Advisers, Not Advocates

Mackubin T. Owens

October 15, 2009

Americans have been aware of significant civil-military tensions since the early years of the Clinton administration. Although such tensions are not unprecedented, they have produced concerns about the health of civil-military relations.

Most of the most highly publicized disputes between the uniformed military and the Clinton administration reflected cultural tensions between the military as an institution and liberal civilian society, mostly having to do with women in combat and open homosexuals in the military. But there were also attempts by the uniformed military to undermine the Clinton administration’s foreign-policy initiatives (for example, in the Balkans).

Some observers chalked these tensions up to the perceived anti-military character of the Clinton administration, but the tensions did not disappear with the election and reelection of George W. Bush. Indeed, civil-military relations became more strained as a result of clashes between the uniformed services and Bush’s first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, over Rumsfeld’s efforts to “transform” the military from a Cold War structure to a leaner, rapid-response force, and also over his planning and conduct of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Instances of military officers’ undercutting Rumsfeld and his polices in pursuit of their own goals—what Peter Feaver has called “shirking” (e.g., anti-Rumsfeld leaks to the press), “foot-dragging,” and “slow-rolling”—continued apace. In addition, public criticism by military officers of civilian leaders reached a fever pitch, highlighted by the so-called “revolt of the generals” in the spring of 2006, which saw a number of retired Army and Marine generals publicly and harshly criticize Rumsfeld.

Indeed, the Bush administration was beset by the most serious crisis in civil-military relations since the Civil War. According to accounts in both Bob Woodward’s The War Within and Tom Ricks’s The Gamble, the highest levels of the uniformed military not only opposed the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq and insisted that their advice be followed, they also subsequently worked to undermine the president even after the surge decision had been made.

With Rumsfeld’s departure and the success of the surge, some expressed hope that harmony might return to U.S. civil-military relations. But while Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates, did much to improve the civil-military climate, subsequent events—such as Gates’s firing of two service secretaries and a service chief and his forcing the retirement of a combatant commander, as well as the current tension between the Obama administration and the uniformed military over Afghanistan—make it clear that the state of civil-military relations remains turbulent.

Writing before the 2008 election, Richard Kohn, a prolific writer on civil-military relations, penned a piece titled “Coming Soon: A Crisis in Civil-Military Relations?” for the Winter 2008 issue of World Affairs. He predicted that “the president elected in November will inherit a stinking mess, one that contains the seeds of a civil-military conflict as dangerous as the crisis that nearly sank the Clinton team in 1993. Whether the new president is a Republican or Democrat makes only a marginal difference. The issues in military affairs confronting the next administration are so complex and so intractable that conflict is all but inevitable.”

He continued: “[T]he new administration, like its predecessors, will wonder to what extent it can exercise civilian ’control.’ If the historical pattern holds, the administration will do something clumsy or overreact, provoking even more distrust simply in the process of establishing its own authority.”

Subsequently, during a panel discussion on the topic of civil-military relations at the Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth in March 2009, Kohn was a bit more optimistic, arguing that “the Obama administration has taken dramatic steps to avoid a fight with the military.” He noted that First Lady Michelle Obama’s first official visit outside Washington, D.C., was to Fort Bragg, N.C. He also highlighted Obama’s retention of two holdovers from the Bush administration: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, who was nominated for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president kept Gates and Mullen, Kohn argued, to show respect for the senior military leadership and to ensure continuity during difficult wartime conditions.

Kohn also noted President Obama’s cleverness in seeking out other former senior military leaders for posts in his administration, including retired Marine Corps general James Jones (as national security adviser), retired Army general Eric Shinseki (as secretary of veterans’ affairs), and retired Navy admiral Dennis Blair (as director of national intelligence). In selecting these individuals for his administration, the president “arranged it so that he is free to ignore the advice of his uniformed chiefs and field commanders because he will have cover of General Jones by his side, and other senior military in his administration,” Kohn said. “At the same time,” Obama demonstrated “that he has been reaching out to the military and wants to have military judgment.”

But as recent events have shown, Kohn was prescient in his more pessimistic World Affairs essay, where he predicted that a new administration was likely to do something clumsy, “provoking even more distrust simply in the process of establishing its own authority.”

