Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

I think this is the fundamental problem in U.S. civil-military relations these days

The other day I was speaking on an Army base to a bunch of bright officers. Talking and listening, I came away with this thought: The fundamental problem in 21st century American civil-military relations is that we need presidents willing to listen and learn from dissenting generals — and generals who know how to dissent ...

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Wikimedia

The other day I was speaking on an Army base to a bunch of bright officers. Talking and listening, I came away with this thought: The fundamental problem in 21st century American civil-military relations is that we need presidents willing to listen and learn from dissenting generals -- and generals who know how to dissent in strategic discussions, and are willing to do so.

This is not just a hit on President Obama, though I think he has stumbled in this area with Admiral Mullen and General Mattis.

Think, for example, of Tommy Franks, unable to see that Phase IV of the Iraq war was his responsibility, and that if he thought it wasn't, be willing to send up a rocket about that. And think of President Bush, seeking consensus in discussions of Iraq, rather than using those sessions to explore assumptions and bring differences to the fore -- which is the essence of strategy. If you don't solve civil-military splits around the table, they will persist in the field, as happened with General Sanchez and Ambassador Bremer in Iraq in 2003-04.

The other day I was speaking on an Army base to a bunch of bright officers. Talking and listening, I came away with this thought: The fundamental problem in 21st century American civil-military relations is that we need presidents willing to listen and learn from dissenting generals — and generals who know how to dissent in strategic discussions, and are willing to do so.

This is not just a hit on President Obama, though I think he has stumbled in this area with Admiral Mullen and General Mattis.

Think, for example, of Tommy Franks, unable to see that Phase IV of the Iraq war was his responsibility, and that if he thought it wasn’t, be willing to send up a rocket about that. And think of President Bush, seeking consensus in discussions of Iraq, rather than using those sessions to explore assumptions and bring differences to the fore — which is the essence of strategy. If you don’t solve civil-military splits around the table, they will persist in the field, as happened with General Sanchez and Ambassador Bremer in Iraq in 2003-04.

Remember, if you are comfortable while making strategy, you probably aren’t making strategy, you are just listing goals.

Getting generals who are willing and able to educate their presidents in strategic thinking, and presidents willing to respond in kind — yeah, that’s the hard part.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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