Coming Soon: A Crisis in Civil-Military Relations

When Bill Clinton won the presidency in November 1992, few could have anticipated that his first crisis would be a full-blown clash with the armed forces, unhinging his administration even before it took office. His, after all, was to be a domestic presidency. Clinton inherited a military rebuilt from its Vietnam nadir, led by generals and admirals jubilant from success in the Persian Gulf and cheered on by an admiring public. When Clinton pushed for the right of homosexuals to serve in uniform, the brass revolted, culminating in the spectacle of a president forced to surrender to his own generals.

Fast forward to 2008. The president elected in November will inherit a stinking mess, one that contains the seeds of a civil-military conflict as dangerous as the crisis that nearly sank the Clinton team in 1993. Whether the new president is a Republican or Democrat makes only a marginal difference. The issues in military affairs confronting the next administration are so complex and so intractable that conflict is all but inevitable.

When a new president takes office in early 2009, military leaders and politicians will approach one another with considerable suspicion. Dislike of the Democrats in general and Bill Clinton in particular, and disgust for Donald Rumsfeld, has rendered all politicians suspect in the imaginations of generals and admirals. The indictments make for a long list: a beleaguered military at war while the American public shops at the mall; the absence of elites in military ranks; the bungling of the Iraq occupation; the politicization of General David Petraeus by the White House and Congress; an army and Marine Corps exhausted and overstretched, their people dying, their commitments never-ending. Nearly six years of Donald Rumsfeld’s intimidation and abuse have encouraged in the officer corps a conviction that military leaders ought to—are obliged to—push back against their civilian masters. Egged on by Democrats in Congress—and well-meaning but profoundly mistaken associates who believe the military must hold political leaders accountable for their mistakes—some flag officers now opine publicly and seemingly without hesitation. Though divided about Iraq strategy, the four-stars unite in their contempt for today’s political class and vow not to be saddled with blame for mistakes not of their own making.

For its part, the new administration will enter office mindful and jealous of the military’s iconic status in the public mind, even if, ironically, the rhetoric of politicians does much to inflate that prestige. In truth, increasing politicization of the armed forces has generated considerable cynicism and distrust among elected officials of every stripe, kept private only out of fear of appearing not to support the troops. The new administration, like its predecessors, will wonder to what extent it can exercise civilian “control.” If the historical pattern holds, the administration will do something clumsy or overreact, provoking even more distrust simply in the process of establishing its own authority.

In the background, as always, will be the legacy of civil-military tensions going back to the beginning of the Republic, but magnified whenever a new administration comes to office. One four-star general put it this way in 2001 at the outset of the Bush presidency: “It’s like waking up in the morning, looking across the bed, and discovering you’ve got a new wife. You’ve never met her, you don’t know what she wants or what she’s thinking, and you have no idea what will happen when she wakes up.” He added, “we on this side of the river don’t have to take it, either.”

The problem here is not the ordinary friction between the military and its political bosses. That is understandable and, to a degree, typical and functional; the two sides come from different worlds, with different perspectives and different requirements. No decision in war, no military policy proposed to or considered by the Congress, no military operation—nothing in the military realm—occurs that does not derive in some way from the relationship between civilians, to whom the U.S. Constitution assigns responsibility for national defense, and the military leadership, which manages, administers, and leads the armed forces.

When the relationship works—when there is candor, argument, and mutual respect—the result aligns national interest and political purpose with military strategy, operations, and tactics. The collaboration between Franklin Roosevelt, his secretaries of war and navy, and the heads of the two armed services is considered the model in this regard. Each side kept the other mostly informed; the military were present at all the major allied conferences; Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall spoke candidly with the president and consulted daily with Secretary of War Henry Stimson. When the relationship does not work—when the two sides don’t confer, don’t listen, don’t compromise—the decisions and policies that follow serve neither the national interest nor conform to the bitter realities of war. The distrust, manipulation, and absence of candor that colored relations between President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and his senior military advisors offers a case in point; to this day Robert Strange McNamara arouses hatred and contempt among military officers who were not even born when he ruled the Pentagon.

While civil-military relations at the beginning of the Republic involved real fears of a coup, for the last two centuries the concern has revolved around relative influence: can the politicians (often divided among themselves) really “control” the military? Can the generals and admirals secure the necessary resources and autonomy to accomplish the government’s purposes with minimal loss of blood and treasure? Until World War II, the influence of the regular military even in its own world was limited. After the war, the integration of foreign and military policies, the creation of the intelligence community, new weapons systems, and other elements of the Cold War national security establishment decidedly enhanced the military’s say in policy deliberations. The end of the Cold War and an operational tour de force in the first Persian Gulf War cemented the military’s position as the public’s most trusted and esteemed institution. During the Clinton administration, the military leadership had a virtual veto over military policy, particularly the terms and conditions of interventions overseas. The power of the military has waxed and waned since the 1940s, but not a single secretary of defense has entered office trusting the armed forces to comply faithfully with his priorities rather than their own.

