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Powell's Decision to Leave Seems Selfish

Column by Matthew H. Hersch
Executive Editor

If there's one thing that all really screwed-up countries have in common it is the involvement of the national professional military in domestic political affairs. Communist China, modern Haiti, pre-civil war Spain, and France have all had this mark of distinction, and in each of these countries, the empowered military has always done more damage than the civilian order it tried to supplant.

Granted, sometimes the military only intervenes in politics because of civilian troubles or social strife, but even when the military enters the political scene for all the right reasons, its influence is never helpful. Not only are soldiers prone to totalitarianism, but their rise to power sets a bad precedent for future government, an example rife with coup d'etats, conspiracies, human rights abuses, and indifference to the popular will.

Fortunately, America, a state with a deep anti-military tradition, has little to fear from its professional military. The U.S. has nasty enemies and the military has no desire to run country, so it is tolerated to an extent that would have had our founding fathers screaming for revolution.

Some American military thinkers, though, may bristle at the thought that they are ultimately at the mercy of civilian decision-makers. The soldiers, in all fairness, however, get plenty in return. In exchange for a secondary role in government, soldiers receive a degree of job security unheard of in other stable societies.

In states with an over-politicized military, the officer corps is shuffled with each change in civilian government. American military professionals, though, (disregarding fiscal downsizing) enjoy a remarkably continuous lifestyle between administrations. As long as a they commits no war crimes, competent soldiers can enjoy long, productive careers. And if they eventually tire of becoming agents of the civilian will, they are free to hang up their uniforms -- as the Constitution requires -- and seek elected office.

The price of liberty, though, is eternal vigilance. The United States has had its share of uppity soldiers, and Americans, it should be said, have an obscene penchant for electing military heroes to high government offices.

And that's why I get nervous whenever generals and admirals start to dictate terms to the civilian officials who appointed them, and why I won't be sad to see Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell follow through on his threat to quit his post before his term expires in September.

Although this move was expected before the election, the most likely reason for Powell's decision to retire early lies with recent disagreements between himself and the Clinton administration over gays in the military and new defense budget cuts, which Powell adamantly opposes. Rather than skipper a sinking ship filled with homosexuals, Powell, it seems, prefers to head for the lifeboats.

Alas, such is the fate of peacetime general. In announcing his intentions to retire, Powell could have done worse. If he had blocked Presidential initiatives or directly challenged Clinton's decisions he would have deserved a prompt firing. As it stands though, Powell's decision to leave the joint chiefs now seems selfish.

Quitting in the face of inappropriate orders is the proper means for an officer to express his disapproval in our system, but as a means of political expression it should only be used sparingly. No one is asking Powell to napalm women and children, or to execute any order that is immoral or grossly unwise. Defense cutbacks will happen whether Powell wants them or not, and instead of bailing out now, Powell should have hung in and guided the country through this difficult process to the best of his ability. If he honestly lacks the know-how to facilitate these cuts, then he should have just said so, and this columnist would have cheered his honesty.

In the long run, hopefully, Clinton's efforts to cut the military will succeed. In this new era of collective security and coalition action, the need to move small units fast and far has supplanted the need for certain nuclear weapons systems, large, armor-intensive Army divisions and a number of forward-based Air Force bases that were the hallmark of cold war strategy. Defense spending moves in cycles of buildup and downscaling. The defense pendulum is swinging back, and Powell seems unwilling to move out of the way.