Civilian-military relations haven't been this bad in decades
By Micah Zenko | Foreign Policy | Published: September 29, 2013
Washington has found itself in a crisis over the proper relationship between senior civilian and military officials. This has played out in recent op-eds ("A War the Pentagon Doesn't Want," Washington Post) and articles ("Some U.S. Military Officers Not Happy With Syrian War Prep," Time), which have been countered by other op-eds ("No Military Consensus on Syria," Atlantic, and "U.S. War Decisions Rightfully Belong to Elected Civilian Leaders, Not the Military," Washington Post). It's a tension that shows little sign of abating, regardless of how the Syria issue plays out: Underlying forces seem guaranteed to make it worse.
Every administration has its share of disputes with the Pentagon, but when it comes to where and how U.S. armed forces will be used, civil-military relations have not been this tense and precarious since the end of the Cold War. Military officers are increasingly willing to express their personal opinions about interventions, while civilian policymakers are increasingly willing to disregard professional military advice. Worse, a growing number of individuals from both "sides" seem unaware of the appropriate civilian and military roles and relationships, and their conflicts play out in public more prominently and immediately than ever before.
For example, senior civilian officials have strongly contested Gen. Martin Dempsey's doubts about intervening in the Syrian civil war. The New York Times reported last week that Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is "adamant that he not influence the public debate about whether to strike Syria," but Obama administration civilians and Capitol Hill staffers will tell you that the general has emphasized only the risks and costs associated with intervening. "They," meaning the military, "just don't want to do it" is a common refrain. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has even characterized Dempsey's assessment as "beyond anything that any rational military thinker that I know would ever contemplate," and earlier this month he said: "I really don't pay a lot of attention to General Dempsey anymore. With me he just doesn't have any credibility."
The Pentagon has taken to selectively leaking its strong opposition to intervening to journalists and think tank analysts. (I have not met a senior officer who supports a direct military role in Syria.) Similarly, a certain State Department bureau that covers the territory including Syria, as well as those who work closely with Secretary John Kerry, will tell anyone who listens about their enthusiasm for no-fly zones or airstrikes.
These civil-military tensions have also been revealed in reviews of what military responses — if any — were available on the night of the terrorist attacks on the temporary mission facility and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya. In May, during one of many House hearings, Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission to Libya, was asked about the alleged order that prohibited four special operators from flying to Benghazi to try to rescue the besieged facilities. Hicks replied: "They were furious. I will quote Lt. Col. Gibson [commander of the site security team]. He said: 'This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.' " But if by "balls" Hicks meant a propensity to propose risky military operations, then State Department civilians have actually shown them quite often. (Gibson later testified to a House Armed Services subcommittee that, in fact, he "was not ordered to 'stand down' by higher command authorities.")
Gen. Dempsey has testified several times that no U.S. military forces could have been deployed in time to make a difference. His predecessor, retired Adm. Michael Mullen, investigated potential military responses in his capacity as co-chair of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board and agreed with Dempsey. In testimony released last week, Mullen denounced the idea "that you can somehow [intervene] instantly when you really are completely surprised, that you could generate a force to have that kind of impact — it's just not reasonable." He said a "time-distance physics problem . . . would have prevented us from getting there."
Despite the military's repeated explanations, policymakers (primarily Republicans) have refused to accept that force could not have been deployed in Benghazi. In May, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said to Charlie Rose: "Why is it that the military could not get there until almost 24 hours after the attack? You can get on a Delta flight here at the Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. and fly there faster than our military was able to get there." In closed and open sessions, military commanders have described the distance, logistics, and force-protection challenges that prevented combat aircraft and special operations forces from deploying. Yet, even as late as last Thursday, House members expressed their disbelief that no military assets could have saved the day. As Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., told Adm. Mullen: "I'm not the greatest military strategist, but Mr. [Darrell] Issa and I in January were at least at one post — I know of at least three other posts, we could have launched an attack."
Duke University scholar (and FP contributor) Peter Feaver has described this civil-military tension as a principal-agent problem, where theoretically only civilian principals have the authority and only military agents have the expertise. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, however, many civilian officials have helped to develop and implement U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations around the world. They now believe that they have a clearer and more realistic understanding of what military force can achieve. Subsequently, my impression is that civilians increasingly think they possess the expertise to assess operational plans and that professional military advice is merely another opinion to consider when evaluating use-of-force options. In effect, civilians have become both principal and agent.
Meanwhile, military officials who might have once refrained from discussing sensitive issues are now more willing to share their opinions. After surviving multiple deployments to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where inadequate political guidance and flawed military strategies hindered U.S. policies, they feel obliged to speak their minds. They also track proposals for using force — via op-eds and blogs — at a much greater level of detail than they did a decade ago. One Marine colonel explained to me recently: "We [meaning the military] need to know what they [meaning civilians] are getting us into next time." Furthermore, throughout the professional military education system, officers are taught to think critically and divergently, and to candidly express their opinions through their chain of command.
Inevitably, and unfortunately, a greater volume of private military opinions is anonymously spilling into the public sphere. While officers have a constitutional right to express their personal views, they also have a professional obligation to avoid weighing in on political matters. Many officers who are quoted in news articles and blogs likely have no access to current intelligence assessments or operational plans that are under discussion in National Security Council meetings. Yet these officers start from a default conviction that civilian officials have dangerous and unrealistic expectations of what military power can achieve.
This civil-military split is further promoted by the insatiable demand for news. An increasing number of journalists stalk the tunnels under Capitol Hill, where policymakers are happy to expound on sensitive foreign policy issues. Similarly, as a result of embedded reporting from the wars of the past dozen years, journalists have deeper relationships with now-senior military officials than they did in the past, and they can find a "senior Pentagon official" to condemn White House policy.
The split will likely be deepened by the worsening partisanship in Washington. The impression one gets is that the party out of power no longer perceives the military as a neutral institution, but rather as the uniformed face of the White House it serves. Democrats demonized the military and its operations during the Bush administration — remember the "General Betray Us" Moveon.org ads from 2007? Now, it is Democrats who embrace President Obama's drone strikes and interventions, while Republicans harshly question the expertise and motivations of uniformed officials. The military is supposed to be above partisanship, but Washington might not allow it to be.
What is most dispiriting about the apparent deterioration of civil-military relations is that it is hard to see what would improve the situation. There has been a great deal of analysis of the need for the four armed services to operate more jointly ("getting purple") and for the military and civilian agencies to coordinate preventive and stability operations (through a "whole of government approach"). However, there is little thinking about how senior civilian and military officials should cooperate in the iterative military planning process between the Pentagon and the White House. It is possible disagreements are being left at the Situation Room door, but this is unlikely, since history shows that intense civil-military disputes emerge in public when they have not been resolved in private. And what is in the public domain should disturb any principled civilian or military official.