More than 15 years after Gen. Colin Powell’s tour as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, pundits and scholars are again worried about cocky generals “playing politics.” For his decisive outspokenness, some critics have assigned Gen. David Petraeus the role formerly played by Powell. At times, the media’s need for drama approaches the ridiculous. In one such example, Petraeus’ quieter, lower profile after he gave up command in Iraq led the New York Times to speculate that he may be gearing up to run for president.
On other fronts, scholars such as Notre Dame’s Michael Desch are still trying to come to grips with the Rumsfeld years, where the defense secretary aggressively guided the preparation of a new-style war plan and later micromanaged the deployment of individual units, which subsequently contributed to problems in Iraq. Compounding that controversy, a few years later there was a noisy — and for many uncomfortable — “revolt” by several retired generals who called for Donald Rumsfeld to be fired.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan is a more recent case of civil-military angst. Some scholars see the direct, outspoken general as a potential MacArthur trying to dictate to or otherwise hem in the president. Other critics, who favor the erroneous notion that generals should quickly get whatever they ask for, think McChrystal was being “dissed” by equivocating civilians who were not worthy to sharpen his dagger. After some mildly corrective words from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the president, other critics speculated that McChrystal may be the next Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who was treated harshly in 2003 for speaking his mind in a Senate hearing before the invasion of Iraq.
Are we in or headed for a crisis in civil-military relations? I don’t think so. Webster defines a crisis as, among other things, a “crucial or decisive point or situation,” an unstable state of affairs, or a turning point. In my view, we are not at such a point in civil-military relations. Rather, we are in a protracted, multicontingency national security crisis. During a recession, fighting two wars — both of which are at crucial or decisive points — qualifies as a crisis. In such crises, it is normal for there to be relatively high levels of civil-military friction, problems and differences of opinion, but these things are not indicative of anything approaching a crisis.
The classic theory of civil-military relations outlined by Samuel Huntington, in “The Soldier and the State,” tells us that the civilians should do politics and policy while the military carries out orders and executes operational plans with professional autonomy. But this is an impossible dream. At the highest level, politics, policy, military strategy and operations are often twisted together like the strands of a rope. A new book on civil-military relations, “American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era,” edited by Suzanne Nielsen and Don Snider of the West Point faculty, concluded that “a separation between political and military affairs is not possible — particularly at the highest levels of policymaking.” One hundred and eighty years ago, Clausewitz recognized the same phenomenon. He wrote that the most senior generals had to have “a thorough grasp of national policy,” and that they must become “statesmen” without ceasing to be generals.
Presidents and defense secretaries, however, can’t simply bow to claims of military’s expertise, or exclusive military domains. It is they, and not the generals, who are ultimately responsible for national security. The people hold the president and, indirectly, his Cabinet accountable through elections, not the generals. Only the president can balance all of the national interests and political tradeoffs involved in a strategic decision.
As Eliot Cohen wrote in “Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime,” statesmen must actively and, if need be, relentlessly question their top generals on operational issues and defense management, challenging their responses and holding them accountable for results. Civil-military relations are thus an “unequal dialogue” with the civilian superior establishing the boundaries between executive authority and military expertise, a difficult and delicate task. Where that boundary line lies is exclusively a civilian decision, but one fraught with risk for the statesman who descends too far into the management of military affairs or, conversely, allows military authorities the latitude to damage the national interest.
The results of experienced soldiers giving advice to engaged civilian decision-makers under wartime circumstances will always be problematic. Civilians and military officials will misspeak. Assessments will be leaked before decisions are made. Congress and the president, which share responsibility for national security, will vie for power. Each may attempt to use the military to make its points. Military officers, who work for the defense secretary and the president but are also beholden to the Congress, will be caught between the branches. At times, an administration may push the military out front, making a general or admiral the de facto spokesman for the administration, as President George W. Bush did with Petraeus.
All of these examples are normal situations in a democratic republic at war. The Constitution features built-in checks and balances and is a virtual invitation to struggle over national security affairs. The examples noted above are not indicative of a crisis in civil-military relations. They are well within the norm for the abnormal situation that we find ourselves in.
A crisis in civil military relations is certainly possible. Open disrespect, disobedience, clear meddling in politics, subversion of administration policy, unlawful behavior, wholesale lying to superiors or other inappropriate behaviors by senior military officers could cause a crisis — or more likely, a serious, single-point problem — in civil-military relations. Civilians could also help to bring on such a problem by excessive micromanagement, abject neglect, attempts to politicize the military, or disregarding appropriate military advice and incurring obvious ill effects.
