Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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More on Civil-Military Relations

My friend David Tucker claims that I did not address his points regarding Shinseki and Rumsfeld. The real problem is that we just don’t agree. My purpose is not to defend Rumsfeld. As I said, he made plenty of mistakes. But the fact is—and this is where David and I seem to disagree most—no one did better than he when it came to predicting what would transpire in Iraq.

Did Rumsfeld foresee the insurgency and the shift from conventional to guerilla war? No, but neither did his critics in the uniformed services. Tom Ricks observed four years ago in the Washington Post that Maj. Isaiah Wilson III, who served as an official historian of the campaign and later as a war planner in Iraq, placed the blame squarely on the Army. Ricks wrote:

Many in the Army have blamed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon civilians for the unexpectedly difficult occupation of Iraq, but [Army Major Isaiah Wilson] reserves his toughest criticism for Army commanders who, he concludes, failed to grasp the strategic situation in Iraq and so not did not plan properly for victory. He concludes that those who planned the war suffered from "stunted learning and a reluctance to adapt."
Army commanders still misunderstand the strategic problem they face and therefore are still pursuing a flawed approach, writes Wilson, who is scheduled to teach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point next year. "Plainly stated, the ’western coalition’ failed, and continues to fail, to see Operation Iraqi Freedom in its fullness," he asserts.
"Reluctance in even defining the situation… is perhaps the most telling indicator of a collective cognitive dissidence (sic) on part of the U.S. Army to recognize a war of rebellion, a people’s war, even when they were fighting it," he comments.

Wilson’s observations were forcefully seconded not too long by an Army lieutenant colonel, Paul Yingling, who blasted Army leadership for not preparing for small wars in the pages of Armed Forces Journal.

Rumsfeld was also famously charged with shortchanging the troops in Iraq by failing to provide them with the necessary equipment, e.g. armored "humvees." But a review of Army budget submissions makes it clear that its priority, as is usually the case with the uniformed services, was to acquire "big ticket" items. It was only after the insurgency and the IED threat became apparent that the Army began to push for supplemental spending to "up-armor" the utility vehicles.

As I observed in an earlier post, while it is true that Rumsfeld downplayed the need to prepare for post-conflict stability operations, it is also the case that in doing so he was merely ratifying the preferences of the uniformed military. When it comes to post-conflict stability operations, the real villain is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine, a set of principles long internalized by the US military that emphasizes the requirement for an “exit strategy.” But if generals are thinking about an exit strategy they are not thinking about “war termination”—how to convert military success into political success. This cultural aversion to conducting stability operations is reflected by the fact that operational planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom took 18 months while planning for postwar stabilization began half-heartedly only a couple of months before the invasion.

David asks why the military shouldn’t be expected to “push back” against plans they oppose. They should, but within the proper context. I really object to the sentiment expressed in this comment on an earlier post.

Why should generals or anyone in uniform, who are in a sense super-citizens, be subject to more restrictions on their civil right to speak and publish than are regular, secure citizens like Bob Woodward or Victor Davis Hanson or the barber down the street? I am not talking about UCMJ Article 88 infractions here, only opinions about policy.

Why should not the highest military officers -- possessing education and war experience far superior to Bush and most Americans -- get to say so vigorously (if not necessarily on page 1 of the Washington Post)?

The answer is that such practices would completely undermine civilian control of the military and drag the uniformed military into partisan politics. The exemplars of respect for civilian control of the military are Washington and Marshall. Both understood the dangers of what this writer is proposing. And as I argued earlier, it presupposes that the military is always right about even purely military issues. The historical record makes clear that they are not.

Under the American system of civilian control, the uniformed military advises the civilian authorities but has no right to insist that its views be adopted. 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 policy, including the decision to go to war. 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.

I am concerned about the state of US civil-military relations. They have been out of balance for a while. In part this reflects the sort of “renegotiation” of the civil-military bargain that occurs periodically in the Republic. But as I argued in this Wall Street Journal piece, things might be more serious than we imagine.

And this applies to the media as well. As I see it, they have contributed to poor civil-military relations out of Bush derangement syndrome. People who in the past would never have thought to say a good word about the military now routinely bash Bush for not listening to his much smarter military guys.

Discussions - 2 Comments

One of our grand and inflexible American traditions is that those in the military who disagree are never taken out and shot. You might spoil your military career, but there is bound to be a place for you in civilian life and sometimes that is a career booster in a broader, life-long sense. Speaking out against policy might mean difficulty or disgrace within the military, which I think you guys were pointing out in the case of General Shinseki, but it is not a life or death matter. Oh course, what was it Andrew said below somewhere, couldn't that be done privately? Which raises another question, if done privately, is there effect, or not? The impression I, (dependent on the media, mind) have is that General Petraeus must have been disagreeing with policy in a correct and effective manner.

Generals, our military, actually still have to go home and face family, friends and neighbors. They are part of Politics and how can they help it? They are even active participants in a way that most of their family, friends and neighbors are not. I don't know of a family with a member in active military service who does not take that family member's opinion and perspective on politics a bit more seriously than they take the media. Both are, in a sense, giving living room accounts of matters, but the real person is taken more seriously than the talking TV head. There were statistics awhile back on the support for the war effort among those with family or friends in the military, as opposed to those who knew no one in any personal way. I remember wondering if it were a general disposition of those families with military members, or if those with personal experience of the war or just military involvement influenced the thinking of their families. I wonder if my support for the war would have been less if my son, our first Marine, had not been emailing, or arguing in phone conversations or in the living room when on leave, about what he had been taught and told. My concerns about domestic politics seemed almost petty compared to what he was telling me they were being told by their officers.

Yes, we truly took what our "military expert" more seriously than what we heard on the news. That attitude was already biased against belief by the sort of silly information the media had produced of the sort that David Tucker mentions in his post, below. If those in the military, be they officers or enlisted, have been expressing doubts, privately, at home, with the war effort, I suggest that has had tremendous effect on public perception of the war. Our soldiers are part of us and even if they just speak quietly they have influence on the public debate. I would also suggest that this is an aspect of the negative perceptions of Bush and of Rumsfeld.

As has been repeatedly mentioned below, part of this was an inadequate articulation of the reasons for Bush's foreign policy and for this war. The administration's persistent inarticulation on the topic leads to a presumption that there is nothing sound to articulate in the matter.

It is not that nothing was said, either, but that nothing that was persuasive enough was said - due to what? Due to a lack of supporting evidence, or - I think David Tucker is right, this cannot all be put down to media bias and Bush-bashing derangement. There has been uneasiness from the right, even from those who began as supporters.

As far as I can tell, from his posts here and other things he has written I don’t disagree with Mac about civil-military relations. I think that the paragraph that begins “Under the American system . . .” is right. If there is a disagreement, it is more specific to recent events. I think there were civilian personnel (both inside and outside the Department of Defense) and military officers who got Iraq (and Afghanistan) right both before and after the invasions but whose views were rejected by senior leaders, both military and civilian, in Defense. If that is true, then we ought to wonder about the command climate in Defense post 9-11. Was it one that encouraged good civil-military relations and effective operations? Ultimately, I have to defer to Mac about questions of civil-military relations because he knows more about it than I do but that is my question about the post 9-11 period.

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