Former General and Ambassador Asks Insightful Questions

Last week, I was privileged to hear my friend and colleague, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, speak on the future of the American military at Stanford University’s annual Payne Lecture. Given that he is a retired three-star general and former ambassador to Kabul, what he said will probably surprise you. Stanford’s news service has a more complete write-up of his talk, but here are the key excerpts:

Karl Eikenberry has spent the better part of the last 40 years in uniform, and much of it in combat zones. Then as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, he continued a mission of service to his country. [On May 3, giving Stanford’s annual Payne Lecture] … he told the audience … “We must not confuse dissent for disloyalty.”

Eikenberry, who left the Army in 2009 when he became ambassador, said he has been disturbed in recent years by how political leaders have been using the military and by what he characterized as the military’s outsized role in determining national security and foreign policy.

“These are problems that have to be acknowledged and debated publicly for the good of the nation and, I believe, our Armed Forces,” he said. … “Question No. 1,” Eikenberry asked the audience, “If we had a conscript Armed Forces in 2003 and [in] that conscript Armed Forces then are the sons and daughters, drafted, of constituents of our members of Congress, I want you to raise your hand if you think in 2003 we would have invaded Iraq.” [no hands went up] …

The former lieutenant general, who did not endorse a draft, urged a debate on ownership of the military: Does it belong to the American people or politicians? …

He also criticized the lack of oversight of the military by Congress and the media. “I witnessed this up close and personal in Afghanistan when I transitioned from general to the top diplomat,” he said. “Formerly treated with great deference by members of Congress, both I and my embassy team were now constantly on the witness stand.”

He said lawmakers were right to challenge them: “We’re spending a good deal of taxpayers’ money.” He said as a member of the military, he never experienced that kind of scrutiny, as lawmakers are reluctant to be seen as less than fully supportive of troops. “But by not subjecting the military to the same rigorous standards of scrutiny, they were applying a double standard and I don’t think they were doing their complete jobs,” he said.

He also said the media have failed to provide critical analysis of military engagements because of relentless pressure to file stories and fear they’ll lose authoritative sources if they question actions. …

As the war in Afghanistan winds down and the military’s mission is refocused, Eikenberry said the biggest security threat to the U.S. is a faltering economy. He echoed the sentiments of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who said in 2010 that he considered the country’s growing debt to be its No. 1 security threat.

“With a broken economy, our country cannot make the foundational investments in education, research and development, and infrastructure that are absolutely essential to sustaining a strong defense,” Eikenberry said. …

He also said the military needs to know what it’s after. “With the end of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, and our current fiscal crisis, our military leaders and our civilian leaders, they need to better define threats and they must be ready to address today and tomorrow these threats,” he said.

The problems that Ambassador Eikenberry addressed are important in and of themselves, but they also increase the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. If nuclear weapons are used in anger, the spark is likely to be a seemingly small dispute escalating out of control, much as happened with the Cuban Missile Crisis or Sarajevo 1914. Also, as described in one of my posts last month, if our nation uses its military in overly aggressive ways, that creates fear induced responses in other nations that increase the risk of a confrontation.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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