On Civil-Miltary Relations

Part 2 of my response to Ellis, this time focused on the civil-military relations piece.  See also Karaka Pend’s take on this. Ellis’ conclusion:

RollingStan and civil-military relations | Thinking Strategically

One is left thinking that Bacevich and Finel see the events of last week either as a genuine crisis in civil-military relations or an opportunity to talk us into one, pointing to Afghanistan as the cause and thus garnering support for withdrawal.

I don’t know Ellis from a hole in the wall.  Which says nothing about Ellis; he seems like a talented analyst.  I like his blogging.  But here is my guess:  My guess is that he is younger than 40.  See, the great divide in people’s opinion of whether there is a civil-military crisis is young vs. old (or at least older), not position on the Afghan war. Folks like Ackerman and Exum are heavily influenced by their own personal experiences, which are exclusively accrued in a period of dysfunction civil military relations dating to the beginning of the Clinton Administration. Compare their views on McChrystal to someone like James Joyner, who is hardly an anti-war hippy, but who is over 40.

I’ve been paying serious attention to these issues since the Bush 41 years, and with less focus dating back to the Reagan Administration. That is simply a function of age.  Now, perhaps that give me some rose colored glasses.  Civil-military relations under Reagan and Bush 41 were exceptionally smooth.  The military revered Reagan for his rebuilding of the institutions and respected Bush for his experience, temperament, and his own service.  As a consequence, the military gave professional advice, but trusted civilian decisions.  Yeah, there was the usual programmatic bullshit, but on use of force decisions civil-military relations were essentially textbook.

Then came Clinton.  He wasn’t a draft dodger.  He got lottery lucky– his birthday drew a 311–but he had laid the groundwork to dodge the draft if necessary.  He had a hippy backstory, smoking pot (but not inhaling, HA! he couldn’t even smoke pot right) in England and hanging out with anti-Vietnam folks, but lacked the courage to embrace his own history. To many members of the military he came to embody the “Slick Willy” label.  Then, he decided to introduce himself to the military with a poorly prepared position on gays in the military.  That gave him the reputation of being willing to sacrifice the military on the altar of political convenience.  So, from day one, the military hated his guts.  Which, wouldn’t have been a big deal if Clinton hadn’t over time become very prone to use military for strategically suspect reason.  Clinton got the blame for the Somalia disaster, then gave us Bosnia, Kosovo, the Iraq no-fly zones, and Haiti, in every case generating additional civil-military tensions.

Let me give a little personal history.  I’ve never served in the military.  But I’ve been close to the military for a long time.  When I taught at Georgetown as many as a third of my students were company grade officers.  I ran Georgetown’s DLAMP program, putting me in contact with hundreds of DOD GS-15s, SES-eligible employees.  I taught at the National War College.  It is true that I’ve never sat in a foxhole — as Schmedlap will undoubtedly note — nor spent a lot of time being schmoozed by GOs — as folks like Ricks and Ackerman will note.  But still I’ve been elbows deep into military culture — at least with company and field grade officers — since the very early 1990s.  And look, I may be wrong, but my impression is that by the mid 1990s some very unhealthy attitudes toward civilian authority had become deeply ingrained in the military.

The major impetus behind the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review was military officers whining to Congress that the Clinton Administration was allowing a disconnect to emerge between strategy and resources.  In 1998, the Pentagon issued a readiness report weeks before the midterms in an effort to embarrass the Clinton Administration.  Throughout, the military tried to “shape” administration choices by giving them options designed to constrain choices.  THAT was the source of the famous Powell-Albright blow up.

People wrote about it at the time, and no one at the time thought that civil-military tensions were normal.  Charles Dunlap’s essay — the “Origins of the Coup of 2012″ — written in 1992 was widely discussed, and became seen as prescient as the 1990s proceeded.  I am thus always taken aback when people try to argue that  military distrust of civilian decision makers and efforts to shape and constrain policy decisions are the way things have always been.  They simply aren’t for anyone with a memory that goes back beyond 1992.
Indeed, this is not just my diagnosis.  It also helps explain the behavior of the much misunderstood Donald Rumsfeld.  Back in 2007, I wrote:

I have often argued that Donald Rumsfeld will likely be treated better by history than by contemporaries. I’ve argued this position in the past because I don’t think most people understand how bad civil-military relations had become in the Clinton years. Trying to reassert effective civilian control was herculean task, and I’ve been willing to give Rumsfeld something of a pass for his abrasive and bullying manner. The fact that we went in too light into Iraq was not just a consequence of Rumsfeld’s desire to prove his theories about defense transformation, but was also a function of the fact that civilians from across the political spectrum had doubts about the advice they were receiving from the military. There was a sense that the military was always overstating the requirements for operations in order to avoid unpopular missions.

