The controversy of the American targeted-killing program, and especially the resurgence of covert paramilitary and military action, has inspired a great deal of concern about the accountability and oversight of America’s supposed new ways of war. Does the lack of risk they offer encourage the Congress, media, and public to stay silent? One of the most prominent scholars of military robotics, P.W. Singer, recently put out an article that reiterated an argument he makes about the decline in the accountability of American wars, as exemplified in the drone program:
In democracies, there have always been deep bonds between the public and its wars. Citizens have historically participated in decisions to take military action, through their elected representatives, helping to ensure broad support for wars and a willingness to share the costs, both human and economic, of enduring them.
In the U.S., our Constitution explicitly divided the president’s role as commander-in-chief in war from Congress’s role in declaring war. Yet, these links and this division of labour are now under siege as a result of a technology that our founding fathers never could have imagined.
We don’t have a draft anymore. Less than 0.5 per cent of Americans over 18 serve in the active-duty military. We do not declare war anymore. The last time Congress actually did so was in 1942 – against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. We don’t buy war bonds or pay war taxes anymore. During the Second World War, 85 million Americans purchased war bonds that brought the government $185 billion. In the last decade, we bought none and instead gave the richest five per cent of Americans a tax break.
And now we possess a technology that removes the last political barriers to war. The strongest appeal of unmanned systems is that we don’t have to send someone’s son or daughter into harm’s way. But when politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter – and the impact that military casualties have on voters and on the news media – they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way.
For the first 200 years of American democracy, engaging in combat and bearing risk – both personal and political – went hand in hand. In the age of drones, that is no longer the case.
This narrative exemplifies a civil mythology under final assault from the robotic barbarians at the gates. Unfortunately, history itself tells a far messier story. For one thing, the notion that there are always deep bonds between the public and the war-fighting effort is false. I have tackled the question of the draft previously on this blog, but the rest of the arguments merit further scrutiny.
For one, the Constitution’s demands on Congressional oversight in war have never been so clear, nor so linear in their erosion. The U.S. fought several wars without a formal declaration – and even without direct Congressional authorization – before it ever formally declared war in 1812. In some cases, such as the Quasi-War and the Barbary Wars, these were authorized by Congressional statutes short of a formal declaration. In 1801, Congress passed the Naval Peace Establishment Act, and Jefferson cited Congress’s funding of the military capacity as sufficient authorization for its use against hostile powers. A State Department directive told the U.S. Navy that if the Barbary states declared war on the U.S., then the Navy was to “protect our commerce & chastise their insolence – by sinking, burning, or destroying their ships & Vessels wherever you shall find them.”
Of course, Jefferson was hesitant to expand this further than defense and limited retaliation, but even he did not believe a formal declaration, nor, obviously, any kind of conscription, was necessary for waging offensive war. What he received was a series of Congressional statutes expanding the fleet and specifically authorizing expanded military action against the Barbary states.
The Indian wars were justified on much the same logic. At no point did the U.S. formally declare war against the Indians. By the period of the Seminole Wars it was well-established that Congress recognizing hostilities and appropriating resources to the combat established constitutional recognition of a conflict. Insofar as Congress receives statutory notification and continues to defray the costs of conflict, it legitimizes war as constitutional. The differences between a Congressional authorization for using force and a formal declaration are statutorily meaningful, but both are legitimate with respect to the Constitution.
The deep civic bonds have actually generally been quite shallow. State militias were called up in local wars for military geographical reasons, but the burning of the capital in 1814 failed to merit a draft. The AUMF, NDAA, and War Powers Resolution all constitute a system of Congressional compliance to Presidential military initiative, in which war is retroactively legitimized through post hoc defrayment.
The U.S. Navy, with its peacetime establishment and broad writ to conduct “small wars” and punitive expeditions (as well as a Marine Corps with similar advantages), did far more to undermine the political barriers to U.S. wars than drones have or likely will. Expeditionary warfare by forces inherently limited in their political costs of extraction is as old as the republic itself.
The very concept of covert action helped too, and the idea of a secret air force predates the CIA itself. Roosevelt’s Flying Tigers, approved before U.S. entry into WWII using government money laundered through a contractor and lend-lease, sought to secretly put dozens of aircraft into China to fight Japan. Manned aircraft, along with a PMC, and an extralegal or illegal authorization by a frustrated executive began what was planned to be a covert war. December 7, 1941, not deep civic responsibility, saved it from being remembered as such. Later, the CIA was flying secret air forces for Cubans and Congolese. WWII era aircraft flew secret wars, but covert action itself was the real mechanism for reducing political costs. That it now happens to employ robots rather than deniable pilots, foreign mercenaries, or nameless spooks allows changes in quantity more than essential quality.
Yet many insist that drones, by removing the threat of casualties, undermine oversight and accountability because politicians can avoid legislative backlash and media scrutiny. Even recent history does not bear this out.
For example, at least 17 Americans died in Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, including some in militant attacks and not simply accidents or other causes. Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa has its casualties too. The media noted their deaths but there was no backlash. Bemoaning the lack of media coverage of Afghanistan – Afghanistan! – is a cliché of war commentary that will be decade old before the drawdown. Relative to the number of U.S. personnel committed, I would wager the targeted killing campaign is far better covered than Afghanistan today, and it is certainly out of proportion in terms of the casualties that the personnel supporting the war suffer.
Indeed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves do not suggest that the link between perpetual war and lack of risk is so straightforward. What, exactly, has Congressional oversight there saved us from? For all the bemoaning of the “drone wars,” they have broad public approval, incredibly little Congressional criticism – by the cost-defrayment standard, continual support – and can we really say their consequences are so much more deleterious to the body politic and the public trust than the disaster that was the choice to invade Iraq? To ignore, escalate, and bungle in Afghanistan?
We can’t blame the drones for the U.S. war in Yemen, where US SOF and clandestine agents watched from the ground when 2002’s lethal drone strike came down, or where cruise missiles and most likely F-15Es take part in the bombardment. We can’t blame the drones for the U.S. war in Somalia, where naval guns, AC-130s and helicopters, along with JSOC, operated for years before the Predators and Reapers let loose missiles there. In any case, neither of these states really have the air defense capability, or the intention, to challenge U.S. airpower. Are we really to believe the risk of a plane crash is why policymakers switched to drone strikes?
As for Pakistan, the model of accountability that Singer holds up, the bin Laden raid, involved a lot of deliberation and careful consideration, to be sure – but it was done entirely in secret. That we even know of its deliberations so intimately is because, for basically everyone involved, it’s a good story. That we use drones there and not conventional aircraft is not because of American casualty aversion, but because it is what the Pakistani government appears to accept – and these strikes frequently cease or slacken when Pakistani and U.S. relations come too close to the brink. Political costs retain veto power, but in covert action, they are quiet and indirect.
The fault lies not in our drones, but in ourselves. The reason our wars – secret or no – are so poorly managed are because of the policy process itself and the goals it seeks, alongside the incredible capability of the U.S. military and federal government which lets them sustain the weight and persevere through so many missteps and failures. The draft does not stop failing wars, overt or covert, as we learned from Vietnam and the “secret wars” surrounding it. That the condolence letter of a pilot crashing his aircraft in Yemen might be the difference between peace and war seems proper, but what would make its power so much greater than those for the advisors and the spotters, or the vastly larger number of letters for the fallen of Afghanistan, which was sickeningly, but unsurprisingly, absent from the general election? The political silences that enable these processes are older than we care to admit. It is not just that we cannot turn back time, but that there is no extended length of time much better to turn back to. Before drones were, these kinds of wars were there, waiting for them.
I've followed Rosa Brooks' excellent articles on the civil-military planning gap with great interest. In her follow-up, Brooks speculates whether or not civilian education in the culture of the military will help bridge the gap. While this might--under the right circumstances--be useful, I can't help but wonder if the gap that Brooks describes is really one of misunderstanding. While lack of familiarity with the military is certainly a problem, the fault most likely lies in divergent ideas about war.
Certainly, there are a lot of things that civilian foreign policy and national security analysts do not understand about the military, and vice versa. But the conflict described in Brooks' article sounded like a chapter from Micah Zenko's work on civilian perceptions of "discrete military operations." As Zenko points out, some political executives are powerfully attracted to the idea that limited (he uses the word "discrete," which is probably more appropriate) amounts of force can create strategic outcomes. A unmanned aerial system here and no-fly zone there and events will sort themselves out.
What's missing? The reality that we are attempting to violently impose our will on an adversary who will do his utmost to thwart us. Moreover, our efforts are always judged by other actors that have the power to interfere should it benefit them. The Iranians and the Pakistanis certainly interfered to the detriment of our warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also cannot underrate the role of chance on the battlefield and the effect that passion can have on sterile statecraft. The chaotic end of the Gulf War created a decade's worth of policy problems, and the painting of Saddam Hussein as a Hitler-in-waiting constrained American postwar diplomatic options and fueled calls for his overthrow.
Military leadership are encultured through professional military education, study of military history, and command experience to view war in a more instrumental fashion. Moreover, they also have had personal experience of what it means to violently execute foreign policy at the tip of the spear. However, the military can also sometimes become too inwardly focused on its own professional-technical sphere to the detriment of the political plot. In the late 70s and early 80s, maneuver theorists doggedly pursued the idea of an "elastic defense" of Western Europe despite the fact that the Europeans themselves were deeply against anything except an active defense on the frontiers. Finally, civilian leaders with poor tactical and operational knowledge but sound strategic vision have won wars from the American Civil War to the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict.
Both camps would benefit from considering strategy's fundamentals: the necessity of a sound theory of victory composed of a just and viable political object and a plausible narrative of how it is enabled by organized violence. Both military and civilian need to answer General Petraeus' famous question "tell me how this ends." Civilian and military cultures will always see war differently, and the "unequal dialogue" of civil-military relations will always (rightly) privilege civilian command. But the strategy bridge is the key terrain that both sides need to share in order for America to secure its vital interests.
First off, let me wish everyone out there a Happy Fourth of July. As a veteran of the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, let me take this opportunity to clear up a misconception and remind you that the Fourth of July is not about today's veterans. We have both Veterans Day and Memorial Day for ourselves do not need another holiday. (Although we'll take Arbor Day if you're offering it.) Today is the day, rather, when we honor those who won the American Revolution. I am speaking, of course, of the French Navy.
My column in today's World Politics Review, meanwhile, aims to poke a few holes in the "crisis in civil-military relations" that everyone worries about and which reached something of a crescendo in 2009. I'm not saying that smart people like Richard Kohn and Andrew Bacevich don't raise some good points. I'm instead arguing that wartime civil-military relations are actually quite healthy by comparative and historical standards. This column is the first in a two-part series: next week I will tackle where I do see there being some problems.
(Preview: it's not in the fact that the president salutes.)
P.S. You probably all saw that odd article in the New York Times arguing that military officers have a tough time transitioning to being diplomats and civilian officials -- before then awkwardly listing a bunch of former military officers who have not, uh, actually had much difficulty making the transition. The article featured a quote from John Norris of the Center for American Progress:
Would you take a talented professional diplomat with no military experience and put him in charge of a major military unit? Absolutely not ... Yet we still think it’s a good idea to take senior military officers with virtually no diplomatic experience and put them in key diplomatic and political posts.
I'm sure I would actually agree with Norris more often than not if we sat down and talked about this over beers at Cafe Mozart, but his sentiment expressed in the article struck me as all kinds of wrong. First off, you don't become a four-star flag officer without gaining some diplomatic experience along the way. I am halfway through the newish Gaddis biography of George F. Kennan (more on that later), and one thing that strikes me is that George C. Marshall had decades more diplomatic experience when he became the Secretary of State than his successor -- the Washington lawyer Dean Acheson -- did. Along the same lines, did Hilary Clinton have more diplomatic experience than Colin Powell when each became the Secretary of State? And how was James Jones, who was the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe an era when he didn't have to worry about Soviet tank divisions, anything but a high-level diplomat? Did Kennan himself object when Walter Bedell Smith was named the ambassador to Russia? No -- probably because Smith had as much or more diplomatic experience than his predecessor, the businessman Averell Harriman, who Kennan very much admired. (Also, was Kennan, a career diplomat, a better ambassador to Russia than either Harriman or Smith?) Second, we put civilians in de facto command of military units all the time. Look at all of those civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy. Some of them are former military officers, but many are not, and if they ever were, they stopped serving in the ranks many years prior to their service in the Department of Defense. Finally, take a look at the first few chapters of the classic Marine Corps Small Wars Manual: U.S. Marines are repeatedly referred to as "State Department Troops." Why? For the way in which they were (and are) often placed under the operational control of diplomats in overseas contingencies. I could go on.
