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Can Politicians Uphold The Cause Of Civilian Supremacy?

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In our short political history, only Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was accorded the opportunity through the unfortunate turn of events to build a legacy for civilian supremacy, but self-assured hubris led to his downfall, writes Najeeb Anjum.

At the time of extension of Gen. Qamar Bajwa, an oft-repeated phrase resounded across the country. “Civil military relations are going through the best phase.” Members of the civil society and disgruntled politicians are often heard vowing to protect civilian supremacy at all costs.

Unfortunately, with the present state of affairs, the dream seems elusive. The dysfunctional parliament with inept members make a mockery of the system. Instead of focusing on legislation for the benefit of people and repealing colonial-era laws, the members do not attend the sessions or boycott the proceedings on one or more pretext.

In our recent history, there are two incidents which needed to be handled by our Parliament: Kargil fiasco and the Bin Laden operation in Abbottabad. Why was the Kargil issue initially not discussed in the Parliament? If it had come under debate in the Parliament, then the Army Command and the Prime Minister should have issued a clarification. PM wouldn’t have to go to meet the American President to rescue the situation.

No rumour-mongering would have taken place, if civilian leadership had acted wisely. The matter remains shrouded in mystery. Similarly, on Bin Laden’s issue, we swiftly took shelter in forming a judicial commission. Parliament should have taken up the issue.

A nation as democratic and powerful as the US witnessed the shakeup in civil-military balance during the early 50s when the presidential authority of the American President came under threat from public. President Harry Truman, when in a hurriedly-convened press conference on April 11, 1951 announced the dismissal of the Supreme Commander for Pacific General Douglas McArthur, a five-star general who was one of the greatest Army Generals ever produced by the US Army. This dismissal shocked the world and the public in the US.

This sudden dismissal was viewed unfavorably by the public. The White House was inundated with an unending stream of thousands of letters, criticising the President’s decision. Public outrage was unprecedented. The real causes of dismissal were on policy disagreements between the general and Washington during Korean War.

Military historians have portrayed this decision as a straight forward conflict between two strong personalities. But the President’s decision was a result of breakdown in communication due to misconceptions, inadequate third party advice and partisan politics. The divergent views on Korean War held by Truman and McArthur were also a source of friction.

McArthur suffered his fate due to a habit of defiance to the superior authority. He crossed path at least thrice, but out of courtesy and reverence Truman restrained himself and invited McArthur to Washington. But McArthur excused on pretext of his preoccupation.

President Truman took action in accordance with his constitutional authority as Commander in Chief in dismissing his theatre commander, as he challenged the political aims and objectives of war. Truman wanted to keep it limited but McArthur wanted to expand it as full-fledged war.

McArthur handed over command to Lt. Gen Ridgeway and left for Washington on April 15, 1951. He landed at San Francisco in the dark of night as he planned to avoid the public. There were more than half a million people to welcome the war hero’s homecoming. On April 19, before a joint session of Congress, McArthur made a dramatic address that was televised for millions. The words, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” in the closing lines of the address were to become symbolic of McArthur’s legacy.

Taking advantage of his popularity, the Republicans demanded an inquiry into the military situation in Korea and the reason for his dismissal. During hearings and after McArthur’s testimony, public enthusiasm waned.

The admission by McArthur that he was not an authority on global matters put the matter to an end as it was established that he wanted to push forward with the course of action that might have involved the US in that global conflict.

The Committee agreed that his proposals were “unrealistic”. As Robert A. Caro in his superb Vol3 Biography of Lyndon Johnson describes that, “the Senate had done, in short, precisely what the Founding fathers had wanted the Senate to do: to defuse—-cool off—and educate, to make men think, recall them to their first principles, such as the principle that in democracy it is not generals, but the people’s tribune who make policy. It was, in all truth, a demonstration of what the Senate at its best was capable of doing”.

In this, we have a few lessons to learn. Firstly, the US President did not hesitate in changing his Commander-in-Chief during a burning conflict. Change of command in battlefield took a backseat as long as the direction was clearly set out by the government. While the civilian leadership is unable to chart out a course of action, extension in tenure of military commanders only seems plausible in our case.

Secondly, supremacy of the civilian leadership was manifested when a powerful and revered General was brought to his heels in front of the mighty legislators. The writ of the government was established and a path was laid out for future generations of military leaders to tread on, and not to transgress the borders of civilian authority.

In our short history, only Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was accorded the opportunity through the unfortunate turn of events to build a legacy for civilian supremacy, but self-assured hubris led to his downfall. Even though McArthur was removed from his post, the legislators ensured that the General was not subject to abject humiliation.

On the other hand, ZAB found it opportune to deride the military institution and obtain a lasting acquiescence. We all know how that went.

Blame game and conspiracy theories prove to the best staple for our politicians. Mere demagoguery will not yield civilian supremacy – not in our life time.

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