Four problems, in particular, will intensify the normal friction: the endgame in Iraq, unsustainable military budgets, the mismatch between twenty-first century threats and a Cold War military establishment, and social issues, gays in the military being the most incendiary.

As to the first of these, Iraq confounds the brightest and most knowledgeable thinkers in the United States. George W. Bush has made it clear that he will not disengage from Iraq or even substantially diminish the American military presence there until the country can govern, sustain, and defend itself. How to attain or even measure such an accomplishment baffles the administration and war critics alike. That is precisely why a majority of the American people
supports withdrawing.

It follows that no candidate will be elected without promising some sort of disengagement. An American withdrawal would probably unleash the all-out civil war that our presence has kept to the level of neighborhood cleansing and gangland murder. Sooner or later that violence will burn itself out. But a viable nation-state that resembles democracy as we know it is far off, with the possibility that al-Qaeda will survive in Iraq, requiring American combat forces in some form for years to come.

In the civil-military arena, the consequences of even a slowly unraveling debacle in Iraq could be quite ugly. Already, politicians and generals have been pointing fingers at one another; the Democrats and some officers excoriating the administration for incompetence, while the administration and a parade of generals fire back at the press and anti-war Democrats. The truly embittered, like retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded in Iraq in 2003­­–04, blame everyone and everything: Bush and his underlings, the civilian bureaucracy, Congress, partisanship, the press, allies, even the American people. Last November, Sanchez went so far as to deliver the Democrats’ weekly radio address—and, with it, more bile and invective. Thomas Ricks, chief military correspondent of the Washington Post, detects a “stab in the back narrative . . . now emerging in the U.S. military in Iraq. . . . [T]he U.S. military did everything it was supposed to do in Iraq, the rest of the U.S. government didn’t show up, the Congress betrayed us, the media undercut us, and the American public lacked the stomach, the nerve, and the will to see it through.” Ricks thinks this “account is wrong in every respect; nonetheless, I am seeing more and more adherents of it in the military.”

If the United States withdraws and Iraq comes apart at the seams, many officers and Republicans will insist that the war was winnable, indeed was all but won under General David Petraeus. The new administration will be scorned not only for cowardice and surrender, but for treachery—for rendering meaningless the deaths, maiming, and sacrifice of tens of thousands of Americans in uniform. The betrayed legions will revive all of the Vietnam-era charges, accusing the Democrats of loathing the military and America and of wishing defeat. The resentments will sink deep into the ranks, at least in the army and the Marines, much as the Praetorian myths about Vietnam still hold sway today in the Pentagon. The response—namely, that the war was a strategic miscalculation bungled horribly by the Bush administration—will have no traction. There will only be a fog of anger, bitterness, betrayal, and recrimination.

The second source of civil-military conflict will revolve around the Pentagon budget. The administration’s request for the coming year, nearly $650 billion, is plainly unsustainable, although it accounts for only 20 percent of the federal budget and less than 4.5 percent of the gross domestic product. The figure understates true costs by excluding veterans affairs, homeland security, and other national security expenditures, which could boost the total upward of $850 billion, more than the rest of world combined spends on defense and larger than any military budget since World War II. This will be a red flag to a Democratic Congress, and certainly to a Democratic White House. However eager they may be to deflect charges of being weak on national defense, the Democrats will have no choice but to cut, and over time, cut deeply.

That is because the dilemma is substantially worse than even these figures suggest. The bill does not include the wearing out of military equipment, from overworked transport jets to tanks and trucks, or the expansion of ground forces. Then, too, there is the need for additional spending on homeland security, which several presidential candidates have vowed to do. Port defense, transportation, border integrity, the stockpiling of vaccines—the ability of the United States to respond to and recover from a successful nuclear or biological attack remains rudimentary, and by consensus underfunded. Finally, the Pentagon budget will have to compete with domestic spending priorities: for roads, water systems, and other infrastructure; for the FBI, the air traffic control system, the IRS, and other national agencies; for Social Security and Medicare to support the flood of retiring baby boomers; and for expanding and reforming health care. Claims on the national treasury could arise suddenly, like the hundred billion–plus dollars promised to New Orleans. A Republican administration could press for further tax cuts. (Some years ago, before 9/11, I asked Newt Gingrich whether Republicans, if they had to choose, favored tax reduction or a stronger national defense. He answered: tax cuts.) Expanding deficits could relentlessly drive up interest costs. A recession in turn would diminish tax receipts and raise the deficit even higher, setting in motion a downward spiral that would challenge any Congress, administration, or Federal Reserve chairman.

