they will be involved in counternarcotics interdiction when related to other aspects of the mission. Do you think this is a positive or negative development?

Thomas A. Schweich: Good question. Initially the military actually undermined much counternarcotics activity in Afghanistan(some of this undermining was by non-US military personnel). Now NATO has changed its rules of engagement to become more involved. The key is that the military authorities should support and enable civilian law enforcement efforts -- providing intelligence, force protection for police, etc. -- not take it over.


Clancy, Montana: I agree 100% with your article. Not to make this another anti-Bush comment, but none of what has occurred could have taken place if we had a President who minded the store. What he allowed Cheney/Rumsfeld to do will be the largest stain on his presidency.

Thomas A. Schweich: You know I agree that some of this encroachment occurred because the White House got a filtered view of the situation. But I am not as down on President Bush as you are. We have not been attacked since 9/11; he made a lot of progess in Africa (without Africom); and the surge in Iraq was an unpopular, gutsy move that paid off and seems to have turned a bad situation around. However, I think we could have achieved those successes and could achieve more without this slow quiet creep of the military mission. That is the point of the article.


Arlington, Va.: Good morning Mr. Schweich -- I enjoyed your article and was wondering if you could provide a few more thoughts on the 20,000 US Army soldiers being deployed here in the U.S. Most Americans would see the broad stamps of "homeland security" and "emergency response" and likely accept military support on the homefront as in the nation's best interest. Why should Americans be concerned about this development? As for potential posse comitatus violations, the canned explanation seems to be that these soldiers won't be acting in any law enforcement capacity, therefore, they are within the law. what do you say to that?

Thomas A. Schweich: Good question. Homeland security is the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security and local police forces. I have no doubt that the military with its vastly greater funding and well trained troops could help. It is just my experience that when they get involved, they elbow everyone else out of the picture; and that is my concern.


Washington, D.C.: Tom: I think that many of us who have worked beside the US military in the past few years -- my experience was in Afghanistan -- have come away with the same concerns that you so eloquently expressed in your article.

Recalling an earlier op-ed by you, nowhere has the failure of military-led, military-dominated policy been more egregious than in the effort to establish democratic governance and promote legitimate economic development in Afghanistan. It was clear from the beginning that the policy of attempting to do so while turning our backs on exploding drug production and related drug-fueled corruption would fail, and it surely has. I wonder how much we can expect of the Obama Administration when General Jones, one of its principals, has co-authored the "Afghanistan Study Group Report" which basically endorses the present counter narcotics strategy, which by any measure has been a complete fiasco?

Thomas A. Schweich: Thanks for the question. My concern with the Afghanistan Study Group report was that it advocated legalization of the poppy crop. This is a very bad idea, typical of nonexperts looking for the silver bullet. The experts considered this idea very carefully. The problem with it is 1- the price for legal opium is a tiny fraction of the price of illegal opium, so why would anyone switch? 2- The only way to get them to grow legal opium would be through a massive multi billion dollar subsidy. But a subsidy at high prices would then encourage the 85% of Afghan farmers who grow legal crops to switch to opium, making the cost of the subsidy higher, the price of legal opium lower, and of course, the food shortage in Afghanistan worse-- a narco-welfare state. Plus there exists no infrastructure to manufacture or distribute legal opium; there is an oversupply of legal opium on the market now; there is no capacity to ensure that the opium stays off the black market; and the two principal producers of legal opium under international conventions, India and Turkey, are adamently opposed to legalizing Afghan opium.

I say all this just to show why it is such a bad idea for non expert military personnel to be making civilian law enforcement policy.

The current policy: Public information and education, alternative crops, eradication where farmers won't accept alternatives offered to them, interdiction and arrest of traffickers and prosecution of corrupt officials is in fact working in the north and east of the country where there is relative stability -- 3 years ago there were no poppy free provinces in Afghanistan, now there are 20 (out of 34); and there was a 19% drop nationwide last year. The reason we cannot get the south turned around is because there is a raging insurgency there and we need military support for counter-narcotics efforts, which, thus far, has not occurred.

So I think this issue proves the point made in the article.


Washington, D.C. : As someone who works in one of the civilian agencies, I read your article thinking that it's about time that this hit the news. Every day at work I see the mission creep of the Pentagon into authorities of other Departments. They start with something small and "justified" due to the two wars (and often soften it by accepting the requirement for another Department's concurrence), and then use it as an inroad to expand even further. From my perspective, it is almost as if they are trying to eliminate the need to work with any other Department, and it is a scary thing. I hope that this will change with the new transition, but it is hard to kill a program once it has gained momentum.

