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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Words can also hurt me

The lessons from the McChrystal episode for India’s top brass: don’t pre-empt politicians,handle the media with care....

Written by Narendra S Sisodia |
July 9, 2010 4:05:24 am

It is remarkable that the shockwaves sent out by General McChrystal’s firing still continue to reverberate through the American military and political establishments. Removal of generals has not been so unusual in America. McArthur had to go for criticising President Truman’s strategy in Korea. In another case,Truman sacked General Joseph Stilwell as his top Commander in East Asia,during World War II,for showing disrespect to China’s Nationalist leader,Chiang Kai-Shek,whom for some odd reason,he called “Peanut”! More recently,Admiral Fallon,head of US Central Command had to resign because of his differences with US policy on Iran and Iraq.

In comparison,McChrystal’s folly was not half as serious. It was mainly a case of his aides indulging in contemptuous talk about civilians (not the President) with the correspondent of Rolling Stone,a music magazine. McChrystal was acknowledged as a brilliant general,carefully chosen to lead America’s most crucial war yet,in the 21st century. He did not differ with Obama’s Afghan strategy and never disobeyed the President. The cool and analytical President,in the midst of a floundering war,still took the huge political risk of sacking him,even after McChrystal had offered his fulsome apology. Why did he do so? What is even more remarkable is the near-consensus among non-partisan American commentators,that President Obama was right in doing so.

It is noteworthy that a mature democracy like the United States,where military intervention has never been a realistic possibility,considers it necessary to engage with the perennial tension of civil military relations. For Americans it is not enough that the question of civilian supremacy has been settled beyond doubt. They feel the need to grapple with the dynamic of civil-military relations continuously.

In India,anyone who dares to raise the question is liable to instant attack,either because the subject is considered too sensitive or because it might imply questioning the professionalism,patriotism or loyalty of the military. But the issue is relevant: we need both effective democratic oversight and an effective military. To maintain an optimum balance has to be a continuing enterprise. In this context,are there any aspects of this episode which should cause us to reflect?

Firstly,the principle of civilian supremacy means not only carrying out the policy directives of civilian authorities,but also refraining from pre-empting them. By discussing in public questions of force or when and how to deploy it,generals can pre-empt their leaders or vitiate policy choices. General McChrystal had attempted to do so by publicly rejecting a strategic option proposed by Vice-President Biden in an interaction at London. A Yale Professor had in a comment called McChrystal’s statement “a plain violation of the principle of civilian control.” Military commanders,like all government officials,need to be frank and truthful in their advice to leaders,but this advice must be given in private.

Second,it appears prudent to exercise good judgment in dealing with today’s media. Its newer forms and speed give it unprecedented power. It can easily polarise debates. President Obama had received reports about the Rolling Stone story well before it appeared in the magazine. It had also been commented upon and judgments had been made.

The media has,of course,always been important. When reports of the first Indian Commander-in-Chief,General K.M. Cariappa’s publicly articulated views on economic issues were brought to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s attention,he had to gently advise the redoubtable general not to address too many press conferences and in any case,stick to safer subjects.

Thirdly,military commanders remain accountable not only for their own conduct,but equally for that of their subordinates. General McChrystal had to pay a heavy price for the behaviour of his aides. He has been faulted for tolerating a command climate among his subordinates that appeared contemptuous of civilian authority,including presidential appointees.

Fourthly,President Obama has let the McChrystal go with full honour and grace,and let the American people know why he is doing so. He took care to deliver a statement in the Rose Garden,setting out in detail why he had to remove him. Contrast this to Admiral Bhagwat’s departure; the admiral had usurped the government’s authority to appoint himself as the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee; repeatedly defied the government; leaked sensitive information to the media; and yet managed to create an unsavoury controversy about his well-deserved removal. Was it possibly because the government had first hesitated to act and later removed him without explaining fully to the people why it was necessary to do so?

This is just one side of the story about nurturing the principle of civilian supremacy. Of equal importance is the need to strengthen India’s defence. This will involve providing greater space to the Armed Forces in relevant decision-making structures,seeking their partnership in national security and defence policy-making and addressing issues of modernisation and ‘jointness’ on priority. A democratic polity is not just about civilian control but also about a military strong enough to protect it.

The writer is director-general of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses,New Delhi

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