Shadow Government

No Civil-Military Crisis, No Problem? Not Quite.

Yesterday, I explained why General Martin Dempsey’s promise to give his best professional military advice to the president, regardless of whether the president wanted to hear it, did not constitute a civil-military crisis. But just because there is no crisis of "generals out of control" does not mean that all is hunky-dory with civil-military relations ...

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Yesterday, I explained why General Martin Dempsey’s promise to give his best professional military advice to the president, regardless of whether the president wanted to hear it, did not constitute a civil-military crisis. But just because there is no crisis of "generals out of control" does not mean that all is hunky-dory with civil-military relations in the Obama administration. I worry that the halting way the administration has crafted its new war strategy could contribute to a lingering civil-military relations problem.

The problem has multiple dimensions that all point back to a common root cause: an ambivalent commander-in-chief who has struggled to level with the voters, the military, or perhaps even himself about the costs of the strategy he has pursued up until his dramatic policy reversal — and the likely costs of the new war he has ordered the U.S. military to fight now.

The administration still pretends that the policy up until now — a season of denigrating the Islamic State (IS) threat, followed by a season of hyping the threat, linked by a season of interagency paralysis while IS amassed a vast arsenal and pushed Iraq to the brink of collapse — had no costs whatsoever. Far from conceding any downsides, the president touts this record as "being careful." Moreover, until very recently he and his administration even struggled to call what they have ordered the military to do a "war." (As Jonah Goldberg acidly observes, "We are through the looking glass when it is okay to say that opposition to requiring elderly nuns to pay for birth control is part of a ‘war on women’ but airstrikes and coordinated ground attacks by allied militias aren’t like a ‘war’ on terrorists.")

This pattern — costly delay followed by poorly coordinated haste wrapped in ambivalence – can be corrosive of military morale, and therefore of healthy civil-military relations.

Of course, there are responsible civilian voices in the administration who are speaking frankly. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James is a notable example: "So for all of the talk that we go through in terms of boots on the ground and how many and what will they do — I for one thank God every day that we have so many U.S. airmen boots in the air." James was explicitly acknowledging the obvious: the President has committed the U.S. military to armed combat. I think she was also implicitly acknowledging a deeper truth: that the administration was being reckless to parse words and split hairs when men and women are risking their lives in following the President’s orders.

And kudos to Vice President Biden for being candid in describing how he thought the administration ought to handle the ground combat question. In Iowa he said something the media spun as a gaffe, but which was simply sound strategy. As the Washington Post reported:

A reporter asked Biden whether he agreed with the comments of Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who on Tuesday left the door open to the possibility of boots on the ground. "He said that if in fact he concluded that was needed he would request it from the president. His conclusion is that it is not needed now," Biden responded. But might it be needed? "We’ll determine that based on how the effort goes," said Biden.

And to his credit, the White House spokesman did not take the bait and criticize Dempsey for his testimony but instead answered the gotcha question with a fine description of civil-military roles and missions: "It’s the responsibility of the president’s military advisers to plan and consider all the wide range of contingencies," the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, told reporters. "It’s also the responsibility of the commander in chief to set out a clear policy."

The problem is that the commander in chief is not yet living up to that responsibility. Lack of clarity at the very top poses problems for effective management of the war and for healthy civil-military relations. Moments of candor can be undone by political posturing at the highest levels — and by true gaffes, such as when a senior administration official touted Saudi Arabia’s potential as a partner because of its "extensive border with Syria." (Note to students: Saudi Arabia does not have a border with Syria.)

I wonder if the problem is that the White House is still trying to tailor the president’s comments to please folks like the New York Times editorial page writers. I mean the sort of people who urged Obama to rebuke Dempsey by pledging irreversibly that the president would ignore all conditions on the ground and stick with the best-case strategy he hopes will work, regardless of whether it is working or not.

The commander in chief would have more prospects for success if he spent his time thinking about how his words might play in other venues, particularly the command posts and barracks and living rooms of the military he has ordered into the fight.

In addition to faring better with the people working for him, the president might also fare better with the folks who are his own bosses, the voters. The latest polling suggests the voters were also wrong-footed by the lack of clarity, and that this undermines their confidence in the president.

Let’s be clear. The president had the right to make the calls he did — to downplay the IS threat, to denigrate options proposed to addressing that threat, then to change his estimate of that threat, and finally to embrace the very options he had previously denigrated. Those are all the very type of judgments and decisions that in our system ultimately land on the president’s desk. Only he can make them. Moreover, the military have no right to expect that the president will make the decisions they would prefer, nor even in the manner they would prefer them. Given the ambiguities and difficulties of these decisions, I would even go further: reasonable people can disagree on whether the president made the right calls then or now.

But it is not reasonable to expect or pretend that the president can conduct policy as he has without it imposing high costs. And one of those costs could end up being civil-military friction. Given how challenging these policy lines are, the president would be well advised to do all that he can to improve his policymaking and policy explaining processes, and thereby minimize civil-military friction.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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