Belaboring the Obvious

Monday, July 05, 2010

Hmm. I'm a little confused by...

... this article by Mel Goodman at Consortium News.

Many people today have concentrated on Eisenhower largely because of two speeches that bookended his term in office--his "Cross of Iron" speech in 1953 and his Farewell Address in 1961--as the person who best understood how to handle military minds, both in the Pentagon and in the nether world of intelligence operations, and Goodman makes this same point, for the purposes of illustrating how lack of experience with the military undermined Kennedy, Johnson and now, Obama.

In doing so, Goodman (whose general perceptions of the CIA's operations and leadership have been extremely helpful in understanding the increasing politicization--and militarization--of the country's intelligence services) buys into a bit of the hagiography surrounding Eisenhower. While he notes that Eisenhower signed off on operations such as Ajax and PBSUCCESS, which overthrew the governments of Iran and Guatemala, he nevertheless implies that the disasters of Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs had their origins in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and were the result of a naïveté about how the military operates, something of which, by definition, Eisenhower could never be accused.

The matter is much more complicated by the history of those times than Goodman suggests. While it is conventional wisdom to blame the origins of the Vietnam war and the Bay of Pigs on Kennedy, the facts suggest otherwise. Taking Vietnam first, it was, in fact, Eisenhower who began the covert war in Vietnam, using the CIA, almost immediately after French withdrawal after Dien Bien Phu, to destabilize both North and South and make U.N.-ordered unification elections impossible (because, even then, it was known by the CIA that 80% of the country would support Ho Chi Minh and his national liberation party). It was Eisenhower's CIA which plucked Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic with French sympathies (to run an overwhelmingly Buddhist country!), out of obscurity in exile and installed him in the newly-formed government of South Vietnam. It was Eisenhower's CIA which spent considerable amounts of money for the clandestine services of academics (particularly from Michigan State) to build a government around Diem. Finally, it was Eisenhower who first authorized the deployment of the U.S. military to Vietnam, in 1958. Though they were described as "advisors," that term fooled very few (it's a matter of record that some of the very earliest American deaths in that war were of NSA personnel doing signals interception in areas of combat).

It was that situation which Kennedy inherited. The same was true of the Bay of Pigs. That operation was begun with Eisenhower's approval, and training in Guatemala commenced in earnest in May, 1960, months before the election that would put Kennedy in the White House. As importantly, it was known in some circles in Eisenhower's administration and in the CIA that the Bay of Pigs operation could not succeed without the intervention and support of the U.S. military. From the start, it was seen by some as a means of precipitating a full-scale military invasion of Cuba.

And yet, that was not the way it was sold to Kennedy when he reauthorized the operation. To my knowledge, no one in the CIA or in Eisenhower's administration warned him of the operation's almost certain failure. There's almost no question, either, that Nixon, had he won, would have used the military as the back end of the plan required, despite the knowledge that the Soviet response was entirely unpredictable. Kennedy might have been able to smell the political trap being set for him were he less invested in his own anti-communist sentiments, but, that he'd been suckered by the CIA and the prior administration at the time of his reauthorization is not in question.

Then there's the matter of Eisenhower, because of his Farewell Address, knowing how to handle the military. The simple truth is that what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex had its birth and adolescence in Eisenhower's two terms, and much of the midwifery and nursing was accomplished by Eisenhower's first Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson. It was through programs such as those to have the taxpayers pay for not only military equipment, but for the production facilities themselves, as well (under the delusion that this would greatly speed up the conversion of commercial industry to war materiel production at the outbreak of war), that cemented the relationships between the Pentagon, the manufacturers and Congress that continue to bedevil the nation today.

The second considerable problem with this benign view of Eisenhower is that, by and large, Eisenhower left the Pentagon to its own devices, in part because much of its leadership had served under him during WWII. The general view of the Pentagon brass at the time was that the only President deserving of the title would be a former general, and it was that attitude which was at the core of the disdain for civilian control of the military. When Kennedy entered office, he also inherited Eisenhower's military leadership, and the Joint Chiefs' office, along with its high command, was at the time a rat's nest of Birchers and right-wing extremists.

It's at this point that using Kennedy as an example to explain Obama falls well short. Kennedy could figure out what was going on and did. After a sufficient number of warnings, Kennedy relieved Gen. Edwin Walker of his European command, and transferred Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer (who was on Eisenhower's staff in WWII and to whom Eisenhower entrusted the Joint Chiefs chairmanship) to NATO, to get him out of the Joint Chiefs' office. In what may be the best account yet of the Cuban missile crisis, Michael Dobbs makes clear in his One Minute to Midnight that it was Kennedy alone--against the advice of his staff and even, initially, that of his brother, Robert--who resisted the continuing demands of the military to escalate the situation to all-out war.