In progressive foreign policy circles, there is at once a desire to gather former military officers close to policy makers to get, as the New York Times article describes, "validation." There is also, elsewhere in progressive foreign policy circles, a knee-jerk suspicion of military officers. Neither instinct, frankly, is very helpful in the formation or execution of foreign policy.
Earlier today Shadi Hamid set off something of a minor conflagration on Twitter by asking why, in the face of clearly horrific and mounting violence in Syria, should think-tank civilians advocating intervention be expected to come up with detailed military plans for an intervention?
Speaking as a
civilian writing on a think-tank affiliated blog, this struck me as a very
distressing position. If one is going to advocate for a military intervention -
of any kind - serious analysis of a military plan is absolutely vital, and
think-tanks - unlike, say, service members or policymakers, have a unique
position to publicly weigh in on such debates with candor. Let me be blunt: if an
analyst or the think-tank she or he represents cannot offer a plausible
military strategy for an advocated intervention, then it is difficult to treat
that advocacy with weight or authority.
It is a cliché to note that war is too important to be left to the generals because it's also absolutely true - and it would also be unfair to single out Hamid or the issue of Syria. Similar arguments have been trotted out by commentators, analysts and public figures on a variety of military issues, although more often as excuses to defer responsibility to military staffs for decision-making, or arguments to wrest away decision-making from policymakers with undesired views. As Adam has noted, basic victory definition is inseparable from policy prerogatives. Think-tanks, like other public institutions and figures engaging in policy debates, have a role in offering informed advice, even on matters might not be the professional domain of civilians, that can help shape those prerogatives. If an organization advocating intervention lacks access to civilians, veterans or military fellows with sufficient expertise such that it cannot confidently and cogently substantiate its case for military intervention, that's a problem for the organization to rectify, not for the audience to accept.
Nobody is expecting a think-tank to elaborate a full OPLAN – although there are some which probably could. But an ends, ways and means analysis subjected to the scrutiny of those with defense experience and expertise is all too often lacking in our public discourse. At a point when “leaving it to the generals” has become a rhetorical stoplight to paper over strategic aimlessness in debates over Afghanistan, it is not simply a necessary component of argument but something of a civic responsibility to ensure that the public have a chance to assess the likely costs and outcomes of the use of force - something that the government, by virtue of political and operational concerns, will be reluctant or unable to do without restriction.
Hamid has argued it is unreasonable to demand this since analysts can’t predict what actors would be in play - but the beauty of an ends, ways and means analysis would be that it could formulate what was necessary to achieve objectives, and then determine what combinations of actors, resources, and techniques would be necessary to make the executions of those plans a reasonable choice. Obviously, analysts, which are not psychic, cannot be expected always either to predict the future or read the minds of those privy to militarily relevant information they lack. But they can offer plans that relate the ends, ways, and means of their course of actions, with their assumptions made explicit so that effective debate and critique can be offered - and they should respond to those critiques by examining what kind of resources or strategies would be necessary to address the risk that those assumptions might be false.
War is a grave matter, and discussing war on its own terms is hardly an unfair expectations of advocates who would wish the U.S. participate in it. Similarly, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has noted, advocates of non-intervention should be frank about the consequences of the status quo and the feasibility of alternatives. What is dangerous, however, is advocacy without substantive engagement in the subject matter of its aim - whether about Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or anywhere else. Policymakers and publics alike need voices outside the military capable of assessing military subjects, at least so long as we live in a society that exercises civilian control over the armed forces.
