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.

You May Like

Turkey's Erdogan: Women Not Equal to Men

Speaking at conference in Istanbul, President Erdogan says Islam has defined a position for women: motherhood More

Ahead of SAARC Summit, Subdued Expectations

Some regional analysts say distrust between Pakistani, Indian officials has slowed SAARC's progress over the year More

Philippines Leery of Development on Reef Reclamation in S. China Sea

Chinese land reclamation projects in area have been ongoing for years, but new satellite imagery reportedly shows China’s massive construction project More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid