Shadow Government

How to Better Navigate the Coming Civil-Military Challenges

The news that Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter is stepping down is unwelcome for those of us who are concerned about the health of civil-military relations in Barack Obama’s administration. No one is indispensable, but Carter has earned an unusual amount of respect on both sides of the partisan aisle and across the uniformed divide. ...

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The news that Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter is stepping down is unwelcome for those of us who are concerned about the health of civil-military relations in Barack Obama’s administration. No one is indispensable, but Carter has earned an unusual amount of respect on both sides of the partisan aisle and across the uniformed divide. (Full disclosure: Way back in the days of the Cold War, Carter was on my dissertation committee, which surely disposes me in his favor, though it probably doesn’t make him very sympathetic to me!)

I believe that Carter would have been a good secretary of defense, and I think he has helped Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel do better than was feared, especially after Hagel’s rocky confirmation. I hope that he is replaced by someone who can similarly command respect from Democrats and Republicans, and from civilians and the military, for we appear to be heading into rocky civil-military waters.

Some have said we have already entered.

A few weeks ago, Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, reviewed the civil-military debate over Syria and concluded: "civil-military relations have not been this tense and precarious since the end of the Cold War." Since that period saw the conflict over "don’t ask, don’t tell" (not to mention the prevalent military contempt for President Bill Clinton early in his tenure) and the Rumsfeld-era civil-military friction, Zenko’s assertion is a dramatic one.

The evidence Zenko cited included reports that the military is unhappy with poor White House planning on Syria and was generally reluctant to do the strikes Obama was threatening. Retired Gen. Robert Scales claimed explicitly that he was channeling "the overwhelming opinion of serving [military] professionals" when he said that they were embarrassed by the "amateurism" of the Obama administration in the Syria episode. Zenko also discussed the doubts, primarily from congressional Republicans, about the way the administration handled the Benghazi debacle.

Curiously, Zenko left off what is arguably the most important driver of civil-military tensions, now and especially going forward: the persistent fiscal crisis that has resulted in sequestration.

Sequestration was designed to be something so horrible that it never would be implemented. Almost everyone in the Defense Department, whether in or out of uniform, still views it that way. But there is a growing sense that the White House, and the commander in chief in particular, has come to view the first round of sequestration as tolerable. Worse, the president’s refusal to negotiate with Republicans has raised fears that perhaps he is willing to prolong sequestration, at least insofar as it applies to the Defense Department.

This is a real civil-military problem — much more consequential than the Obama administration’s odd decision to prevent World War II veterans from visiting their open-air monument as a way of ratcheting up pressure on Republicans. Harassing wheelchair vets makes for compelling television, but imposing arbitrary cuts on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars across the FYDP undermines national security. There is no question which hurts civil-military relations more.

Restoring the lost funding would go a long way to improving civil-military relations, but that is not plausible. What, short of that, could the administration do?

First, the Obama administration should seek a deal that would give the Defense Department greater flexibility in managing the cuts. Republicans are willing to grant that, but the Obama administration has been unwilling to accept it unless it can get similar flexibility for favored domestic programs. In today’s partisan climate, we may not be able to get such a grand bargain. Let’s take the incremental improvements on offer and build out from there.

Second, if the administration will not provide the resources its strategy requires, it must issue a new strategy that is viable at the funding levels that are achievable. The prevailing strategic guidance for the U.S. military is the one Obama issued in January 2012. I had my quibbles with it at the time, but in retrospect it was better than the absence of guidance that prevails right now. Let us be clear: That strategy was designed to accommodate the deep cuts Obama ordered before the sequester took effect. The administration claimed the strategy would be viable, provided there were no further cuts. None. Since then, the sequester has taken effect, with no relief in sight. Worse, another round of sequestration could be looming. There is simply no way that the old strategy could be viable in a post-sequester environment. The administration has to come to terms with this, and do so candidly.

Third, while the president is free to decide issues of policy irrespective of the advice he receives from the military, he should take greater pains not to misrepresent what that advice actually is. As far as civil-military relations go, this was Obama’s biggest foul in the Syria episode. When Obama decided to reverse course and delay the planned airstrikes, he explicitly claimed that Gen. Martin Dempsey had told him the delay would not matter. Obama and his White House staff went on at some length to justify the decision in Dempsey’s counsel, but in doing so they fundamentally misrepresented the content of Dempsey’s advice, as Dempsey’s subsequent congressional testimony makes clear (see also here). The president’s prerogative to overrule his generals is a precious aspect of civilian control. But it will lead to civil-military conflict when the military believes that civilians are not just choosing to go in a direction other than what the military advises, but are actively misleading others about what that advice was in the first place. The more budget cuts require civilians to make painful choices across military programs and choose between competing military counsels, the more important preserving this principle, and all its associated obligations on civilians, will become.

And, finally, the Obama administration should nominate someone who commands respect across partisan and civil-military divides to be the next deputy secretary of defense. That person will have their hands full.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola