May 21, 2012

Symbolic Military, Operational Civilian?

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.