I still think that analysis holds up.  Rummy discomfited the military to no end.  The military was giddy at the election of Bush 43 — even though his campaign has made clear that it favored a further period of belt-tightening in order to “skip a generation” and recapitalize the force around a high-intensity contingency with China.  But the military heard none of that, instead they were just pleased that the “grownups were in charge” again.  Rumsfeld’s aggressive actions to seize the reins of civil-military relations and attack what he considered to be obsolete programs and processes provoked a tremendous hue and cry.  Indeed, in August 2001, there was extensive speculation about whether Rumsfeld could survive given hostility from the military.  9/11 changed much of that, although Rummy faces military grousing throughout his tenure — sometimes indirectly as reflected in the venom directed by the uniformed military at Doug Feith and Steve Cambone.
Well, at least it changed it temporarily.  The lingering suspicion that civilian couldn’t hack it certainly didn’t go away, and it reemerged in force with the Iraq war.  Paul Yingling’s famous essay on the “A Failure in Generalship” is a fascinating document.  He excoriates the military leadership for, in essence, failing to repair through operational brilliance the strategic incoherence of the Bush Administration in Iraq. Yingling has essentially given up on the ability of civilians to lead, and instead he pleads for a military savior to emerge.
Petraeus, is, of course, that savior.  His concept for counter-insurgency warfare promises to square the circle.  It provides an operational scheme to make foreign occupations possible despite insufficient resources.  It eliminates the tensions between military intervention and local resistance.  It is all an illusion, but it serves the purpose of removing civilian leadership from the loop.  It is an operational concept based on the assumption that our civilian leadership is incapable of strategic thought, and that gives the military essentially unlimited authority to implement operational schemes designed to make the best of a bad situation.
Petraeus’s version of COIN serves a domestic political purpose akin to how we deal with a large, muscular drunk stranger.  You don’t confront him.  You don’t argue with him.  Instead, you engage him.  Convince him he’s brilliant and witty, while slowly trying to maneuver him to the door.  When he starts to get behind the wheel of his car, you offer him directions that you hope will keep him away from populated areas.
Ideally, you should confront him before he gets totally bombed, and ideally you should take away his keys.  And you would if it was a good friend.  But instead, you deal with him as a force of nature and try to mitigate the consequences.
Much of the military leadership now essentially views the civilian leadership as an unpleasant drunk.  Unpredictable and irrational, you try to keep him away from sharp objects. Anyway, I’ve tortured that analogy enough.
The point is, the military simply does not trust the civilian leadership and people like Petraeus are essentially willing to say and do whatever it takes to remove decisions from the White House and put them in military headquarters.  That is what is behind the constant push to make decisions based on “conditions on the ground” instead of “politically-motivated timetables.”
Indeed, we’re so far through the looking glass that the “conditions” vs. “timetable” debate is barely a debate.  OF COURSE, we should base decisions on “conditions.”  But why? If the civilian leadership decides as a matter of either political expediency or strategic assessment to follow a timetable, that is part of civilian control.  Judging “how much is enough” is, indeed, a quintessentially civilian decision. The notion that this sort of decision is somehow illegitimate, and that instead “how much is enough” ought to be decided according to a military judgment of conditions is a step down a perilous path.
In the absence of total victory, war termination always requires strong and confident civilian leadership.  The military almost never wants to throw in the towel; largely due to the admirable institutional desire to ensure that “no one dies in vain.” But as sad as it is to say, in war some always die in vain.  And it takes a political decision to acknowledge that.
But in times of war, soldiers gain tremendous credibility and implicit political power. Senior leaders gain from the reflected glory of the suffering of their troops.  They often try to actively cultivate that sort of reflected glory — what do you think McChrystal’s cult of personality-like repetition of his sleeping and eating habits was all about? See, he wasn’t just some overstuffed GO in a comfy HQ; no he was living the life of an ascetic, taking off his body armor and sharing the same privations and risks of his men.  How can some pampered politician twelve thousand miles away dare question his judgment?
Anyway, the military is certainly not wholly at fault.  Civilians looking for blame and responsibility-shifting strategies have been happy to embrace what has essentially become military supremacy in fundamental decisions of war and peace. But what is frustrating to me is that so many people fail to recognize that we do indeed have a problem.
Anyway, this post is much too long as is.  I had wanted to discuss the Rome comparison and several other points, but maybe I’ll do that in follow-up posts.  For now, I just want to assure Ellis that I am not engaged in an act of political agitprop, using the specter of a coup to promote my policy preference of getting out of Afghanistan.  I am genuinely concerned about the state of civil-military relations.  I am concerned that the military does not trust its civilian masters.  And I am concerned that the military (at least some elements of it) are taking active steps to try to shape policy decisions.  I think that anyone who is willing to look back to the Reagan and Bush 41 years and before will be shocked to see how things have changed.

