De-politicizing the military

Time for some “change we can believe in” in the ideological composition of the senior officer corps.

It’s reassuring, though hardly surprising, that Barack Obama is intent on establishing good relations with the military brass. He needs the support of the existing generals and admirals to do his job.

But that’s not the same as accepting the partisan and ideological caste of the officer corps &#8212 described casually by Karen DeYoung as “a military that has long mistrusted Democrats,” as a given. Pre-Vietnam, officers were as likely to be Democrats as Republicans. Now that civilian politics has shifted sharply away from conservatism and from the Republican Party, it’s important not to let the gap between the elected leadership and the folks in uniform grow too wide.

It would be fine, of course, if the officer corps could leave its politics at home and, while offering professional advice, support the policies of its elected masters. But that has not been the case for years.

Under Carter and Clinton, not only the military but the civilian bureaucracies in the Pentagon were massively insubordinate, doing their level best to frustrate the purposes of those two Presidents, on topics ranging from weapons systems to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was a much better career move for a colonel bucking for his first star or a lieutenant general bucking for his fourth to support the culture of the Building rather than the purposes of the Commander in Chief. One of Obama’s challenges is to change that situation. When his successor is sworn in, that successor shouldn’t have to worry about whether the military bureaucrats, in uniform and out, will support his or her policies.

Leaving Gates as SecDef for a while is probably a good idea, but the service secretaries ought to be liberal Democrats, and they ought to start asking some serious questions about promotion lists.

A reader points me to this scary account:

As our culture has shifted toward tolerance and celebration of diversity, many prospective cadets and their parents have come to see West Point as a bastion of conservative social values—a place where they can be assured of experiencing the kind of social-moral environment they desire.

In Colonel Kolditz’s words, “In previous years, when you’d ask cadets what other schools they had to choose from, you’d hear, ‘Yale, Harvard, and West Point,’ or ‘MIT, CalTech, and West Point.’ Today, you’re just as likely to hear, ‘Liberty University, Wheaton College, and West Point.’”

That suggests a far more profound challenge for President Obama: to change the composition of the officer corps by helping to recruit young people who share his values both for the service academies and for ROTC.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: