Does the Military Need a Micromanager?
The Trump White House has delegated enormous responsibility to the Pentagon to look after itself, with predictable results.
Two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend — outgoing commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State — was asked about the Trump administration’s relatively decentralized military decision-making. Townsend replied, “I will say that the current administration has pushed decision-making down into the military chain of command. And I don't know of a commander in our armed forces that doesn't appreciate that. A key result of that is that we don't get second-guessed a lot … we don't get 20 questions with every action that happens on the battlefield and every action that we take.”
Two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend — outgoing commander of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State — was asked about the Trump administration’s relatively decentralized military decision-making. Townsend replied, “I will say that the current administration has pushed decision-making down into the military chain of command. And I don’t know of a commander in our armed forces that doesn’t appreciate that. A key result of that is that we don’t get second-guessed a lot … we don’t get 20 questions with every action that happens on the battlefield and every action that we take.”
Townsend’s observation was notable in two respects. First, an active-duty general officer rarely denounces the command style of a former commander-in-chief so explicitly. Second, it epitomized the widespread sentiment expressed by uniformed officials since President Donald Trump assumed office: the days of White House micromanagement of the military are over. The implication being that excessive civilian interference (which some might label “oversight”) is harmful to morale and, ultimately, combat effectiveness.
These concerns have risen to more prominent media coverage intermittently over the past quarter-century, with the intensity of that focus depending on the personalities of civilian leader (think Madeleine Albright, Donald Rumsfeld, or Susan Rice) and the relative success of U.S. military operations. Nevertheless, they represent the inevitable tension of the principal-agent relationship between civilian executives who monitor the military agents that serve the country, as Peter Feaver detailed in his brilliant book, Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations.
But the fact that these issues are ubiquitous doesn’t mean they don’t merit attention. Given the unprecedented global reach and lethality of the U.S. military, domestic debates about micromanagement are hugely consequential to international relations. So when you hear the term “micromanagement” used pejoratively in a military context, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Fundamentally, civilian interference or oversight — from White House or Pentagon officials — of the armed forces is not binary, but rather exists to varying degrees along a spectrum, from President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s boast during the Vietnam War that “They can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval,” to Trump’s more recent admission that he had bestowed upon the military “total authority.” Most presidents fall somewhere in between — systematically caring about a handful of things the military does day-to-day, but then giving well-informed clarifying guidance at important decision-making points.
In addition, civilian interference is often remembered selectively, which makes it seem in hindsight more pervasive than might have been true. I have interviewed hundreds of officials who were involved planning or conducting military operations, or in use-of-force debates. Every officer had many vivid anecdotes of ham-fisted civilian interference. From the Marine colonel in European Command who was directed by Donald Rumsfeld’s office to immediately cease planning any military contingency options for Darfur in 2004, or the Army lieutenant colonel in Africa Command who was directed by his uniformed boss to “plus-up” his team’s analysis of Boko Haram — days after First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted a picture of her holding up a “#BringBackOurGirls” sign in 2014.
In the later instance, the major recalled that this required a major shift of precious surveillance drone orbits, as well as his analysts’ finite time. He added that the White House had not actually requested additional information about the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, but that his boss had anticipated that they would at some point. Indeed, the impression (or reality) of excessive civilian interference can preemptively lead a military command to change their behavior without explicit orders to do so.
Yet, in every conversation I have had with civilian and military officials, I cannot recall a military officer — at any level — having received guidance or direction that was helpful in developing plans or in fulfilling a mission. The recalled examples of interference are always detrimental, wasteful, or, at best, pointless. The fact of the matter is that many senior military officers who do not receive the autonomy, latitude, or funding to do what they want to do — within the timeframe that they want to do it — claim they are being “micromanaged.” But it’s important to recognize that this impression is both subjective and selective. One person’s intrusive micromanagement is another’s proper attention to detail.
The challenge of evaluating civilian interference of military operations is resonant in America’s contemporary wars as well. In late May, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made an extraordinary claim regarding the delegation of authorities under President Trump: “There is no relaxation of our attention to protect the innocent. We do everything we can to protect the civilians, and actually lowering — delegating the authority to the lower level allows us to do this better.”
We now have sufficient data to evaluate whether Mattis’s claim is correct. Civilian fatalities from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have grown remarkably, according to data provided by Central Command and the non-profit investigative outfit Airwars. In Afghanistan, civilian fatalities from U.S. airstrikes increased almost 70 percent in the first half of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016, according to the United Nations. And beyond the data from these wars, none of the many airpower studies that have ever been published has concluded that delegating strike authorities to lower levels reduces harm to civilians. I have asked several Air Force experts and historians if they are aware of such a study that might be classified or not available for public release, but nobody has heard of such a thing.
The demonstrable rise in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes is most likely the result of several factors, as discussed in previous pieces I’ve written. But the basic point is that Mattis’s judgment has proven incorrect. That should be no surprise. Everything we know from organizational studies suggests that managers and staffers immersed in day-to-day repetitive tasks (like military campaigns) eschew competing values-based priorities — particularly when senior leaders direct them to accelerate their efforts and narrow their mission, as has been true with the war against the Islamic State under Mattis’s watch.
That the secretary of defense’s claim has gone unchallenged is not surprising, but it is illustrative of the dilemma of military commanders who desire greater autonomy. While entrusted with a freer hand to select enemy targets and authorize strikes, they must be held accountable for their relatively autonomous decision-making powers. With the enduring congressional disinterest in overseeing the conduct of the armed forces, and limited media scrutiny of the military, the freer hand enjoyed by commanders today is now broadly accepted as correct and proper. But, when the military is responsible for the inevitable strategic miscalculations, accidents, or personal embarrassments, civilian monitoring will quickly become far more pronounced, and the Trump White House will be accused of micromanagement.
Photo credit: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images
Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans. Twitter: @MicahZenko
More from Foreign Policy
No, the World Is Not Multipolar
The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
America Can’t Stop China’s Rise
And it should stop trying.
The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky
The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.