News / USA

Analysis: Democracies Often At Odds With Military Authority

Civilian control over the military has been a fundamental principle of American democracy since the founding of the republic. And that principle was put to the test this week with the sacking of the commander of U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan. The United States is not the only democracy that has been troubled by civilian-military relations.

The day after General Stanley McChrystal stepped down as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked about his relationship with the military leadership.

"I have not felt any tension or issues with respect to my relationship with our uniformed leaders or people in the ranks," said Gates.

It was a surprising assertion, given that the general was removed because of a magazine article which, in the words of President Barack Obama, "undermines the civilian control of the military."

That principle has been at the core of American democracy since George Washington became the first commander in chief. But the question of how to keep the generals in check was raised long ago by the Roman poet Juvenal, who asked "Who guards the guardians?"

Michael Desch is a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written about military-civilian relations.

"In every democratic political system, this is an issue that has to be dealt with one way or another," said Desch.

Desch says tensions usually come to the fore when there's a complex and controversial military operation like the French occupation of Algeria or America's war in Vietnam.

"For me, the key thing is not so much the size of the military but what you ask the military to do," Desch added.

He says that during the Algerian occupation, President Charles de Gaulle was brought to power in 1958 by the threat of a military coup, and several years later he was almost toppled by a coup.  

In America, Desch says the joint chiefs of staff came very close to resigning en masse over the Johnson administrations' conduct during the Vietnam war. During the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur was fired when he openly disagreed with President Harry Truman's policies. And, there have been many rifts over Iraq and Afghanistan.

"These complex counterinsurgency and nation building operations also blur the boundary between the civilian realm and the military realm in a way that's almost guaranteed to cause conflicts," he said.

Abroad, conflicts often arise in young democracies. Post-dictatorship Spain and Argentina saw attempts to reinstate military rule. In Israel, Desch says a "worst case scenario" could happen if the many religious nationalists serving in the military try to torpedo a peace deal that involved a withdrawal from occupied territories.

Then there's Turkey, where the military -- seen as the guardian of Turkish secularism -- has intervened repeatedly over disagreements with the government.

Omer Taspinar of the U.S. National War College says that although Turkish military leaders have lost some of their power, they still openly criticize the way the country is run.

"They don't deride the prime minister or they don't basically say something negative about the person in charge," said Taspinar.  "But they really criticize very hard the policies. For instance they would be very open about their fear of Islamization and blame the government for tacitly implicitly supporting Islamization," he said.

One way of avoiding civil-military conflicts is to do what Canada and the Scandinavian countries do. According to Notre Dame professor Desch, they have militaries that are simply too small to pose any threat to the political leadership.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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