When presented with these fiscal challenges, military leaders are likely to cede nothing. They are at war around the world. They are charged not only with national defense, but with the stewardship of institutions rooted in past glory and expected to triumph over any and all foes. Officers recognize their historic role and they embrace it. Every year when budgets arise in discussion at war colleges, student officers—the up-and-comers in each service, many destined for flag rank—demand more money. In September, the air force asked for an additional $20 billion for aircraft. The Joint Chiefs and the combatant commanders understand the squeeze. New weapons systems must be funded and the cost of recruiting and retention bonuses has jumped to more than one billion dollars a year for the army alone. One petty officer recently told me that the navy paid him $80,000 to re-enlist, something he intended to do anyway. Some specialties command $150,000 in douceurs. And even these fees do not suffice. “I have in the last several years arrived at a point,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said recently, “where I think as a country we’re just going to have to devote more resources to national security in the world that we’re living in right now.” Needless to say, Mullen was hardly speaking for himself alone.

The ways out of this jam all invite some sort of conflict. Least controversial would be to tackle that old bugbear, Pentagon waste. Several of the presidential candidates have vowed to do exactly this. But the gold-plated weapons systems always survive. And, clichés notwithstanding, the actual savings would be minimal in any case. Another perennial favorite is centralization or consolidation, an impulse that led to the creation of the Defense Department in 1947 and something attempted regularly ever since. Certainly, there are more opportunities here. Are six war colleges really still necessary? Does each service really need its own weather, chaplain, medical, and legal corps? Do both the navy and Marine Corps need their own air forces, since they fly many of the same aircraft, all of them integrated on aircraft carriers? Are military academies a necessity? A larger percentage of ROTC graduates than of West Pointers stay in the army past the ten-year mark.

Yet imagine the outcry any one of these proposals would provoke, and the resistance it would generate from the services, agencies, and congressional committees whose ox was being gored. The delegation or defense company about to lose a base or a weapons contract would certainly howl—and mobilize. Organizational change in any bureaucracy provokes enormous and almost always successful resistance. In the Pentagon, the battles have been epic.
The world has a say in all this, too. The next administration will take office nearly twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet the American military establishment is essentially the same one created in the 1940s and 1950s to deter the Soviet Union. The United States today boasts four independent armed services with the same weapons, upgraded and more capable to be sure, as those known to George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz, and Curtis LeMay. Not only are the ships, planes, tanks, vehicles, and guns similar, but they are organized similarly, performing virtually the same roles and missions assigned them in the late 1940s.

The United States after 1989 did not demobilize. It “downsized.” Successive administrations cut the budget by ten percent and the size of the force by about 25 percent, while the Pentagon substituted regional threats for the Soviet menace in its planning. Even in the midst of a “Global War on Terrorism,” neither the generals nor their bosses in the White House and Congress have been able to rethink the purpose, organization, command and control, or even operation of the armed forces. Two decades is a long time. The decades between 1895 and 1915, 1935 and 1955, and 1975 and 1995 all involved paradigm shifts in America’s role in the world and in its national security requirements. Today’s security situation differs no less radically from the Cold War for which today’s military establishment was devised. Are these the armed forces we really need?

Bitter fights over strategy, budgets, weapons, and roles and missions dating back sixty-plus years suggest the question may not be answerable in any practical sense. To understand fully just how difficult it will be to raise fundamental concerns about defense policies, consider the recent confusion over what exactly the role and purpose of the National Guard and reserves ought to be. A week before 9/11, I participated in a roundtable discussion of the subject for the Reserve Forces Policy Board. There was general agreement that reserve forces should concentrate more on homeland defense and less on backstopping active duty forces on the battlefield. Yet the former head of the National Guard Bureau insisted, without evidence and in the face of great skepticism, that the Guard and reserves could do both. The past five years have proved him wrong; reserve forces are underequipped and stretched thinner than the active duty army and Marine Corps.

Today, a congressionally chartered commission on the National Guard and reserves still struggles with how to shape and organize the reserves (particularly the National Guard, which reports to each state governor unless summoned for federal service). Admittedly, the National Guard and reserves possess unusual political power and since 1789 have been more resistant to rational military policy than any other part of the national security community. Robert McNamara, who transformed American defense more than any other Pentagon leader, failed utterly to budge the Guard and reserve. None of his successors possessed the nerve even to try. But the problem cannot be avoided. As the commission wrote in bureaucratic understatement, in March 2007, “the current posture and utilization of the National Guard and Reserve as an ‘operational reserve’ is not sustainable over time, and if not corrected with significant changes to law and policy, the reserve component’s ability to serve our nation will diminish.”

All the more so because Iraq and Afghanistan compose the first substantial, extended military conflicts the United States has fought with a volunteer force in more than a century. Today’s typical combat tour of fifteen months is the longest since World War II. Expensive procurement programs are underway, but sooner or later they will be robbed to pay for other costs, such as war operations, the expansion of ground forces, or medical and veterans costs. Already, the Project on Defense Alternatives has proposed cutting two Air Force wings, two Navy wings, and two aircraft carriers for a total savings of more than $60 billion over the next five years. Eventually, the bill comes due, either in blood, defeat, or political crisis. As the old Fram oil filter advertisement put it, “Pay me now, or pay me later.”

Last on the list of issues certain to provoke civil-military tension is social concerns, two of which will surely arise in a Democratic administration and also may be unavoidable in a Republican one.

At a time when the Pentagon spends huge sums of money annually to recruit and retain soldiers, it makes no sense to eject hundreds of fully trained, dutifully serving volunteers, many of whom—the several dozen Arab linguists forced out in the last few years come to mind—possess skills in short supply in the military. The old arguments about gays undermining unit cohesion or threatening discipline have lost credibility; foreign militaries allow homosexuals to serve at all levels, including in command and at flag rank, without detrimental effect. Young people today, even from the more conservative demographics likely to enlist, express little concern about serving alongside gays. But for many older men in uniform, it’s a different story, as recently-retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Peter Pace made clear when he labeled homosexuality immoral. All the Democratic presidential candidates support lifting the ban; sooner rather than later Democrats in Congress are likely to try to change the law. Both sides will drag in the armed services, reviving the emotional debate of the early 1990s, escalating tensions within the military’s leadership and between it, Congress, and the administration. Not all of this will make the newspapers, but within the Pentagon the disagreements will provoke tension, anger, mistrust, and perhaps open dissent.

Another issue bound to cause friction involves the right of evangelical chaplains to pray at public events in the name of Jesus Christ, and of evangelical officers to proselytize according to the principles of their faith. The issue pits freedom of religion against the duty of chaplains to minister to a diverse military in an ecumenical fashion, for their units comprise people of many faiths (and sometimes none), with varying degrees of commitment. The historian of religion Ann Loveland, now retired from the history department at Louisiana State University, has documented the evangelical mission to the military first undertaken in World War II. Believing that military service could debauch American youth, the Christian evangelical movement sought to spread the gospel inside the services by encouraging its clergy to become chaplains, founding and supporting organizations to support and spread evangelical faith, and working to boost the number of evangelicals in the military leadership. In the early 1980s these efforts began to generate anxiety in the officer corps. Commanders who held prayer breakfasts and Bible readings for their officers were sometimes suspected of favoring their fellow worshippers in the yearly evaluations so critical to promotion and assignment. Early in this decade, a scandal erupted at the U.S. Air Force Academy when it was discovered that the football coach, commandant of cadets, and faculty and chaplains were subtly pressing cadets to join the faith, and disparaging others who did not. Just last year, four generals were recommended for reprimand for participating in uniform in a video used by an evangelical organization to proselytize.

Now, it could be argued that none of these four great problems will trigger a crisis. Republicans, for example, might not risk a break with the evangelical community by strictly enforcing policies against proselytizing. And they would be only too happy to continue lavishing funds on the Pentagon. But how will they reconcile tax cuts, balanced budgets, and robust defense spending? Iraq, for which Republican presidential candidates have offered no solution beyond more of the same, makes the election of a Republican administration unlikely in any case. Yet, if elected, it too would have to disengage, lest the army and Marines become so exhausted and alienated that their leaders go public with their resentments.

The Democrats would surely prefer to finesse these dilemmas and, with them, charges of weakness on national defense. Hillary Clinton has labored assiduously to gain the trust of the military, mindful of how it nearly crippled her husband’s administration. Yet escape will be impossible, particularly when it comes to Iraq and the budget. Significantly, Clinton has made no promises to the military, not even a ritualistic pledge to maintain a strong national defense. Civil-military relations under Democratic administrations, from Truman to Kennedy to Johnson to Carter to Clinton, became more toxic with each. The leading Democratic contenders today have no military experience or feel for military culture. All would find themselves under extraordinary pressure from their constituencies to exit Iraq, cut the budget, allow gays to serve without prejudice, and apply the separation of church and state with rigor. None would wish to expend political capital on less sexy, but more consequential, questions related to the proper roles, missions, scope, and resources of the military establishment. Nor would the Congressional Democrats. Yet if they don’t set the terms of the debate, the military will do it for them.