8 comments to On Civil-Miltary Relations

  • “He excoriates the military leadership for, in essence, failing to repair through operational brilliance the strategic incoherence of the Bush Administration in Iraq. Yingling has essentially given up on the ability of civilians to lead, and instead he pleads for a military savior to emerge.”

    I think you’ve got a point there, but a bit overstated. The gross incompetence and gross negligence of leaders in theater should have resulted in a mass removal of unfit Officers. The occupation may have suffered from a flawed strategy, but the nail in the coffin was the outrageous incompetence of those on the ground who should have been able to do a much better job with the crappy hand they were dealt.

    “… the military simply does not trust the civilian leadership and people like Petraeus are essentially willing to say and do whatever it takes to remove decisions from the White House and put them in military headquarters. That is what is behind the constant push to make decisions based on ‘conditions on the ground’ instead of ‘politically-motivated timetables.’”

    I don’t know. I’ve long viewed this 180 degrees differently. Petraeus became a star in the darker days of the Bush administration. Bush had been thoroughly demonized and could only move his agenda forward by casting it as the wise guidance of someone else. The “military leaders” have that kind of credibility. They viewed as stoic, older men who have spent their lives in service to the country, untainted by political bickering and overpaid self-serving positions. They are viewed as the guardians of our values. It was essentially Bush saying to the frenzied masses, “don’t worry, I’ve turned the reigns of this war over to mom and apple pie.”

    Asserting for the sake of argument that much of the decision-making has shifted out of the White House and into the military, I don’t think that shift was the result of pulling from the DoD. It was pushing by the White House, in response to a political climate in which the President’s foreign policy can be as thoroughly demonized as his domestic policy. The President – whether or Bush or Obama – has found it expedient to portray the war as being run by the military rather than the civilians so as to insulate themselves from criticism.

    “… what do you think McChrystal’s cult of personality-like repetition of his sleeping and eating habits was all about?”

    I thought that was just typical, clueless reporting. Kind of along the lines of reporters stating, in awe, that Soldiers conduct live-fire training at night (gasp!).

    As an aside, whether you’ve “been in a foxhole” is a non-issue in my opinion. But I realize that isn’t the point of this entry, so I commented on that elsewhere.

  • Schmedlap:”The President – whether or Bush or Obama – has found it expedient to portray the war as being run by the military rather than the civilians so as to insulate themselves from criticism.”

    I agree. But few military leaders have seized the bull by the horns quite as thoroughly as Petraeus. Indeed, few have the skills to do so. M4 — for whatever his SOF expertise — was amazingly inept at the politics. Indeed, even absent the Rolling Stone debacle, he had proved himself unprepared for the job — IISS, “government in a box,” fights with Eichenberry, hamfisted strategy assessment.

    But it only takes one Marius to overturn existing conventions, followed by a Pompey and a Caesar to undo a republic. Petraeus is not the end of the world if he’s the only one, but to the extent that for people like Exum that he defines new norms, then we’re treating down a dangerous road.

  • Paul Yingling

    Dr. Finel,

    While I appreciate your reference to my article “A Failure in Generalship,” your comments misrepresent the content of my argument. You stated that “Yingling has essentially given up on the ability of civilians to lead, and instead he pleads for a military savior to emerge.”

    In fact, “A Failure in Generalship” argues just the opposite. The article begins by arguing that “remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.” The last third describes in detail proposed Congressional remedies to improve the quality of military leaders. The article concludes by stating that “We still have time to select as our generals those who possess the intelligence to visualize future conflicts and the moral courage to advise civilian policymakers on the preparations needed for our security. The power and the responsibility to identify such generals lie with the U.S. Congress.”

    Far from having “given up on the ability of civilians to lead,” I have been arguing for increased civilian oversight of military leaders. I have been writing and speaking on military leadership for the last eight years, and have never argued for “a military savior to emerge.”

    I recognize that my views are controversial, and appreciate intellectually rigorous debate. Such debate begins with an accurate representation of what I’ve written and said.

    Best,

    LTC Paul Yingling

  • Michael Drew

    LTC Yingling, it seems to me you haven’t at all clarified your point away from Dr. Finel’s account with this comment. You seem to be saying that together with Congress (a branch explicitly not empowered to command the military in war), the military can develop general officers that meet a level of quality you aspire to for them. That doesn’t confirm Dr. Finel’s view that such “qualities” might include the ability and inclination to influence the setting of policy that is the province of the executive branch, but as I said, it in no way dispels it that I can see.

  • [...] to Finel Posted on July 7, 2010 by Aaron Ellis Bernard Finel responded last weekend to my critique of him and Andrew Bacevich, writing an interesting history about the [...]

  • [...] suggests. What I did argue, from 2007 on, was that development in civil-military relations were extraordinary and far out of the usual American experience. I argued that having Petraeus be the face of Iraq [...]

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