George W. Bush’s War

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2007

Iraq really is George Bush’s war now. To an extent unmatched since Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the War of the Rebellion, President Bush has assumed responsibility not only for the decision to go to war in Iraq, but also for the strategy and conduct of that war.

Of course critics have always called it Bush’s war. But many Bush supporters who agreed with the decision to go to war in Iraq were able to blame intermediaries—former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or the uniformed military—for problems with the conduct of the war. No more. The President has changed secretaries of defense and replaced the generals responsible for the actual conduct of operations. In so doing he has abandoned the strictures of what Eliot Cohen has called “the normal theory of civil-military relations.”

This theory can be traced to Samuel Huntington’s seminal 1957 study of civil-military relations, The Solder and the State. Huntington sought to answer the central question of civil-military relations: how does society ensure that a military strong enough to defend it does not threaten it? In other words, how to we guarantee civilian control of the military while ensuring the ability of the uniformed military to provide security? His solution was a mechanism for creating and maintaining a professional, apolitical military establishment. Such a professional military would focus on defending the United States but avoid threatening civilian control.

Huntington called this mechanism “objective control” of the military, which required “the recognition [on the part of civilian authorities] of autonomous military professionalism,” i.e. respect for an independent military sphere of action. According to Huntington, objective control weakens the military politically without weakening it in military terms. Huntington reasoned that professionalizing the military would render it politically sterile or neutral. The quid pro quo for ensuring an apolitical military is avoidance of civilian interference or meddling in military affairs because this undermines military professionalism and so undermines objective control. “A highly professional officer corps stands ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state.”

Like most presidents since Vietnam, Bush bought in to the normal theory of civil-military relations, which calls for a line of demarcation between civilians who determine the goals of the war and the uniformed military who then conduct the actual war. This presidential deference to an autonomous military realm is the result of what has long been an element of faith when it comes to the conduct of war—that the failure of civilians to respect this division of labor was the cause of US defeat in Vietnam.

But as Cohen pointed out in his indispensable book Supreme Command, the normal theory of civil-military relations has rarely held. Indeed, storied democratic war leaders such as Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln impinged upon the military’s turf as a matter of course, influencing not only operations but also tactics. The reason that civilian leaders cannot simply leave the military to its own devices during war is that war is an iterative process involving the interplay of active wills. What appears to be the case at the outset of the war may change as the war continues, modifying the relationship between political goals and military means. The fact remains that wars are not fought for their own purposes but to achieve policy goals set by the political leadership of the state.

And so it is with President Bush and Iraq. He has outlined his plan and chosen the generals he believes can implement it.

The President’s Democratic critics have assailed him for replacing generals who disagree with his approach. To illustrate just how absurd this criticism is, one has only to examine the precedent of Abraham Lincoln and Major General George B. McClellan.

Historians tend to treat McClellan as a first-rate organizer, equipper, and trainer but an incompetent general who was constantly outfought and outgeneraled by his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee. This, I believe, is a serious misunderstanding. McClellan was not incompetent. Instead, McClellan and many of his favored subordinates disagreed with Lincoln’s policies, and indeed may have attempted to sabotage them. McClellan pursued the war he wanted to fight—one that would end in a negotiated peace—rather than the one his commander-in-chief wanted him to fight.

Until the disastrous series of Union reversals in the summer of 1862—Lee’s defeat of McClellan before Richmond, his subsequent defeat of Pope at Second Manassas/Bull Run, and the simultaneous Confederate invasions of Maryland and Kentucky—the consensus in the North was that the application of steady military would convince the seceded states to return to the Union, based on the formula “the Constitution as it is, the Union as it was,” i.e., with slavery where it existed but with prohibitions against its expansion into the federal territories.

But the setbacks of 1862 convinced Lincoln that the initial strategy for dealing with the Rebellion was inadequate. The time had come, as he wrote to Cuthbert Bullitt, to stop waging war “with elder-stalk squirts, charged with rose water.”

Lincoln now chose to defeat the Confederacy by attacking the social system of the South: the institution of slavery. Thus after Lee’s invasion of Maryland was turned back at Sharpsburg/Antietam, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September that gave the Confederates one hundred days to submit to the Union or face the prospect of immediate emancipation.

Southern Unionists, loyal slave-holders, and Democrats charged that Lincoln was “revolutionizing” the war by issuing his proclamation. Lincoln did not disagree, admitting that once the proclamation took effect, “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation and extermination.” While generals such as Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, who had once believed that the war should not attack the institution of slavery, accepted the change, McClellan never did.

A harbinger of the problems that lay ahead for Lincoln became evident in July of 1862 when the president visited the Army of the Potomac at Harrison’s Landing on the James River after the series of battles known as The Seven Days. There is perhaps no more remarkable document in the annals of American civil-military relations than the letter McClellan gave to Lincoln on this occasion.

McClellan’s letter went far beyond the description of the state of military affairs that McClellan had led Lincoln to expect. Instead, McClellan argued against confiscation of rebel property and interference with the institution of slavery. “A system of policy thus constitutional and conservative, and pervaded by the influences of Christianity and freedom, would receive the support of almost all truly loyal men, would deeply impress the rebel masses and all foreign nations, and it might be humbly hoped that it would commend itself to the favor of the Almighty.” McClellan continued that victory was possible only if the President was pledged to such a policy. “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies” making further recruitment “almost hopeless.”

The suspicion that McClellan was pursuing his own policies and not those of his president is reinforced by his actions in authorizing a subordinate to investigate the possibility of peace between the sections in the spring of 1862. McClellan apparently thought it was part of his duty to negotiate with the enemy on the terms for ending hostilities and to explain to that enemy the policies and objectives of his commander-in-chief without letting the latter know he was doing so.

Lincoln understood that he had to take action to remind the army of his constitutional role. He did so after learning that a serving officer had, in response to a query from another as to “why… the rebel army [was not] bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg [Antietam],” replied “that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery.”

Lincoln dismissed the officer in question, writing that “it is wholly inadmissible for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments as [the officer] is within proved to have done.” He remarked to John Hay “that if there was a ’game’ ever among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game.” Shortly thereafter, Lincoln relieved McClellan himself after another long bout of inactivity following Antietam.

Of course, this should not be construed to suggest that the disagreement between President Bush and Generals Abizaid and Casey concerning the execution of the Iraq war is anything like the disagreement between Lincoln and McClellan in 1862. Abizaid and Casey agree with the goals of the war and have never “dragged their feet” in the way that McClellan did because of his opposition to Lincolns policy. The point is, that the commander in chief is constitutionally entitled to choose the generals the former believes can best achieve the goals set by policy.

By taking control of the conduct of the war and promoting generals who shared his vision, Lincoln ultimately crushed the Rebellion and saved the Union. President Bush is now attempting to replicate Lincoln’s approach in Iraq. The new approach may work or it may not, but in any event, Bush, like Lincoln in 1862, has established ownership of the war. As in the case of the War of the Rebellion, the outcome in Iraq is not predetermined. A great deal depends upon whether Bush’s critics prefer an American victory to a Bush defeat.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.