Obama, perhaps inadvertently, sowed the seeds of the current civil-military discord with his campaign rhetoric: He used Afghanistan as a club to beat the Republicans in general, and John McCain in particular, over the head about Iraq. In Obama’s formulation, Afghanistan became the “good war” and “the central front on terror,” from which we had been distracted by our misadventure in Iraq.

In keeping with his promise to reinvigorate the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, President Obama announced in March a “comprehensive new strategy… to reverse the Taliban’s gains and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government,” pledging to properly resource this “war of necessity.” The new operational strategy called for a counterinsurgency approach focusing (as did the surge strategy in Iraq) on the security of the population and rejecting the “counterterrorism” approach that NATO had followed during the Bush years, one that concentrated on using special-operations forces and air strikes launched from unmanned aircraft to hunt down and kill al-Qaeda terrorists.

In the early summer, Obama abruptly fired the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, and replaced him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a known counterinsurgency specialist. He presumably did so because General McChrystal had been Gen. David Petraeus’s right-hand man in Iraq when a counterinsurgency strategy was successfully implemented.

When General McChrystal took command of NATO forces in June, he initiated an assessment of the forces required to execute what he had been led to believe was the president’s preferred strategy. His confidential study was completed in August and sent to the Pentagon. At about the same time, President Obama delivered a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in which he once again spoke favorably of a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

During this time period, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen told Congress that more troops would be needed, and experts suggested that the number of additional soldiers and Marines necessary to execute the new strategy was 30,000 to 40,000. Yet despite having received the assessment, the president did nothing. Obama had apparently begun to rethink his hard line in Afghanistan out of concern that his political base did not support any troop increase.

The perception that the president’s actions on Afghanistan were motivated by political factors rather than strategic ones was reinforced by several clumsy missteps, including the naked attempt during the McChrystal review by General Jones, the national security adviser, to intimidate military commanders in Afghanistan into reducing their troop requests to a politically acceptable level, and a White House directive to the Pentagon not to forward a request for more troops. The most troubling of these was a report in the Wall Street Journal that the White House ordered General McChrystal not to testify before Congress. This was a serious mistake on the administration’s part, contributing to the perception that it is trying to muzzle the military.

News reports indicate that officers on General McChrystal’s staff and elsewhere throughout the uniformed military establishment were frustrated by Obama’s failure to make a decision about how to proceed in Afghanistan and what they perceived as attempts to muzzle the general by cutting off his legitimate access to Congress. They wondered why, after declaring the conflict there a “war of necessity,” the president had not provided the necessary means to fight it properly. And having selected General McChrystal to turn things around in Afghanistan, they wondered why President Obama had not supported him the way that George Bush supported General Petraeus in Iraq.

But while the response of certain members of the uniformed military illustrates the truth of Kohn’s prediction that a clumsy step by the administration would sow distrust on the part of the soldiers, thereby increasing civil-military tensions, the steps taken by some also served to undermine healthy civil-military relations. First someone leaked General McChrystal’s strategic assessment to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Then an article published by McClatchy quoted anonymous officers as effectively saying that General McChrystal would resign if the president did not give him what he needed to implement McChrystal’s preferred strategy.

Such actions on the part of the uniformed military are symptoms of a serious civil-military-relations problem: the widespread belief among military officers that they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serve in their traditional advisory role.

The cornerstone of U.S. civil-military relations is simple and straightforward: The uniformed military is expected to provide its best advice to civil authorities, who alone are responsible for policy. While reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of military action, the decision to take such action lies with civilian authorities, not with a military commander.

Of course, uniformed officers have an obligation to stand up to civilian leaders if they think a policy is flawed. They must convey their concerns to civilian policymakers forcefully and truthfully. If they believe the door is closed to them at the Pentagon or the White House, they also have access to Congress. But the American tradition of civil-military relations requires that they not engage in public debate over matters of foreign and defense policy. Moreover, once a policy decision is made, soldiers are obligated to carry it out to the best of their ability, whether their advice is heeded or not.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook center and a professor at the Naval War College. He is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.