In times such as these, the most important task for the scholar and senior officials is to find ways to keep normal friction from becoming a serious problem or a crisis in civil-military relations. Here are some recommendations:
First, presidents should hear real policy options, not just the ready-to-wear policy package decided on (and papered over) by his or her Cabinet officers. The president should hear what the principals think on the options and hear also the unvarnished advice of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the director of National Intelligence. On matters of war and peace, the president should also hear from the service chiefs and combatant commanders directly and, as often as possible, as individuals, not just in the group sessions that take place a few times a year. These tasks all need to be approved by an engaged president and managed by his or her national security adviser.
Secondly, senior civilian officials and the top military officers must keep recommendations to the president in decision-making channels and not use the media to talk to the White House. In sensitive times, it is relatively easy to manage speeches, but interviews, question periods and press conferences often get out of hand, as they did recently for McChrystal, who was enticed to make a public comment on courses of action that were apparently under consideration by the president.
In a similar vein, senior officers need to avoid writing op-ed articles for major newspapers. Powell and Petraeus both had unfortunate blowback from cleared op-eds that they wrote that were interpreted to have partisan political messages. Even the “safest” op-ed can be seen as or even twisted into a political statement. The default setting here for the top brass should be not to use the op-ed venue on issues that may require presidential decisions.
Third, the leak of classified documents is an unfortunate fact of life in Washington. These leaks are often done as trial balloons to credit or discredit a proposal. Most often, the source and the intent of the leak remain subject to speculation. Uniformed officers should have nothing to do with leaks, although they will have to understand them and adapt to them.
Fourth, if decisions go against them, the uniformed military most often will salute and carry out the new policy. In rare cases, a decision may force a senior officer to consider resignation, or more often, early retirement. If an officer cannot in conscience carry out an order or support a policy, then he or she should request relief. If not granted, that officer should consider retirement or resignation, only as a matter of conscience and not a dispute over tactics. The departing officer, however, should not believe that his resignation or abrupt retirement will have a long-standing, positive effect on the formation or the service in question. In some cases, it may also have an unwelcome political effect. The abrupt departure of a senior officer will cause a public, political problem for the president. This may well provide another reason to avoid the practice, except in the most troubling of circumstances. In nearly all cases, most senior officers who have considered resignation or abrupt retirement have found it to be a loser in their cost-benefit analysis. Like the nuclear option in many crisis decision exercises, senior officer resignation remains on the shelf, and that may be where it does the most good.
Fifth, polls have shown that military officers increasingly and disproportionately identify themselves with conservative causes and the Republican party. Party identification, in itself, is not a problem. Partisan behavior or even comments to fellow officers, however, are out of bounds and prejudicial to good order and discipline. These things do not appear to me to be serious problems across the active force today, nor were they when I last served in 1998.
Party identification and partisan behaviors, however, have become particularly acute among retired officers. Ever since the advent of the Clinton administration, we have had the strange spectacle of gaggles of retired generals appearing at political conventions to endorse political candidates. This is unseemly, dysfunctional and hurts the military profession. I have never met an active-duty soldier who thought these public appearances or speeches were a good thing. These senior officer retirees — while wholly within their civil rights — are still symbols of the armed forces. Their behavior might unduly influence former subordinates or mistakenly be interpreted as a representation of what the people in the armed forces want or believe.
Worst of all, partisan behavior by retirees may cause problems for their active-duty peers. When looking at a serving senior officer, do we want a top civilian official to be wondering what partisan political behavior this subordinate will engage in next year after he retires? The last thing our country needs is the perception that there are openly Democratic or Republican generals and admirals on active duty. Senior officers — active and retired — must be above politics, although they are awash in it. Partisan electoral politics hurts the profession, even when practiced by retired officers.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff might consider promulgating a code of conduct for senior officer retirees. It would not bind retirees who are private citizens with full civil rights, but it could help to educate them on potential choices. The Joint Chiefs might also consider a clearing house to record on a voluntary basis retired senior officer business interests. The New York Timesclaimed to have exposed a number of conflicts of interest among the retired officers who were doing disinterested commentary on television networks. As noted by Snider and others, publicized conflicts of interest — real or apparent — among retired officers reflect poorly on the force and the damage the profession.
Finally, there is room for education on both sides of the civil-military street. Senior officers and senior civilians come from different organizational cultures, and military experience among senior political figures is dwindling. For example, military experience in Congress is down to 24 percent of the members of both houses, less than half of what it was in 1991. When newly minted senior officers attend the war college, they will study strategic and political issues in depth; new legislators, new appointees and professional staffs on Capitol Hill should likewise study national security affairs. The Truman National Security Project in Washington, D.C., already does yeoman work in this area, but other think tanks and the nation’s war colleges should also consider running orientation courses for new civilian officials in the intervening period between a presidential election and the inauguration. This won’t necessarily solve problems in civil-military relations, but it may keep them from becoming a crisis.
JOSEPH J. COLLINS, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or U.S. government.