Thought Cloud

The real problem with the civilian-military gap.

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One of the biggest misunderstandings about the civilian-military gap is that it is cultural -- the national security version of the red state-blue state divide.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about the civilian-military gap is that it is cultural — the national security version of the red state-blue state divide.

But the distance between those in and out of uniform isn’t fundamentally a matter of Texas vs. Massachusetts or NASCAR vs. Wimbledon. At the most basic level, it encompasses deeply different understandings of how we think — how we plan, how we evaluate risk, even how we define problems in the first place. Ironically, the one place where the gap should be the most avoidable is the place where its effects are the most pernicious: Washington.

It’s avoidable because if there’s any venue where which civilians and military personnel work together side by side, day after day, it’s in the national security establishment. In theory, this constant interaction ought to breed familiarity, not contempt.

In practice, though, too many senior civilian officials know virtually nothing about the structure of military organizations, the chain of command, or the military planning process, while some senior military officers have forgotten that there’s any other way to run an organization or think about problem-solving.

During my time at the Pentagon and the State Department, I watched numerous interagency discussions devolve into exercises in mutual misunderstanding and frustration. Some of these discussions made front-page news (think of the squabbling over troop levels in Afghanistan and the split-the-baby outcome). Others never registered in the public consciousness, but rankled those involved.

Here’s a small but not atypical example. A few readers may remember the spring 2010 crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Several hundred people were killed by police and ethnically aligned mobs, many more were wounded, and thousands of refugees (mostly from the Uzbek minority population) fled their homes.

Within the White House, these events triggered fears of a possible ethnic cleansing campaign to come, or even genocide. One day, I got a call from a member of the White House’s National Security Staff (NSS). With little preamble, he told me that Centcom needed to "move a surveillance drone over Kyrgyzstan, ASAP, so we can figure out what’s going on there."

This wasn’t such a crazy idea. Drones and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets have the potential to be powerful tools in human rights monitoring. The ability to watch troops or mobs or refugees move in real time, to see weapons being stockpiled or mass graves being filled, might help us take timely and appropriate action to stop a genocide before it gets off the ground.

There was one enormous problem with my NSS colleague’s request, though: Neither of us had the authority to order Centcom to immediately shift a potentially vital asset from wherever it was currently being used to the skies over Kyrgyzstan.

"It’s an interesting idea," I told him. "Has the president discussed it with [Defense] Secretary Gates?"

"We don’t have time to spin up a whole bureaucratic process," he responded irritably. "The president doesn’t want another Rwanda. This is a top priority of his. I need you to just communicate this to Centcom and get this moving."

This, I explained, wasn’t going to work. The chain of command doesn’t go from a director at the NSS to an advisor to the defense undersecretary for policy to Centcom — and the military doesn’t put drones into foreign airspace without a great deal of planning, a lot of legal advice, and the right people signing off on the whole idea.

My friend was incredulous. "We’re talking about, like, one drone. You’re telling me you can’t just call some colonel at Centcom and make this happen?"

"I’m afraid so."

"Why the hell not? You guys" — meaning the Pentagon writ large — "are always stonewalling us on everything. I’m calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?"

"You," I told him, "are the wrong civilian."

This was a minor issue, in many ways, but the exchange was far from unusual. My White House colleague — a smart, energetic, dedicated guy — went away furious, convinced that "the Pentagon" was refusing to take atrocity-prevention issues seriously (an attitude that soured many later interagency discussions about Sudan, Libya, and more).

My military colleagues reacted to the request with equal frustration: This guy was a fairly senior White House official, and he didn’t understand why sensitive, expensive military assets couldn’t instantly be moved from a war zone to foreign airspace with a simple phone call to a Pentagon acquaintance? If the president wanted to make this happen, he could call the defense secretary and direct him to have Centcom undertake such a move (though he’d be unlikely to do so without plenty of discussion at lower levels first), but the chain of command can’t be accessed midway down and more or less at random. My military colleagues were insulted: How incredibly ignorant — and arrogant! — those White House people were.

Some months later, similar misunderstandings plagued interagency planning on Sudan. With a referendum on South Sudanese independence in the offing, officials at the White House and the State Department were concerned about a resurgence of ethnic violence in the wake of a pro-independence vote. The Defense Department was asked — this time more formally, at the assistant secretary/deputy assistant secretary level — to produce plans for preventing or responding to mass atrocities. "We need to give the president some options in case all hell breaks loose," explained White House officials.

Once again, the military response was to express polite frustration. What assumptions and constraints should guide planning? What kind of plans did they want? To respond to what kind of mass atrocities, against whom, and in what likely places? Respond for how long and through what means, and to what ultimate end? Peace in Sudan? Peace on Earth? Would this mean fighting Sudanese government forces on northern Sudanese soil? Going to war with a foreign (and Muslim) state? If so, it was hard to imagine the president signing off on such a thing — we already had two ongoing wars — and it was a foolish waste of scarce planning resources to plan for something that was never going to happen.

Or maybe the goals were narrower? Should we be planning to evacuate displaced people? Where to? Should we just focus on protecting a humanitarian corridor? Was the White House prepared to have boots on the ground, with the inevitable risk that events could easily spiral out of control if U.S. troops were attacked? Did they want planning for targeted strikes designed to degrade the military capacity of the bad guys, whoever they might be?

The ensuing back and forth was tense and occasionally broke out into open expressions of anger and mistrust. At best, White House staff members considered their military counterparts rigid, reductionist, and unimaginative. At worst, they were convinced that the Pentagon was just being difficult — that the military "didn’t care" about Sudan or about atrocity prevention and was determined to flout the president’s wishes by stonewalling and foot-dragging at every turn instead of getting down to work.

The military representatives involved in the discussions were equally exasperated. What was wrong with these civilians? Didn’t they know what they wanted? Were they too naive — or uncaring — to understand that the potential mobilization of thousands of people and millions of dollars of equipment required greater specificity in terms of assumptions, constraints, and desired end-states? Without that specificity, the range of possibilities was endless. The United States could use nuclear weapons against the Sudanese regime; we could withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and shift them to Sudan; we could do nothing whatsoever; and we could do a great many things in between. But unless the president wanted to move into crisis-planning mode, ginning up serious plans for any of these options would require months, not days or weeks, and planning for all of them just wasn’t realistic.

In a sense, it was a civil-military version of the chicken-and-egg problem. White House staff wanted to be able to give the president a sense of his options: In the event of mass atrocities, what was it realistic for him to consider doing? How complicated, time-consuming, risky, expensive, and effective would it be to protect a humanitarian corridor, as opposed to engaging in limited military strikes to degrade the capacity of those committing atrocities? Without help from military planners, White House staff couldn’t properly advise the president. But without political and strategic direction from the White House (How much money are we willing to spend? How many troops are we willing to move? What tradeoffs are we willing to make in terms of other ongoing operations? What constitutes success?), military personnel couldn’t properly advise their civilian counterparts.

Eventually, the issue got semi-resolved. The White House staff was forced to get more specific; the Pentagon was forced to let go of the elaborate planning process it preferred and cough up some back-of-the-envelope assessments. Fortunately for everyone, the feared genocide in Sudan hasn’t happened (yet).

At the national level, however, the costs of the civilian-military gap are real, and high. Such mutual ignorance — and such systematic cultural differences in how to think about problems and solutions — leads frequently to misunderstanding, inefficient decision-making, and, too often, bad policy.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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