Thomas A. Schweich: That basically hits the point of my article on the head. Now, of course, the Pentagon has thousands of amazing employees who are not mission creepers; most of this activity as I saw it was the result of the actions of a group of political appointees and a few career uniformed and non-uniformed types who viewed this unfortunate situation we find ourselves in after 9/11 as a personal career opportunity. But I remain a great admirer of most people at the Pentagon.


Springfield, Va.: Do you see rising military influence as a result of a desire by uniformed military to play a more prominent role in traditionaly non-military functions, or a a result of the military using their traditional "can-do" attitude to fill in gaps in capability of civilian organizations? Or perhaps is it more of a power-struggle between DoD civilian appointees and leaders from other agencies?

Thanks for your answer.

Thomas A. Schweich: It is a little of everything. Let me be the first to say that my former department, State, made a lot of mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan too. And the people there are working to correct those mistakes. But what separates State, Justice, and AID from the Pentagon is that I think the former agencies are trying to stay within their areas of expertise and not expand out to areas that they are not qualified to lead.


Anonymous: Sir : You may be delusional. Iraq is a broken and divided country. The surge was a minor event in the mix of things and as soon as our troops leave we will see bloodshed tenfold in Iraq.

Thomas A. Schweich: I am not delusional but maybe a bit too optimistic.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Schweich, thanks for an engaging and thoughtful commentary, I had only one question...

In this post 9-11 world, how can we really expect civilian power to accomplish anything in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, when the only people who can get out into towns and villages are the military? Should the US government do a better job of embedding civilians with the military? What do you think is the best way to reach those hard to get to places?

Thomas A. Schweich: You answer your own question. The military should provide support to civilian efforts rather than declaring them a failure and taking them over. I realize there are resource limitations but -- for example -- in Afghanistan, I think we would be further along had the military provided adequate protection to Community Development Council projects, maybe even at the expense of sending missiles into homes of Taliban with often unfortunatel collateral casualties. Now I have to be careful here, because I do not want to act like a military expert (and be guilty of what I am criticizing others for) but I do think that the military might be more successful if it devoted more resources to force protection of civilian efforts to build confidence among the people.


Washington, D.C.: I will say this briefly: I quit my good job at the Office of the Secretary of Defense over this kind of encroachment in 2005. I await the change back to a civilian government for me to return to that world. As it is, there is much in the civlian US infrastructure I can contribute to before I return to a normalized, Americanized DOD. Once DOD is re-Americanized, I will be back.

Thomas A. Schweich: Hopefully you will see some positive change soon. I wrote the piece to be one voice in support of a new approach.


I Bet You Will Not Submit This, Washington D.C.: Unfortunately the author failed to acknowledge the inability of many of the organizations to accomplish their assigned tasks without the active involvement/support of DoD (either in direct support or by hiring former Military to take the lead): counterdrug operations in CONUS and OCONUS, State Department failures to take the bull by the horns in Afghanistan and Iraq so that DoD had to work on election preparations, corrections and police training, etc. When no one else can get the job done, they always come calling: INS/Border Patrol/Customs = Cuban refugees, Haitian refugees, (late 80s and mid 90s) sound familiar?

Not to mention how much FEMA, the FBI, and others rely on DoD for support in CONUS.

If he had acknowledged the inability or unwillingness of those Federal agencies to step up without DoD support, I would agree with his article. Unfortunately, he didn't. DoD has the leaders with the experience and ability to manage most large Federal bureaucracies... that's a fact.

Thomas A. Schweich: Now that was a dilemma. You challenged me with the hope that I would take the bait. So I was tempted not to! But since a couple of others have made similar points and I cannot get to all the questions, I will indulge you.

DoD has many good leaders. Not many good followers. With the complex situation we have in fighting terror, DoD actually needs both types. If you look at my previous answers, I have advocated a strong supporting role for DoD in civilian efforts, especially where people are shooting at us. My problem is that, outside of pure warfighting, where DoD should always call the shots, DoD tends to let a project fail for lack of DoD support and then take it over, letting nonexperts lead. The result is not usually very good.


Thomas A. Schweich: I am sorry I am out of time; I only got to a fraction of the questions but tried to cover most topics. Thanks for such a healthy dialogue on such an important topic.


Tom Schweich


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