L'Affaire Macron-de Villiers: Lessons for India

Any robust democratic entity would, of course, call for a military that is subservient to its political dispensation, but sensible democracies always find a way to maintain a healthy civil-military balance.

By Group Captain Murli Menon (Retd.)
Indian Air Force

Image Attribute: (L) Pierre de Villiers, Chef d'État-Major des armées by Jean Bouclier (R) Emmanuel Macron en septembre 2014 by Gouvernement français

Image Attribute: (L) Pierre de Villiers, Chef d'État-Major des armées by Jean Bouclier (R) Emmanuel Macron en septembre 2014 by Gouvernement français 

The resignation of France's armed forces chief General Pierre de Villiers over his government’s cutting the defense budget may well turn out to be the biggest political challenge for the newfangled young French President Emmanuel Macron. While criticism abounds Macron’s "juvenile authoritarian behavior," his popularity rating has taken a five point beating. What is perhaps more significant is the no-nonsense style of his military leadership. General de Villiers opted to resign as he no longer felt capable of assuring the continuation of the military model required for the nation’s security. India has had its share of "Himalayan Blunders" and "Vishnu Bhagwat fiasco" highlighting the dormant civil-military flaws and tensions within its democratic polity. Any robust democratic entity would, of course, call for a military that is subservient to its political dispensation, but sensible democracies always find a way to maintain a healthy civil-military balance, without wanton tinkering in inter se protocol equivalences, pay parity, and the like.

In the American instance, cases are abounded about senior military functionaries quitting over professional differences with the hierarchy. A well-known such a case was the resignation tendered by General Chuck Horner, the USAF Chief during Gulf War I, quitting over differences in air power deployment philosophies with the Desert Storm Commander General Norman Schwarzkopf. Another case, in our neighborhood, is General Jehangir Keramat quitting over having a discord with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1998, and our very own Naval Chief Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi also opting to quit three years ago over naval ship accidents/incidents is a rare happenstance.

Field Marshal (then General) Sam Maneckshaw’s verbal stand-offs and jocular tiffs with late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi are now a part of military folklore and perhaps we did have some other strong back-boned Chiefs such as General Kodandera Subayya Thimayya and Admiral Ronald Lynsdale Pereira. But most of the time, the government chooses "yes-men" to head the three services, with resultant damage to the psyche of the fighting forces and leadership ethos of the military. The malaise is even more deep-rooted with years of substandard policies such as date of birth–based selection and absence of meritocracy in the defense forces to be blamed. Choosing a military Chief is, therefore, a vital exercise for any civilian government. In the French instance, Macron has no military experience, having been born in the post conscription era. For India, the challenges are acute as most politicians have no inkling about national security, leave alone the nuances of military leadership. This seems to be a plausible reason why we are still unable to implement the Kargil Review Committee recommendations two decades after the operation. At the smallest military goof up, be it Kargil or Pathankot, the tendency is to pass the buck and blame the poor bloke lowest in the food chain!

All blame cannot be put at the doorstep of the Ministry of Defence though. Inconsistent personnel policies or vested interests leading to “my boy syndromes” also lead to sub optimal civil-military rapport in an establishment, often causing square pegs to be chosen to fit round holes. Thus the rot starts at the bottom, thanks to a man’s operational prowess and mindset not being assessed properly by his reporting officers. Military leadership is so much more different from all other forms of leadership wherein one has to be deemed capable of transiting gracefully from tactical to operational to strategic to grand strategic levels of the war–fighting organization. Else we end up having poor strategic thought processes and feather-own–nest leadership. 

In France, the resignation of an Army Chief is the first since Charles de Gaulle re-crafted the constitution in 1958. Macron’s two-month-old reign faces an immense challenge, thanks to the perceived dissent and negative signals at the helm of affairs. Tiffs over university placements, badly timed tax cuts and poorly planned funding for municipalities are said to have fueled the present stand-off between the 39-year-old President and the sexagenarian de Villiers. The latter earlier deposed before a Parliament Committee, stating that he would not stomach the 850 million Euro cut in his budget, mainly for equipment acquisition. An announcement by Macron to expand next year’s defense budget by 1.5 billion Euros (to increase defense spending to 2% of GDP as promised to NATO) failed to mollify the Army Chief. One hears in the media that the Indian government has cleared the urgent purchase of badly needed war supplies that are critical requirements for the forces. If true, this is indeed a welcome move. But the larger issue of merit- based military leadership selection and the entire gamut of civil -military relations from rank equivalence with civilians to pay issues cannot be glossed over by any proactive government. And that includes appointing a full-time Minister for Defence, someone with experience and clarity on the security bric-à-brac of the nation! Monsieur Macron would be well advised to not let his EU budgetary commitments impact the French overseas military capabilities adversely. Our own political leadership should, even at this belated stage, put their money where their mouths are in matters of national defense.

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon
Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting its tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000–2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008–2011.

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank — “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and post-retirement, he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India.

Cite this Article:

Menon, M. "L'Affaire Macron-de Villiers: Lessons for India", IndraStra Global Vol. 003, Issue No: 07 (2017), 0032 http://www.indrastra.com/2017/07/l-affaire-macron-de-villiers-lessons-for-india-003-07-2017-0032.html | ISSN 2381-3652

AIDN0030720170032 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652 / L'Affaire Macron-de Villiers: Lessons for India

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IndraStra Global.
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IndraStra Global: L'Affaire Macron-de Villiers: Lessons for India
L'Affaire Macron-de Villiers: Lessons for India
Any robust democratic entity would, of course, call for a military that is subservient to its political dispensation, but sensible democracies always find a way to maintain a healthy civil-military balance.
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