When should politicians overrule generals?
Under what conditions should the commander-in-chief go against the advice of his senior generals? Any that he/she chooses. But the president is held accountable for all national security decisions, and when the decision involves rejecting counsel from senior advisors the president should expect and get critical scrutiny. This is civil-military relations 101, but this basic ...
Under what conditions should the commander-in-chief go against the advice of his senior generals? Any that he/she chooses. But the president is held accountable for all national security decisions, and when the decision involves rejecting counsel from senior advisors the president should expect and get critical scrutiny.
This is civil-military relations 101, but this basic principle of civilian control has gained some notoriety in two recent contexts.
First, it was raised in the recent Republican debate devoted to foreign policy. Governors Huntsman and Romney were debating Afghanistan, with Huntsman advocating a rapid drawdown in forces. Romney pointed out that senior U.S. military commanders wanted a more measured drawdown than the one advocated by Huntsman, thus raising doubt about whether Huntsman’s risky course put in jeopardy all of gains achieved in Afghanistan thus far. That prompted this exchange:
ROMNEY: And the — and the commanders on the ground feel that we should bring down our surge troops by December of 2012 and bring down all of our troops, other than, perhaps, 10,000 or so, by the end of — of 2014.
The decision to pull our troops out before that, they believe, would put at risk the extraordinary investment of treasure and blood which has been sacrificed by the American military.
I stand with the commanders in this regard and have no information that suggests that pulling our troops out faster than that would do anything but put at — at great peril the extraordinary sacrifice that’s been made. This is not time for America to cut and run. We have been in for 10 years. We are winding down. The Afghan troops are picking up the capacity to secure their country. And the mission is pretty straightforward, and that is to allow the Afghan people to have a sovereign nation not taken over by the Taliban. BLITZER: Let me bring the speaker in. What do you say…
GINGRICH: I would…
BLITZER: — pull out?
HUNTSMAN: Just — just one point.
BLITZER: You want — oh, go ahead.
HUNTSMAN: Yes, just about the generals on the ground. And listen, I think it’s important for the American people to know we have achieved some very important objectives in raising standards in Afghanistan and helping to build civil society.
But at the end of the day, the president of the United States is commander-in-chief, commander-in-chief. Of course you’re going to listen to the generals. But…
HUNTSMAN: — I also remember when people listened to the generals in 1967 and we heard a certain course of action in South Asia that didn’t serve our interests very well.
The president is the commander-in-chief and ought to be informed by a lot of different voices, including of those of his generals on the ground.
After some more crosstalk, Romney got in the final word:
ROMNEY: Of course the commander-in-chiefs makes the — makes the final decision. But the commander-in-chief makes that decision based upon the input of people closest to the ground. And — and we — we’ve both been to Afghanistan. I’ve been to Afghanistan. The people I speak with there say we have a very good prospect of the people in Afghanistan being able to secure the peace and their sovereignty from the Taliban, but that if we pull out on a precipitous basis, as Governor Huntsman suggests, that we could well see that nation and Pakistan get pulled into terror and become another launching point to go after America. That’s a mistake. That’s why you listen and then make your decision.
Huntsman is right that generals can give bad advice, and that a commander-in-chief must do more than simply rubber-stamp whatever the senior brass is recommending. But Romney is also right that presidents who overrule the military commanders, especially those with responsibility in the theater, open themselves up to extra scrutiny. It is not enough to say, as Huntsman says, that he is the president and that is that (or that some military generals were wrong fifty years ago and so we can assume they are wrong again today). Especially when the president wants to do something that is politically expedient — and Huntsman’s invocation of Obama’s pandering about nation-building at home certainly raises the whiff of political expedience — then he should expect tough cross-examination. Indeed, healthy civil-military relations requires such cross-examination from the political process, but crucially assigns the role to other politicians, not to military subordinates.
President Bush was subjected to that kind of scrutiny when he decided on the Iraq surge and Obama or a hypothetical Huntsman should receive at least an equivalent level. Presidents should get that scrutiny even if they are simply following the advice of their generals, but they should for certain expect it when they take a course that the military has advised as especially risky.
Perhaps that is the spirit that gave rise to the second civil-military squib that caught my eye: Fred Kagan’s sharp critique of President Obama’s handling of military advice.
Kagan has an interesting vantage point. He was one of the earliest advocates of the Iraq surge, and in that capacity a trenchant critic of the Bush administration in 2005-2006. Ironically, his critique back then was that President Bush was heeding his commanders too well, for they resisted the idea of a surge and favored hastening the stand-up/stand-down strategy the surge replaced.
Kagan provides rhetorical cover for his earlier incarnation:
"Commanders are all imperfect, of course. Some may mistakenly put interests other than those of accomplishing the orders they’ve been given ahead of their duty. More often, commanders may offer advice or make decisions or judgments with which the president disagrees. And the president, in those cases, has the right to overrule his commanders."
But the thrust of his argument goes in the opposite direction:
"But, if a president finds himself repeatedly overruling or rejecting the advice of commanders he himself has selected, his own judgment must start to come into question. Is he such a bad judge of character and capability that he cannot see the quality of officers he selects for command before he selects them? Is he so weak a leader that he allows choices for senior military positions to be made by default? Or is something else at work entirely? If the president, as commander in chief, rejects the advice of his field commanders and senior staff and chooses another course of action for military operations, on the basis of what planning and judgment does he do so?"
I think Kagan goes too far in this direction. Kagan’s critique of Obama’s policies is spot-on, but I think framing it in terms of civil-military relations undermines his argument.
It is a mistake to emphasize the fact that Obama chose those commanders, as if this gives Obama special obligation to heed their advice. That is a recipe for further politicizing the selection process, increasing the incentives for White House politicos to vet military candidates to ensure that they will always tailor their recommendations to what the president already wants.
It is also a mistake to imply that the president is unfit for office if he crosses some small threshold for overruling generals — as if there was a three-strikes-and-you’re-out standard. Because theater commanders have a necessarily parochial perspective — rightly focusing on winning the war in their theater and not weighing that war against broader strategic concerns (such as the deficit or threats in other theaters) — we should expect that their recommendations get revised or even rejected by higher authorities on a fairly regular basis. Frankly, I worry more about the opposite situation, where theater commanders are so afraid of being second-guessed that they trim their advice accordingly; the Obama administration has a problematic record on exactly this point, as when the National Security Advisor went to Afghanistan in 2009 to tell the troops not to ask Obama for additional troops.
And it is a mistake to put "overruling the generals" at the center of the critique. Obama’s national security policies and decisions warrant critical scrutiny, but on their own terms, not simply or even primarily because they run contrary to certain military advice.
However, what really concerns me about his piece is that Kagan may not simply be speaking for himself. He is exceptionally well-sourced in both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, and so may be articulating a view that is widely held among the military. To a certain extent, it would be surprising if this were not true. Given Obama’s positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and defense cuts, I would be surprised if the senior brass were not chafing a bit. But even though frustration would be understandable, it would be a mistake to further stoke it, especially publicly.
The place to air these concerns is privately to the president. Perhaps it is time for an off-the-record town-hall meeting with senior military leaders. The president should always hear his generals, even if he doesn’t always heed them.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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