13 September 2007

Silly legislators, policy is for wonks

We deliberate about things that are in our power and can be done…. We deliberate not about ends but about means. For a doctor does not deliberate whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall persuade, nor a statesman whether he shall produce law and order, nor does any one else deliberate about his end. They assume the end and consider how and by what means it is to be attained; and if it seems to be produced by several means they consider by which it is most easily and best produced, while if it is achieved by one only they consider how it will be achieved by this and by what means this will be achieved, till they come to the first cause, which in the order of discovery is last. – Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, III.3.


During his testimony, General Petraeus was asked if he thought the war in Iraq was making us safer. He said he didn’t know, that he hadn’t “sorted it out” in his mind, preferring instead “to focus on what [he] think[s] a commander is supposed to do.” The very idea. A general, trying to focus on what a general ought to be focused on. Next, we’ll be hearing about legislators trying to focus on what legislators ought to be focused on. (Okay, probably not. But hope springs eternal.)

No surprise that Chris Matthews, among others who seem to suffer from a deplorable lack of curiosity about the precise role of a general, sought to make hay of it. Imagine, asks Matthews (who referred to the testimony as a dog and pony show), General Eisenhower in a speech to American servicemen before the Normandy invasion saying to them, “Good luck, men. I don’t know if this war is going to make us safer, but I certainly wish you well.”

Imagine that there really wasn’t any question whether fighting the second world war would make us safer. Wait. Actually, there wasn’t much question whether fighting that war would make us safer. That is a salient difference between the circumstances in which Eisenhower gave his speech and those which hold presently for General Petraeus. I suppose one can hardly expect Matthews to be aware of that difference. He wants to compare two generals without, at the same time, comparing public opinion about those two wars.

Given the purpose of his testimony, the question should not have been asked of him. The question, Is this war going to make us safe? is a policy question. It is a question related to the decision to engage in warfare or to remain engaged. That is a question for civilians. In our system, generals do not take part in the decision for or against war. To ask General Petraeus, Is this war going to make us safe? is like asking the man on the street, rather than a jury panel, if the defendant in a trial is guilty. Oh, you can ask, of course, and do whatever you want with the answer. But the only answer that makes a difference, the only answers that really, really matters is the answer that the jury gives. In short, even if General Petraeus had answered in the affirmative it would not make a bit of difference. The question is not his, as a general, to answer.

With all due respect for the general, the answer he should have given was, “Senator, to answer that question is beyond my pay grade.” I mean, the answer he gave was probably true enough: “I haven’t really thought about it.” But it requires nuance, which he should really try to avoid. The nuance is this. He has thought about it; it is unavoidable that a soldier will ask if the sacrifice he makes will make his people safer. But when he asks that question he is asking it not truly as a soldier; the question for a soldier, when it comes to war is, What is my duty, how do I win this damn thing and go back home? It is as a private citizen that a man who in addition to being a citizen is also a soldier asks, Will this war make my country safer?

General Petraeus was offering testimony not as a private citizen named John Petraeus. He was offering testimony as to the facts on the ground in Iraq as those facts touch on present military operations. He was offering his testimony as a general, specifically as the general in charge of those operations. It is not his job, as that general, to ponder whether those operations are making us safer. That decision – whether right or wrong – has been made by those who have the requisite pay grades. It is his job, as that general – pursuant to the decision by others that the war will make us safer – to ponder how to win that war. It is the job of Congress, having authorized the use of force in Iraq, to decide whether the war is making us safer, or will if allowed to continue. I bet a large part of the general’s job would be much easer if Congress had the testicular fortitude to do their own.

Besides, if the general thinks the answer is the war is not making us safer then, before he so informs Congress, he has an obligation to resign his commission.

In the military, and other spheres, it is said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Congress has it easier: Legislate, or shut up. If you have authorized the use of force in Iraq and now think better of it, then pass legislation which rescinds the authorization. Legislate, or shut up. If you think the general’s report is a lie (Senator Lantos) and it is time to leave Iraq now, then introduce legislation which truly reflects that belief. Legislate, or shut up. If you truly believe President Bush lied to get the authorization for use of force in Iraq then introduce appropriate legislation. Legislate, or shut up. Oh, and be sure and charge the general with lying to Congress, which is a crime.

Consider this gem from Lantos’ opening statement:

America should not be in the business of arming, training and funding both sides of a religious civil war in Iraq. Did the Administration learn nothing from our country’s actions in Afghanistan two decades ago, when by supporting Islamist militants against the Soviet Union, we helped pave the way for the rise of the Taliban? Why are we now repeating the short-sighted patterns of the past?


(Compare with Senator Biden’s opening statement at the Senate Foreign Relations committee hearings. Biden has a plan for Iraq. Why he explains it to the general is a mystery. The general can't implement that plan. Again, legislate or shut up.)

Newsflash: In our system, a general has nothing to say in response to this. Why should a general be required to answer a question such as, “Did the Administration learn nothing from our country’s actions in Afghanistan two decades ago, when by supporting Islamist militants against the Soviet Union, we helped pave the way for the rise of the Taliban?” A general may have to answer to the Administration, but it is not his job to answer for the Administration. Why tell a general that, “America should not be in the business of arming, training and funding both sides of a religious civil war in Iraq”? A general can’t decide whether we shall arm, train, or fund any side, much less both sides of a religious war. It is not the job of a general to make that decision. It just happens to be Congress’s job, Lantos. Legislate, or shut up.

It isn’t the job of a general to do your job for you. You decide that the war will make us safer; or you decide that it won’t. Then legislate. Or shut up. You decide whether we should arm, train and fund anyone; or you decide that we won’t. Whatever you decide, it is the generals’ job to execute the decision, but not to make it for you. Don’t ask a general to answer what is a question for you to answer. Don’t hold a general responsible for policy decisions that he cannot, and did not, make, as if he can do anything in a policy dispute between various branches of our government. The general can tell you if, and how, we can win the war. He can tell you if, and how, we can successfully arm and train anyone. But he can’t tell you whether we should be fighting the war. He can’t tell you whether we should arm and train others. That’s not his job; it’s yours. Legislate, or shut up.

“Will this war make us safe?” is just another way of asking “Ought we to fight this war?” And that is not a military question. It’s a public policy question. And public policy questions are not for generals; they are for politicians and policy wonks.

Congress, you legislated us into this war. Either legislate us back out, or shut up. It’s a pretty cheap shot to lambaste a general who is commanding troops in war you authorized. (And to tell him he now owns that war authorized by Congress.)

And whether you legislate or shut up – or neither – think about the job description of a general. Oh, yes, and maybe think about your own job description. Congress has authority to declare war; perhaps you could try declaring an end to the war. Really. If you guys were serious you would pass legislation similar to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974, which, among other things, established a personnel ceiling of 4000 Americans in Vietnam within six months of enactment and 3000 Americans within one year. (True, Senator Biden introduced legislation which would alter our Iraq policy. Oddly enough it seems to be stuck in the Committee on Foreign Relations, since May. I would be interested in reading the minutes of those committee meetings.)

To win in Iraq will take someone with more conviction, more commitment, more audacity than bin Ladin or any insurgent. Such, apparently, are not to be found in either the House or the Senate. In those chambers are to be found those with no more conviction, no more commitment, but certainly the audacity, of an instant-gratification seeking child. Those with the authority to act in order to change what they do not like sniping at those with no authority to make the changes that will please those who do the complaining. Not very helpful.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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