May 17, 2010

Civil-Military Relations in the Obama Era

This article by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek on how Obama tamed his generals is great and worth reading -- although not necessarily for the reasons the author intended. I'm going to offer up my bottom line conclusion up front and then use the article as a starting point to consider some other issues.

BLUF: President Obama has brought civil-military relations back into line in a way that would have made Samuel Huntingtonir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0674817362 proud. There are problems with this, as I will note later on in this post, but overall, this is a really good thing. Alter:

Deputy national-security adviser Tom Donilon had commissioned research that backed up an astonishing historical truth: neither the Vietnam War nor the Iraq War featured any key meetings where all the issues and assumptions were discussed by policymakers. In both cases the United States was sucked into war inch by inch.

I have spent a little time recently with Paul Pillar, a man whose intellect and record of service I really respect. Paul has made a point similar to Tom Donilon's regarding the Iraq war -- that there never really was a coherent governmental decision-making process. Obama's decision-making process on Afghanistan, by contrast, is to be applauded for the way in which it differed from the "decision-making process" (if you can even call it that) of 2002 and 2003. Why?

First, do what Dick Betts does when writing about Huntington's so-called "normal theory" for civil-military relations and draw a big triangle on a sheet of paper. Now draw three horizontal lines on the triangle, dividing it into four levels -- political, strategic, operational and tactical. In the normal model, civilians have responsibility for the top section. They decide the policy aims. Then civilians and the military decide on strategic goals and resources. (Betts adds a fifth layer, actually, for ROE.) The military has responsibility for everything else under Huntington's model.

If you look at the decision-making process in 2009 on the war in Afghanistan, things more or less proceeded according to the normal theory. The president commissioned a review of policy and strategic goals in the winter of 2009, which resulted in this white paper. Gen. McChrystal then thought about how to operationalize the president's policy and strategic goals and submitted his own assessment along with a request for more resources. That assessment, combined with a corrupt Afghan presidential election, caused the administration to re-think its assumptions and prompted another strategic review. This was, on balance, a good thing that made me feel good about the president. The president then re-affirmed his policy aims, articulated new strategic goals, and committed more resources to the war in Afghanistan. (I write more about this process here.)

The good news in all of this is that whether or not you agree with the decisions made by the president and his team in 2009, the national security decision-making process more or less worked, and the civilians were in charge every step of the way. This is as both Sam Huntington and the U.S. Constitution intended.

Now for the problems...

1. Jonathan Alter allowed himself to be spun like a top for this article. Reading Alter on Obama is like reading Muhammed Hassanein Haykal on Gamal Abdul Nasser. As veteran media critics have noted, a growing number of "journalists" have exchanged ridiculously uncritical coverage of this administration for the kind of high-level access necessary to write "insider" books on the administration. This article is -- surprise! -- an excerpt from one of those insider accounts. Nothing in this article seriously challenges the administration's version of events, which leads to some humorous moments. In Alter's narrative, for example, Obama courageously stood up to his general's request for 80,000 more troops for Afghanistan. In reality, of course, Gen. McChrystal offered the president several options, and the president chose the middle path. Making it seem like Obama was fighting his generals over every infantry company, though, presumably makes the troop surge Obama authorized more palatable to his base. (It also conveniently ignores Obama's rather consistent campaign rhetoric in 2008 about how President Bush had ignored the war in Afghanistan and how he, Obama, would more fully resource the war.) In Alter's narrative as well, the generals are all media-savvy leakers trying to box in the administration, while the Obama Administration is filled with media "neophytes" (he honestly wrote that) who would presumably never leak anything to a reporter ... and just fell off the turnip truck yesterday. I shouldn't criticize Newsweek when it's run by a Chattanooga boy-turned-good who has had a bad enough week already, but Alter's "journalism" more closely resembles court stenography than a public service.*

2. We've still a long way to go before civil-military relations get as healthy as they should be. On the one hand, the U.S. military and its officer corps is seriously sick in terms of its relations with the elected civilian leadership. I subscribe to many of Richard Kohn's worries that the officer corps is overly politicized. My cousin, who serves as an officer in the Marine Corps, just returned from Iraq and reports that officers there regularly make disparaging remarks about the president in front of subordinates. Have any of these guys ever heard of George C. Marshall? (The fact that these soldiers are serving in Iraq yet spare the younger President Bush any criticism is kind of hilarious if sad.) On the other hand, it seems clear the Obama Administration thinks "us vs. them" more appropriately describes the administration's relations with the uniformed officer corps than it does the fight against the Taliban. Why, I have to ask myself, have members of this administration -- I'm looking at you, Mr. Vice President -- seemingly gone out of their way to cast the June 2011 decision as a zero-sum game between the civilians in the administration and the uniformed officers in the Department of Defense and at NATO/ISAF? Shouldn't we all be in this thing together and reconvene to assess our strategy as one team this winter? I'm encouraged the president apparently likes Stan McChrystal, because honestly, if a Democrat can't get along with Gen. McChrystal, there's not much hope he can get along with any U.S. general. But below the president I sense this paranoia in the administration's staff that the military is out to get them. And that's not healthy, because...

3. The normal theory of civil-military relations is not enough for Afghanistan. This was the theme of my most recent policy paper at CNAS. When I first read Eliot Cohen's book on civil-military relationsir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1400034043, I thought he had lost his mind. I now realize Eliot Cohen is simply much smarter than I am. For starters, it is highly unlikely Huntington established his normal theory as prescriptive. Dick Betts has convinced me he instead established it as more of a theoretical reference point. The problem is, military officers (and sometimes civilians) look at it and think it's the way things should be because it basically leaves the execution of war at the operational level up to the military with little to no civilian oversight. (And what military officer wouldn't want that!) When fighting counterinsurgency campaigns as third parties, though, civilian leaders need to stay involved during the execution of the campaign. They need to convince and cajole the leadership of the host nation, for example, to act in ways that serve both their interests and our own. I think the Obama Administration has realized this about Afghanistan and Hamid Karzai, if belatedly. But the administration does not have the luxury of just putting the war on auto-pilot and allowing the military to win or lose it. It has to stay involved. Which means it has to work with its uniformed officers.

Anyway, I think I have succeeded in writing something in this blog post to offend nearly everyone in Washington, DC, so I'll be surfing the internet for jobs back home in Tennessee for the rest of the afternoon. To sum up my points above, though, I think the president has restored some much-needed balance between the civilians and the officer corps on national security decision-making in the past year. But the U.S. military's officer corps and the administration are both going to have to do a lot more work to repair civil-military relations back to where they need to be. And Jonathan Alter ... well, I'm sure his book will be a best-seller.

*If Jon Meacham had gone to Baylor instead of McCallie, of course, I wouldn't even think twice about giving him grief.