The Blame Game in U.S. Civil-Military Relations

There are always tensions between civilian and military leaders, says Steve Saideman. The question is how to manage them.
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June 13, 2014

One of the basic rituals in U.S. defence politics is to wonder if there is a crisis in U.S. civil-military relations and whose fault it might be. When Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense, it was pretty obvious. When he was replaced by Robert Gates, it became less clear. Despite the extreme differences between the two men, there are also key similarities. The differences, as I will explain below, tend to focus on self-awareness and humility or their absence. While both are now gone from the U.S. policy-making scene, thinking about them is helpful for understanding this central relationship in American defense policy.

There are always going to be tensions between civilians at the top of a government and the military. The people involved have almost entirely different career paths and have experienced entirely different organizational cultures. Militaries work via hierarchies while civilian politicians get ahead by building coalitions. So, when it comes to make policy, there is a great deal of room for confusion and miscommunication.

Last summer, there was much noise produced by the publication of Robert Gates’s memoir—Duty. The excerpts and reviews tended to focus on Gates’ criticism of Obama and his handling of the military. That Obama had concerns and was even suspicious that the U.S. military was trying to “roll” him is an interesting phenomenon. I was not surprised as I had been joking online for quite some time that the military always presents options to the President in three forms: low commitment but high risk, medium commitment (what the military really wants), and high commitment (what the military offers to make the medium commitment look reasonable). This framing of choices is so consistent and yet so clearly manipulative that I am not surprised that Obama felt he was being gamed.

However, upon reading Duty, a couple things become clear. First, the military was not necessarily so coherent in its efforts to persuade President Obama to send more reinforcements to Afghanistan, but the outspokenness of various generals, especially Stan McChrystal, made it appear to be the case. Second, Secretaries of Defense are very frustrated by the White House these days. When we speak of the White House, this mostly refers to the National Security Staff/Council (the old and new name is NSC, but for a while was NSS). Why this frustration? Because these assistants to the President tend not to be used to the military these days and their chain of command, asking the military to do stuff, which only the President and the Secretary of Defense can do. That is, the NSS/NSC is not in the chain of command and have no, repeat no, authority, yet the people working there seem to think they have such authority since they work for the President. Rumsfeld reported the same about Condileeza Rice and her people in the documentary “The Unknown Known.”

Upon hearing about the controversy in summer of 2013, my big question was and remains: where is the Secretary of Defense? It is clear that Rumsfeld, for instance, was the source of much of the tensions between the civilians and the military, as he ignored the military’s advice, sought to marginalize the Joint Staff and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and micro-managed the details of various operations. But it was strange to see Robert Gates complain about it since it is the job of the SecDef to manage the civilian-military relationship. The President has many jobs, whereas the SecDef has only a few with keeping the peace between uniformed and civilians as one of the most important. Perhaps it is an impossible task, but Gates probably could have done a bit better. He should have, for example, overridden the Marines and McChrystal when the surge led to a mis-allocation of forces—to Helmand and not to Kandahar.

In the conclusion of his memoir, Gates makes a big distinction between when generals speak out of turn to the media and when they give their honest assessments to Congress. Given the division of powers and the role Congress plays in overseeing the U.S. military (something entirely different from the Canadian experience), generals and admirals really do need to give their views when asked by Representatives and Senators. However, they do not need to volunteer their views and go off script when talking to the media or at public events. McChrystal and Petraeus did this on a number of occasions as well as leaking documents, which then put the administration into difficult positions. This sowed distrust. The problem is that military officers often see the short game quite clearly and forget about the long term—they push for the policy of the day, not realizing that this might hurt them in the long run (something that Rick Hillier could have kept in mind as well).

The civil-military relationship requires both sides to be patient, responsible, and restrained. Military officers need to give their best, unvarnished advice to the civilians, and the civilians must not punish the officers for doing so. Despite the clashes reported in the book, Gates is clear that the relationship was still relatively healthy. Obama listened, even when he disagreed, and the military officers offered their views even when they contradicted the President. This is quite different from the Pentagon that Gates inherited, one where Rumsfeld bullied and ignored the advice of the officers. So, even with the disputes reported in Duty, the state of American civil-military relations was far better under Gates than under his predecessor. Comparisons between the two would be most useful for the next President who has to choose an entirely new team.