WASHINGTON — Was it a good idea for Gen. David Petraeus, US commander of the war in Afghanistan, to comment on the Koran-burning plans of a small fringe church in Florida? That is the debate quietly making rounds among Pentagon officials and military analysts after Petraeus told the Wall Street Journal that the move “could endanger troops, and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan.”
At issue, they say, is whether a top military commander should weigh in on free speech matters involving American citizens and, what’s more, whether doing so crosses a civil-military dividing line.
Petraeus argues that it does not. “I’m not commenting on an issue of free speech. I’m providing an assessment of the likely impact of an action by a fellow American citizen on the safety of our troopers and civilians,” he says in an e-mail to the Monitor Wednesday. “I think I’ve got an obligation to those I’m privileged to lead to provide such an assessment.”
Government officials are entitled to express their views – and these views can be valuable in lending moral weight and providing practical feedback, says Eugene Volokh, a first amendment law professor at University of California Los Angeles. “It really is him trying to use his moral authority, and his expertise, to opine on what people ought to be doing.”
At the same time, one possible problem, adds Mr. Volokh, is that by jumping into the national debate, “It may be that General Petraeus may be inadvertently exacerbating the problem by encouraging people to restrain what they are saying for fear of extremist violence” waged against US troops by radical insurgents overseas.
What Afghans expect of the U.S.
It also plays into expectations in some parts of the world that American officials can and should control the legal, if undesirable and ugly, behavior of its citizens.
“It could be that these statements from American government officials could quiet at least some critics who will say, ‘Look, at least the American government is saying the right thing here, so we shouldn’t retaliate,’ ” Volokh says.
But, he adds, such statements could also anger some Afghans even more.
“They could say, ‘Even the American government is acknowledging that it’s a bad thing, so why isn’t it stopping them?’ ” he says. “There’s reason to say that whatever the practical benefits might be of accommodating your action to the demands of violent extremists, there are also practical costs.”
But there is a difference between stopping or threatening to retaliate against free speech and simply pointing out its possible effects, says Christopher Swift, a fellow at the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia School of Law. “It’s perfectly fine for a four-star general whose mission depends on developing goodwill to say that the action of this small group of extremists in Florida is going to undermine what we’re trying to do.”
That doesn’t mean, he adds, “that they are going to shut down these folks. Whether General Petraeus has stepped over the line or is trying to chill free speech – I don’t see that happening. He’s concerned about an 18-year-old private running into an 18-year-old Afghan. How is that Afghan going to give the American soldier the benefit of the doubt when he has pictures of Koran-burning on his mobile phone? Petraeus is right to call that out.”
The spirit of civilian control
But while such remarks from military officials do not violate any tenets of civilian control of the military, they may violate their spirit, particularly if such statements are sanctioned or encouraged by the Obama administration, says Michael Cohen, senior fellow at the American Security Project.
“What worries me a little is that I don’t think the administration minds that the general is out front on this. They think, ‘Look, he has credibility. It has weight coming from Petraeus,’ ” says Mr. Cohen. “To me that’s very dangerous. It puts a national-security cast on what is unfortunately protected free speech, and I think there’s something deeply inappropriate about a general doing that.”
Even as the Koran-burning designs of a 50-member Florida congregation threaten to imperil US troops, such a prospect, he adds, is no less than the high price of democracy.