Stephen M. Walt

Why have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan been so corrosive of civil-military relations?

By Michael Desch The title of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars is ambiguous: Is he referring to the two on-going wars the United States is waging in Iraq or Afghanistan? But only Afghanistan can fairly be called "Obama’s war," and Iraq gets very short shrift here. Why then the plural "wars?" Like Woodward’s previous ...

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

By Michael Desch

The title of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars is ambiguous: Is he referring to the two on-going wars the United States is waging in Iraq or Afghanistan? But only Afghanistan can fairly be called "Obama’s war," and Iraq gets very short shrift here. Why then the plural
"wars?"

Like Woodward’s previous series of books Bush at War, Obama’s Wars is as much, if not more, about the political war at home as it is about the war in Afghanistan itself. Of course, every war involves lots of domestic debate and struggle, and bureaucratic politics hardly wane when the balloon goes up, but the United States’ most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been notable in that they have sparked more civil-military conflict on the home front than we’ve seen since the Vietnam War.

Low-intensity conflict between the Obama administration and the key elements of the U.S.
military charged with conducting the war in Afghanistan (ISAF Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen) is such a constant theme in Woodward’s account that the president feels the need in his valedictory interview to deny that civil-military conflict over the strategy and force-levels of the Afghanistan war is as bad as it had been during the Vietnam War (p. 377).

If civil-military relations aren’t that bad, then why even mention them? The answer is clear: The Iraq and Afghan wars have seriously frayed the fabric civil-military in the United States, perhaps not yet at the level of the Vietnam War, but certainly heading in that direction.

Beginning with the pre-Iraq war debate between Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz over the appropriate force levels for the Phase IV operation in Iraq, continuing through the so-called "revolt of the generals" over Iraq strategy as the situation there deteriorated, and culminating in the contentious fall 2009 Afghan strategy review, these wars have divided civilian leaders and important segments of the military in a way not seen since the rancorous civil-military debates about the conduct of the Vietnam War of the late 1960s.

These battles are for high stakes. Witness the spectacles of a civilian official like Wolfowitz with no military experience publicly dismissing as "widely off the mark" the Army Chief of Staff’s estimates of appropriate force levels (which the latter calculated based on his direct experience in peace-keeping operations in the Balkans) to the former ISAF commander and his staff popping-off to Rolling Stone magazine about the foibles of some of the key national security players in the Obama White House. For those who might take comfort in the fact that Obama fired the ham-handed McChrystal and replaced him with the much smoother (but also far more politically engaged Gen. David Petraeus, Woodward’s book offers small comfort. If anything, Petreaus presents a far more difficult challenge for the commander-in-chief precisely because of his political acumen and close ties with Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham, which Woodward amply documents.

Why have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan been so corrosive of the fragile metal of civil-military relations? There is a natural tendency to attribute it to personalities: Wolfowitz was a neoconservative true-believer who like his boss Donald Rumsfeld regarded the military as yet another bureaucratic obstacle to their efforts foster radical transformation in the Pentagon and around the world. Conversely, Petraeus may be unique among American general officers in his intellect and ambition: if Douglass MacArthur was the American Caesar, in William Manchester’s eponymous book, Iraq and Afghanistan could one day make Petraeus our General Smith goes to Washington.

But there is more to the story than just personalities. Indeed, it is precisely the nature of the wars we are waging in Iraq and Afghanistan that make a high level of civil-military conflict all but inevitable in them because both wars involve substantial counterinsurgency (COIN) and nation-building operations.

In his classic book The Soldier and the State, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington outlined the influential framework for stable civilian control of the military in a democratic society based upon a division of labor he called "objective control": In return for
complete civilian supremacy in the political realm (when and where to go to war), the military would be given substantial lee-way at the operational level (how to wage the war). This
framework was not perfect, but it nonetheless has provided the best possible way to balance the twin goals of military effectiveness and civilian supremacy.

Objective control worked reasonably well in the context of conventional military operations during the Second World War and the Cold War, in which the distinction between the "political" and the "military-operational" realms was reasonably clear. In contrast, COIN and nation-building make civil-military conflict much more likely precisely because they blur the distinction between the "political" and the "military" realms.

Nothing better illustrates this fact than that every-soldier of the post-cold War era, the "strategic corporal," who in our current wars must fight on one block, deliver aid on the next, and provide a seminar on local politics on the third. In COIN and nation-building, the distinction central to the old balance that kept the civil-military peace from the post-Vietnam years until the end of the Cold War has been largely erased, with the consequences we are living with today, and likely to have to deal with for as long as we are conducting these sorts of military operations.

To be sure, civil-military conflict isn’t the only battle on the home-front chronicled in Obama’s Wars. The president’s fear of what a protracted military engagement in Afghanistan will do to his Democratic base is palpable, and he may harvest the first fruits of this disenchantment in a few weeks. Likewise, it is also becoming clear that whole COIN/nation-building approach is dividing the military internally, between the "COINdinistas" and the "big Army," and increasingly with those services (the Air Force and the Navy) who have a vested bureaucratic interest (and a plausible strategic rationale) for focusing on other sorts of military operations.

All of this makes it likely that for the foreseeable future, the political and bureaucratic wars within will remain as intense and potentially damaging as the military wars without. We must, therefore, count fraying civil-military relations and other domestic bureaucratic and political conflict as yet another cost of Obama’s (and Bush’s) wars.

Michael Desch is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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