Kennedy also knew that he had to win the public's approval on his handling of the military without getting into the gory details (such as proposals from the Pentagon like Operation Northwoods), and to that end, he convinced Eisenhower that the situation inside the Pentagon was, indeed, serious, and enlisted Eisenhower to appear on television--as much in his capacity as the old general as ex_President--to affirm the need for civilian control of the military, and Kennedy himself embarked upon a series of speeches across the country on the dangers of extremism of all stripes (something Obama has been loathe to do for fear of being charged with incivility toward the batshit right wing). Finally, it was Kennedy, in Oct., 1963, who signed an executive order establishing the orderly withdrawal of the military he had sent to Vietnam.

Johnson's relationship to the military was more complicated. It was not that he mistrusted the military from the start but was insufficiently knowledgeable to stop them, as Goodman implies. Johnson, first of all, mistrusted the Kennedys, so he was inclined to discount decisions made by them. It might have been for that reason that he rescinded Kennedy's withdrawal order just a few days after Kennedy was assassinated. Johnson was also, in private, frequently heard to say that he was not going to be the first President to lose a war--most of those around Johnson in the early months of his Presidency understood that Johnson and his notably large ego were heavily invested in war success. And then, even though Johnson was said to be fully cognizant that the circumstances in the Gulf of Tonkin were not as advertised, he put a lot of political weight behind the war resolution that was the basis for a dramatic escalation of the war. Early on, it seems, Johnson wanted that war just as much as did the military. In that time period, Johnson and the military were acting cooperatively, rather than adversarily. It was not until the tremendous influx of soldiers and increased bombing failed to diminish the determination of the North Vietnamese that Johnson began to question the motives of the military and the information it and the CIA were providing him, and began to realize that he had been politically undone not only by the military, but by his own ambitions, as well.

As for Reagan and Bush I being in the thrall of the military, as Goodman suggests, I wonder about that, too. Bush I saw considerable utility in using the military for domestic political purposes (at any rate, there's nothing at all to suggest that he had been helplessly pulled along by events precipitated by the military), and Reagan did, as well, to the extent that he saw anything clearly. Grenada was simply an ass-covering exercise, hastily implemented, to divert attention from the disaster in Lebanon, using a few Cuban workers as the anti-communist bugbear to whip up public support (anyone remember the silly, transparent use of intelligence photos of the Grenadan airport runway to hearken back to the days of the Cuban missile crisis?).

What does all this--or Goodman's analogies--have to do with Obama's performance to date, or with his dismissal of Gen. McChrystal from his Afghanistan command? Obama's a unique individual who came to office with his own set of preconceptions. Saying though, that Obama suffers from the same ignorance of the military as Kennedy or Johnson doesn't quite fit, though. Kennedy and Johnson both did have prior experience with the military, as both served during WWII (and Kennedy, in combat), although that experience was not on the same order as Eisenhower's. The implication is that more military experience enables a President to successfully resist the imprecations of the military, and, as the above certainly suggests, that's not entirely true, if only by one pertinent example which Mel Goodman doesn't mention: Jimmy Carter. Carter, absent Eisenhower, had more time in the military than any 20th century President, and yet, the military and the intelligence services not only bridled against the changes he tried to impose, some of them actively worked to successfully undermine his chances for a second term, even though Carter had called for a notable increase in defense spending toward the end of his term. (And, as Consortium News has recently written, there may even have been members of his own National Security Council spying on him and reporting to the Reagan campaign.)

Is Obama at a distinct disadvantage by having no military experience whatsoever? I think not. Much more depends upon the values and ideals one brings to the office, along with the ability to discern foul political motive from national necessity. Obama's great flaw was to believe Bush II's bullshit about the war in Afghanistan. The drama of 9/11 blinded him--as it did so many others--to the simple fact that a crime had been committed, one which did not require military intervention anywhere, and which Bush the Younger used to accomplish a vast increase in Executive power, power which Obama is now extremely reluctant to relinquish. It's misleading, I think, to suggest that the military is the prime mover in the events since 9/11, simply because the military's power has been expanded in direct proportion to that of the Executive. The younger Bush had military experience, too (of course, his experience was mostly in figuring out how to shirk responsibility, experience he used to advantage all his life), but, his intent was to use the military for political purposes even more than the military might have been inclined to use him to its own ends. Thus, it's reasonable to say, I think, that the younger Bush and his cohort used the circumstances and the military to further their own political ends. (Perhaps, in this context, one ought to remember that those in the military with warnings or misgivings about the Bushies' military misadventures were summarily cashiered.)

Obama has willingly walked into a situation where the Executive and its military and its intelligence services have cooperated, in symbiotic fashion, to further the power of each other, all of which translates into an enormous increase in the raw power of the President. No President willingly gives up power (the lesson of Watergate and Nixon's certain impeachment is precisely that), and Obama's no exception to that rule. It might be unsettling to admit such, but that might be a more powerful influence on Obama's behavior in office than is his ignorance of how the military operates.


  • Enlightening analysis; thank you.

    By Anonymous miranda, at 5:05 AM  

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