For Washington Monthly
For much of the Bush-Cheney era, Republican leaders characterized themselves as more than just allies of the military establishment, but also deferential to the military’s judgment on national security matters. “Listen to the commanders on the ground” became a common adage in GOP circles.
But over the last year or so, it’s become increasingly apparent that it’s President Obama and his team that are aligned with the military establishment, leaving Republicans at odds with the brass they used to revere.
CNN’s John King asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) an interesting question yesterday about trying terrorist suspects in criminal courts, as has long been in the norm.
KING: If you ask the White House about this, it highlights — they say it’s not just the president, it’s not just Attorney General Holder, that General David Petraeus says he believes a public trial at a federal courthouse is the best way to do it so that it’s not an al Qaeda recruiting tool.
That Secretary Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration at the Defense Department, also they believes a trial in the federal court system is preferable to a closed trial in the military commission. And that the CIA operatives leading the fight against these guys in Yemen, in Somalia, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, also believe that if you did it in a closed setting in a military commission it would be a powerful recruiting tool.
If General Petraeus, Secretary Gates, and the intelligence leaders say, do it in court, why do you say that’s a bad idea?
MCCONNELL: I simply disagree and so do the American people.
Keep in mind, it wasn’t too terribly long ago that Democratic politicians simply weren’t supposed to say that Petraeus, Gates, and intelligence leaders were wrong about national security matters. Indeed, for Dems to say that they knew better than Petraeus, Gates, and intelligence leaders — that their judgment was superior to military leaders’ — was grounds for mockery, if not condemnation.
And yet, Obama has spent a year following the guidance of military leaders, and Republicans have spent a year breaking with the judgment of the military establishment.
It’s a fascinating dynamic. On everything from civilian trials to Gitmo to torture, we have two distinct groups — GOP leaders, the Cheneys, Limbaugh, and conservative activists on one side; President Obama, Gen. Petraeus, Secretary Gates, Colin Powell, Adm. Mullen, Adm. Blair, and Gen. Jones on the other.
To be sure, endorsements do not necessarily reflect merit. Obama’s position on any national security issue can enjoy support from the likes of Petraeus, Powell, Mullen, et al, but all of them can be collectively wrong. It’s lazy to think the president is right just because David Petraeus and Colin Powell say he’s right.
But that’s not the point here. McConnell and his Republicans cohorts are reluctant to admit it, and political insiders have been slow to acknowledge it, but what we’re witnessing is exceedingly rare — the Republican establishment openly rejecting the judgment of the military establishment.
Imagine if the situations were reversed, and Democratic lawmakers were on the opposite side of the Commander in Chief, the Centcom commander, the Republican Defense Secretary, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs — in the midst of two wars. Might we hear a little more talk about why Dems were at odds with the U.S. military establishment?
And if so, why isn’t the GOP break with the military a bigger deal?