Military Leadership versus Politics

Just a random thought over my morning coffee. Once in a while, you’ll see something to the effect, particularly in conservative circles, that General X or Retired Military Y should run for president.

I’m not so sure.

Generals tend to be people who flourished in big government. If you’re a conservative, is that really where you want to look to find someone who believes in limited government? The military is a highly centralized organization. While many veterans tend to be quite focused on civil liberties, let us not forget that career military personnel have spent an entire career in an organization where their civil liberties were circumscribed, and in which they circumscribed the civil liberties of everyone who worked for them.

That’s not to say they don’t genuinely believe in the Constitution and honestly and genuinely seek to uphold and defend it. It just means their first inclination to view an issue might not automatically be from a perspective of individual liberty. They’ve spent a career focusing on achieving goals for an organization. You know who else tends to think of political goals in terms of group good? The political left.

Generals tend to make lousy politicians. At its heart, politics consists of a series of compromises, with leaders building consensus from often quite disparate groups. Military leaders simply don’t have to do that. In the end, the people they lead have to follow the leader’s agenda. They may do it enthusiastically, or they may do it grudgingly. But do it they will. Politicians, on the other  hand, can propose an agenda, they can work to build support for it, via both carrot and stick, and sell it in numerous ways. But in the end, that agenda has to have some basic level of support from the polity, or it is dead in the water.

The last time we elected a general officer to the Presidency was when Eisenhower won in a landslide in 1952, and coasted again in 1956. And he was a successful President. Why?

Let’s take a look back at Eisenhower’s role in World War II. Beginning in the Torch invasion of North Africa, through the Mediterranean campaign in Italy, to the invasion of Western Europe on D-Day, through the final defeat of Germany, Eisenhower served in a series of commands of Allied forces. Eisenhower quickly grasped that his role was not to defeat the Germans, but rather to hold together the Allied coalition. He was certainly no slouch at the tactical and strategic generalship required for the war, but his greatest strength was to be able to maintain some level of unity of effort between the forces of the British Empire (and later France and a host of other nations) and those of the US.  And while Eisenhower was nominally in command of those foreign forces, that command was more nominal than real. Eisenhower had to persuade his British subordinates to follow his  proposed courses of action (or quite often, adopt a proposed British course of action as his own).

That same skill at forging consensus and achieving compr0mise served Eisenhower quite well in office.

I cannot think of another general officer since then who has had a similar background that would serve as well in high elected office.

6 thoughts on “Military Leadership versus Politics”

  1. After keeping Montgomery, De Gaulle, and Patton in the traces, the US Congress would be easy.

  2. Eisenhower was a politician among politicians. Every general Officer is a politician of one stripe or another (Patton is a glaring exception), and Eisenhower had to deal with Montgomery, a mediocre General, but a first class politician who worked behind the scenes to undermine Eisenhower at every turn. The Brits really choked at being the junior partner of the relationship, but we had the resources they didn’t, and so had to live with it.

    As president, however, none of this much matters. Eisenhower could basically sit back and let the country run itself and concentrate on the constitutional mandate of FedGov, foreign relations, and the cold war took a lot time and effort on the part of his administration.

    The current problem is that domestic issues so swallow an administration these days, that the occupant of the WH has little time to devote to his actual duties. Put an incompetent in, like carter or the current moron, the Wh, and you get a perfect storm with nothing being done anything close to well, much less right.

  3. QM:

    “Every general Officer is a politician of one stripe or another…”

    Thank you for writing what was my first thought. You have said it better than I would have.


    1. It is worse than that. In my experience, General Officers are overwhelmingly politically liberal. Genuine conservatives appear to top out at O-6. Why this is, I could not say.

  4. No disagreement about Eisenhower. However, when I hear folks talk about wanting a general to run for office, its usually about a general that is decidedly NOT a political animal, but the opposite. That is the desire – to get someone with a proven track record of bluntness, honesty, and fortitude into a position that is almost exclusively occupied by weak-willed spineless shits.

    I don’t see a lot of folks daydreaming about Dempsey as CINC, but many guys I know get a definite kick out of the possibility of a President Mattis. Not because he would haggle and reconcile and make nice with the swine, but because he would LEAD. That kind of person has the ability to generate a groundswell of popular support that tends to shut down the more egregious voices on the left and actually get things done. For a time, at least.

  5. I’ve known a couple of decent GOs, but most of them are too risk averse and simply scared of not making that next star.

    Two words for anyone that wonders why generals shouldn’t run for office: Wesley. Clark.

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