Former President Gerald Ford has weighed in on the suggestion of some former generals that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who served in the same post during the Ford Administration, step down. According to a Washington Post article:
"I have been extremely troubled by the efforts of a group of retired generals to force the resignation of our Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld," Ford, 92, wrote. "President Bush is right to keep him in his post. It is the President's decision -- and his alone."As a student of history, I confess to mixed feelings about this situation, quite apart from the merits or deficiencies of the generals' critique of Rumsfeld's performance as defense secretary.
Ford wrote that retired generals should not decide the nation's war policies and leadership lest it set "a dangerous precedent that would severely undermine our country's long tradition of civilian control of the military."
It is essential that active duty military personnel remain subordinate to the Commander-in-Chief, the President, and his civilian appointees. American constitutional government would be in trouble if this institutionalized tradition were breached. Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman were two chief executives who had to fight to maintain this element of the US Constitution in the face of political generals--McClellan and MacArthur, respectively--whose reckless courting of popular opinion threatened America's democratic institutions.
Nonetheless, we have a tradition in America of turning to former generals, for presidential leadership. The track record of generals-turned-pols is mixed. I count Washington and Eisenhower as among the greatest US presidents. Andrew Jackson is a hero to some; I can't agree. The remaining generals-turned-presidents form a sort of Hall of Mediocrity: William Henry Harrison (who served only a month as president); Zachary Taylor (who also died in office); and Ulysses S. Grant.
What is disturbing about the statement of the former generals calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation is that this isn't just one esteemed general throwing his hat into the political ring. It's a group of recently-retired officers offering their opinions in a way that could sow discontent among the military personnel they have just commanded, legitimizing selective obedience to orders. No matter how we feel about the war, the President, or the Secretary of Defense, selective subordination to constitutional government isn't something we want to encourage. We don't need cabals of general officers speaking out against their bosses, or evening the score with Secretaries of Defense whose policies they dislike.
Nor do we want to encourage the development of deeply politicized officer corps. The history of the world demonstrates that to be disastrous for freedom.
But, under our system, these retired former generals have as much right to speak out as any other citizen. Here, as in so many other aspects of our system of government, the restraint and self-control of people who love their country and value its Constitution are essential.
[For an interesting look Gerald Ford's views of the presidency and the Constitution, listen here.]
[Also see here.]