However it begins, a clash between the next administration and the armed forces need not metastasize into a full-blown crisis. Military leaders should start to consider how they will react to civilian demands, and which of their traditions they will choose. Will they acquiesce after due advice and consultation, as the Constitution and our tradition of civilian control suggests? Or will they resist, employing techniques borne of decades of inside-the-beltway maneuvering? Will they confine dissent to the appropriate channels? Or will they go public, enlisting their allies in Congress, industry, and veterans groups? Will they collaborate with their new civilian superiors? Or will they work to thwart every recommendation harmful to their service? Much will depend on the capacity of military leaders to establish a workable relationship with their civilian superiors and to embrace their own tradition of professionalism.

Civilians have equal obligations. Will they tackle thorny defense issues in a serious, nonpartisan way, or will they succumb to their own posturing? Will they box themselves in with their campaign promises? Will they apply Band-Aids to the Pentagon budget, or will they address the more fundamental problem of reorganizing a Cold-War military for an age of asymmetric threats? Will they consider seriously, if not always heed, the counsel of military expertise?
A crucial intermediary here will be the next secretary of defense. Someone in the mold of Melvin Laird or James Schlesinger or William Perry will be indispensable—that is, someone knowledgeable and politically skilled who can gain and keep the confidence of the military, Congress, and the president. Whoever wins the job must wear his or her authority without bluster or arrogance, and lead firmly while holding the military to account. Above all, the secretary must act with courtesy, fairness, and decisiveness. A new administration might even ask Robert Gates to stay on; he has presided over the Pentagon with a calming, steady hand after Rumsfeld’s departure.

Staffing decisions at less senior levels will be nearly as important. Neither party can afford to populate the Defense Department with politicians on the make, congressional staffers beholden to special interests, or young know-nothings looking to plus-up their résumés. These positions require knowledgeable people from the business community, the federal bureaucracy, and other professions who understand and respect the military but will not be awed by medals and campaign ribbons. The service secretaries have the closest relationship with the military leadership and have a critical say in picking senior leaders for advancement into the key commands and the Joint Chiefs. Finding the right individuals for these slots will be essential. The new secretary of defense would do well to assemble his deputy, under secretaries, and service secretaries into a cohesive executive committee that would formulate an agenda, rethink policy, and oversee its implementation.

The next administration should also act quickly to insulate the military leadership from partisan politics. The first act will be, after due consideration, the reappointment of Admiral Mullen as chairman. Then there should be a concerted search within the services for loyal but independent thinkers who understand the American system of civilian control but also know how to be dead honest in their advice. The recent appointment of General James Mattis of the Marines to head Joint Forces Command sends exactly the right message. Whoever comes into office in January 2009, in turn, needs to make clear up front that he or she will not hide behind the military, that he or she will not compromise the military’s professional ethos by delivering partisan speeches in front of uniformed audiences or trotting out the brass to market administration policies.

Last of all, the new president ought to reach out to the armed forces in their own communities: visiting bases, praising the military with genuine sincerity, addressing veteran’s care, making certain that as troops are withdrawn from Iraq, no blame falls unfairly on them for what follows. The political leadership will have to consult widely about changes, cuts, consolidations, and other modifications to the defense establishment. The next administration will need to establish a precedent for strict civilian control from the outset, all the while spending political capital on national defense and boosting the morale of what will likely be an anxious force. Consistent and vocal praise for military (and public) service would go a long way—easy for a Republican who abandons the demonization of government, difficult for a Democrat accustomed to ignoring or criticizing
the military.

Soldiers and civilians alike will have momentous decisions to make. Politicians will have to choose whether to lead or to hide, whether in the name of maintaining or establishing their bona fides as “supporters of the military” they will put off decisions that upend the current and unsustainable order of things. Military leaders face their most important choice in more than half a century: whether to cooperate and assist in this effort, or to resist past the point of advice and discussion, to the detriment of their service, national defense, and indeed their professional souls.

Richard H. Kohn is a Professor of History of Peace, War, and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was Chief USAF Historian, 1981-1991. Last year, he was the Omar N. Bradley Professor of Strategic Leadership at Dickinson College and the U.S. Army War College.

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