Tom Ricks argued recently that there is a fundamental problem in American civil-military relations: “We need presidents willing to listen and learn from dissenting generals — and generals who know how to dissent in strategic discussions, and are willing to do so.” Folks on Twitter pushed back, arguing that the biggest problem is the perception of veterans as powder kegs, likely simply to explode in rage or become white supremacists. My friends on Twitter were outraged by a NYT column that drew some shaky connections between veterans and white supremacists. While I don’t entirely agree with Ricks, I think he is closer to the real crisis than my Twitter friends.
Why? Because I care about foreign policy and outcomes in the field. The frustration with the NYT column is important, to be sure, and we need to be careful about overreacting and under-reacting to the challenges of reintegrating those who engaged in combat (as well as those who served in other capacities) back into civilian life. Part of the problem here is that we often get confused about what we mean by civil-military relations. While the general issue of how do the civilians in a society relate to the military can be important, scholars and analysts of defense issues are more concerned with how civilians in government manage the military.
Government officials have to manage all kinds of government agencies, but traditionally the armed forces are the most critical because they are the most misunderstood and because they happen to have the ability to remove the government. In advanced democracies, we don’t worry much about coups d’etat. Indeed, it is a defining characteristic of stable democracy. Still, managing the military is important and difficult because bad military performance can be catastrophic. Just as the French in 1940.
The challenge is that militaries consider themselves experts at the use of force and everyone else as amateurs. This may be mostly true (less true than it used to be with the development of civilian expertise). However, because war is politics by other means, to rely on a classic quote by Clausewitz, the decisions made during wars have great political significance. Which leads to another maxim: war is too important to be left to the generals. The traditional division of labor of the civilians deciding when to fight and with whom and the military deciding how simply does not work that well in practice. This can lead to all kinds of tensions between the civilians and military officers, and that is actually quite normal. The question is how to handle the tensions, which leads us back to Ricks and what he misses.
The job of handling the military in the US does not really belong to the President but to the Secretary of Defense. Sure, the President chooses the SecDef and is the ultimate commander in chief, but the SecDef is the key conduit between the President and the military. I worked in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon for a year, and I am now reading Robert Gates’s memoir so I have some opinions about recent SecDef performance.
In short, Rumsfeld was a disaster for American civil-military relations. He did not listen to his officers much at all, and was not at all willing to “listen and learn from dissenting generals.” So, the US went to war without a plan for how to deal with success (the missing Phase IV after the fall of Baghdad), the US fired the Iraqi army which was counter to pretty much everything we know about post-war politics, and so on. Most famously, he got upset at General Shinseki, Army Chief of Staff when he respond honestly to questions in front of a Congressional committee about how big of a force would it take to manage a post-invasion Iraq. Rummy’s time could clearly be viewed as an ongoing crisis in American civil-military relations, and it greatly affected outcomes.
Gates was far more willing to take seriously the feedback he received from American generals. He reports in the memoir that he consulted the officers and noticed when there were dissenting opinions. Still, he complains in his memoir of the times that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen would say things in front of Congress that were not in concordance with the messages preferred by the administration. The difference here is that Gates did not punish Mullen (Rumsfeld essentially sent Shinseki to the doghouse for the rest of his term), although he did admonish him.
To be honest, I am still trying to figure out Gates. I think he made a huge mistake: when the Afghan surge happened, he let the Marines up-end much of what had been accomplished to improve unity of command. They chose to report directly to Central Command rather than ISAF headquarters. He also let the Marines deploy to the wrong place — Helmand — which was counter to the President’s decision to engage in population-centric counter-insurgency, and the population really was in Kandahar, not Helmand. So, Gates lets the military do a bit too much, compared to Rumsfeld’s micro-management.
So, to return to Ricks, Secretaries of Defense vary in how they manage the generals under them. Rummy was obviously at one end of the spectrum of imposing too much. Gates was perhaps a bit too far the other way. There is no right way to do it — the armed forces tend to know best how to do what they do but what they do is deeply political with huge implications. So, Ricks’s advice is right but partially mis-targeted. The military needs to give its unvarnished views to the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Defense must listen and then make up his or her own mind.
One last thing: in the American case, there is another actor involved — Congress. The Armed Services Committees of the House and Senate have an important role to play via oversight. Which means that generals have to speak truth to that power when asked, even when it is inconvenient for the President and the Secretary of Defense. Of course, Congressional oversight works best when those on the committee are not just engaged in partisan feuding. In the not so distant past, Democratic Senators and Representations would hold generals’ feet to the fire even if the President was a Democrat, and Republicans would do the same even when the President was a Republican. These days? Not so much. And that might just be a real crisis in US civil-military relations.
A version of this post first appeared at the author’s blog.