Civilian Rumsfeld: Overseeing the Military

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 2003

It would be an understatement to say that Donald Rumsfeld has ruffled a few feathers during his tenure as secretary of defense. He has been called a “takedown artist,” a “control freak” who has little patience with the niceties of military protocol. His critics say he thinks nothing of insulting general officers and running roughshod over those with whom he disagrees. Not surprisingly, the uniformed military has struck back. Anti-Rumsfeld leaks to the press have been unprecedented. Hardly a week goes by without a story in the press quoting anonymous officers trashing the secretary for one reason or another.

The uniformed military might not like it, but there’s a term for what Rumsfeld is doing at the Pentagon. It’s called exercising civilian control of the military— a feature of Republican government much beloved by the Founders of the United States.

Ensuring civilian control of the military is actually one of the oldest problems of political science. It is raised by Socrates in Plato’s Republic in his discussion of the “guardians,” who are described as having the virtues of a well-bred guard dog, “dangerous to their enemies [but] gentle to their friends.”

How does a state create a body of fighters who are capable of defeating an enemy but also not inclined to turn on those whom they defend? If the military is so powerful that it can be assured of winning on the battlefield, it might well choose to launch a coup to seize the government. Accordingly, to guard against the dangers of a coup, the state might seek to tame the military by extirpating marital virtues—most likely resulting in defeat on the battlefield.

In his 1957 book, The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington argued that the best way for a republic such as the United States to avoid the two polar outcomes—either coup or defeat—was to allow the military autonomy in its own realm but also to insist that it remain within its limits. Huntington called this approach “objective control” of the military—which, he claimed, simultaneously maximizes military effectiveness and efficiency on the one hand and subordination of the military to civilian authority on the other.

In Huntington’s theory, the key to objective control is military professionalism. This amounts to a bargain between civilians and soldiers. To begin with, civil authorities grant a professional officer corps autonomy in the realm of military affairs. At the same time, “a highly professional officer corps stands ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state.”

At the opposite pole lay Huntington’s worst-case scenario: “subjective control,” or the systematic violation of the autonomy necessary for a professional military. Huntington argued that subjective control was detrimental to military effectiveness, and that forcing the military to defer to civilians in the military realm would lead to failure on the battlefield. In keeping with this view, it has become an article of faith within the military that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was the result of undue civilian meddling in military affairs.

But as Eliot Cohen and Peter Feaver have shown, in practice, American civil-military relations do not actually conform to Huntington’s objective control. This has been true in both war and peace. As Cohen illustrates in his recent book, Supreme Command, successful wartime presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, “interfered” extensively with military operations—often driving their generals to distraction. The problem with Vietnam was not so much civilian interference as bad policy and strategy all around.

And the same holds for peacetime. In his new book, Armed Servants, Feaver shows that during the Cold War, the military became increasingly “civilianized” and the officer corps more politicized, and civilians habitually intruded into the military realm. “[A]ccording to many of the indicators Huntington cited as critical, civilians did not adopt the objective control mechanism he claimed was the crucial causal mechanism” that permitted the United States to prevail during the Cold War.

Feaver turns to “agency theory” to explain civil-military relations during the Cold War and after. The problem agency theory seeks to analyze is this: Given different incentives, how does a principal ensure that the agent is doing what the principal wants him to do? Is the agent “working” or “shirking?”

The major question for the principal is the extent to which he will monitor the agent. Will monitoring be intrusive or non-intrusive? This decision is affected by cost: The higher the cost of monitoring, the less intrusive the monitoring is likely to be.

The agent’s incentives for working or shirking are affected by the likelihood that his shirking will be detected by the principal and that he will then be punished for it. The less intrusive the principal’s monitoring, the less likely it is that the agent’s shirking will be detected.

Feaver applies agency theory to civilian control of the military. Does the military agent do what the civilian principal wants, or does it “shirk” by pursuing its own goals? The most obvious form of military shirking is disobedience, but it also includes foot-dragging and leaks to the press designed to undercut either policy or individual policymakers. Feaver provides an explanation for why such phenomena exploded during the 1990s.

According to Feaver, and contrary to Huntington, the civil-military relations pattern that prevailed during the Cold War was Huntington’s subjective control. There was a wide gap between the preferences of the civilians and the military, but the military “worked” because the costs of intrusive monitoring were relatively low, and because the military believed the likelihood of punishment for shirking to be fairly high.

Of critical importance was the firing of a popular military hero (MacArthur) by an unpopular president (Truman). This dramatic action dramatically shaped the expectations of the military concerning the likelihood of punishment for shirking during the Cold War period.

During the 1990s, a new civil-military relations pattern emerged in which civilians monitored intrusively, yet the military “shirked.” For one thing, the preferences of civilian and military elites diverged to an even greater degree than they had during the Cold War, substantially increasing incentives for the military to pursue its own set of goals. This situation was exacerbated by the creation of a powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Act of 1986, and the occupation of this office by a popular, politically savvy general—Colin Powell.

Finally, the expectation of punishment for shirking decreased as a result of the election of Bill Clinton, whose equivocal relationship with the military made punishment unlikely. Combined with a powerful and popular military leader—and an absence of consensus regarding security affairs across the executive and legislative branches—the civilian principals were in a relatively weakened position vis-à-vis the military agents.

If Feaver is right, it is no wonder that the uniformed military is constantly at odds with Rumsfeld and other civilians. There was practically no civilian oversight of the uniformed military during the Clinton years, and the military got used to doing business that way. The characterization of Donald Rumsfeld as McNamara II by anonymous officers, the explosion of leaks during the period leading up to the Iraq war, the press attacks on Rumsfeld during the first week of the war when the pace slowed down, and current criticisms of the postwar plan (or lack thereof)—all are examples of military shirking. And it will take some time to change the culture, so we can expect to see continued leaks and foot-dragging on the part of the military.

Much as we may hope that civilian control prevails, there is a real danger that it could be reasserted at the cost of a dispirited and demoralized uniformed military. Right now, the perception among officers is that Rumsfeld wants to surround himself with “yes-men” and that dissent will not be tolerated. This is a recipe for disaster.

Rumsfeld needs to take a cue from Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and other great military leaders of democracies. By all means, he should challenge, cajole, probe, and question his uniformed military—and then challenge them again. But he should also encourage true dialogue, in the hope of achieving a dynamic, creative tension within the Pentagon on everything from war fighting to transformation. This is the path to healthy civil-military relations—and to true civilian control of the military.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is on leave from the Naval War College to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam, 1968-69.