During the American Civil War, the U.S. was lucky enough to be led by perhaps our finest self-taught strategist ever, Abraham Lincoln. If today, a coterie of officials were able to claim a monopoly on military knowledge and operational practice as McClellan attempted to, it would be difficult for the public and policymakers alike to effectively resist the charm of their authority and expertise. Not only, then, does military uninformed civilian debate make it more difficult for a policymaker to undertake militarily-reasonable operations, it can also create space for the military to resist civilian policies. Strategy (and even passing familiarity with operations) should not be cult knowledge kept by an anointed caste, they should be published in vulgate and nailed to doors. Not every policymaker, let alone every voter, can be Lincoln. Hawks and doves alike must endeavor to ensure that their policies and critiques have enough strategic fluency to be worthy of informing laymen and advising leaders.
Update: While I was pounding away at this, Jason Fritz wrote a far superior post. Check it out.
Thomas Rid criticizes Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot for proposing what he views as an misunderstanding of the basic norms of civil-military relations:
Boot and Rubin take issue with the president not following the advice of his generals to continue sending American soldiers into harm’s way to help bring about change in Afghanistan through counterinsurgency ....One on politics, just as a reminder: is strategy taking a back seat to politics? Isn’t that what we call democracy? But even in non-democracies that is the case, and classic military thought and strategic theory says it should be that way. You don’t think so? Read this book. Why would it be superior to defer decisions on extraordinarily costly long-term strategy to decision-makers who are not democratically elected (read: generals and admirals)?
Rid is certainly correct that classical strategic theory states that politics drives strategy. The ambiguous part, of course, is how Clausewitz defines "politics" and whether or not he is being primarily descriptive or normative. The original German usage does not neatly correspond to either our understanding of policy--an condition or behavior of state--or politics--the process of deciding "who gets what, when and how." There is also a similar tension in Clausewitz (and Clausewitzians) between a normative and descriptive theory of politics. Clausewitz simultaneously describes violence as an outgrowth of the political process (which could imply a negative impact) and calls for politics to be placed at the head of military operations. My favorite Dead Old Prussian (sorry Moltke the Elder!) also places the reason of the state as one element in a three-pronged tug of war between the rage of the people and the play of chance on the battlefield.
There is also really little in Clausewitz that explicitly states what kind of civil-military relations should predominate. That's not surprising, as in those days it was not uncommon for heads of state to take the field. Policy, strategy, and tactics resided in the body of one person. It was not until later that civilian political leaders came to predominate in warfare.
All of this is of course irrelevant to the actual discussion of the Afghan war. The charge being leveled is not that the political leader is exercising his sound judgment but "playing politics"--placing domestic political considerations (politics) over the reason of the state (policy). The fact that domestic politics produces policy does not enter into such discussions. Why? Because American strategic culture, while implicitly accepting of civilian control in operational practice, abhors the symbolic implications of civilian control. People like to hear that the generals are in charge.
Why is this? One might be tempted to argue that American culture has become militaristic. But the answer is more complicated. First, American faith in government as a whole has significantly declined over the last 50 years. The idea of the benign civiian expert using rational tools to govern is dead and buried, and the last 20 years of electoral politics fired a shotgun blast into the grave just to make sure. Simultaneously, political polarization has also increased for structural reasons that political scientists have well-documented. It is unsurprising that the military survives as the only institution whose technical expertise remains unquestioned--in large part because of the cultivation of operational art as a neutral and technical sphere of expertise after Vietnam. Politicians (especially those without military backgrounds) are no longer are viewed with an expectation that they can be trusted to keep the nation safe.
Moreover, the idea of politics and war that Clausewitz lays out is rooted in a classical European context that views war as a normal aspect of state-to-state relations. The US in contrast, has always seen war as a disruption of the normal state of affairs. And if war represents the end of politics and the beginning of an battle of all against all, then the role of the politician is implicitly imperiled. Of course, any casual glance at the historical record shows that such symbolic politics are not reflected in American political-military practice. Americans have supported degrees of civilian control that defy even the Huntingtonian ideal. Abraham Lincoln organized military force at operational and even at times tactical levels, to say nothing of the way FDR exercised supreme command.
Afghanistan is too unpopular a war to test the divide between symbolic politics and operational practice. The McCrystal affair--the most explicit clash between military-technical expertise and civilian politics--had a tiny domestic impact. But the divide certainly exists.