Article — From the May 2011 issue

Owned by the Army

Has the president lost control of his generals?

Last August, General David Petraeus did something unusual for a U.S. military officer: he went to the media to discuss the strategic aims of an ongoing war. Reporters couldn’t resist the martial puns: they called it a blitz, a tour, a campaign. Appearing on Meet the Press and the CBS Evening News, and sitting for an hour-long interview with the New York Times, Petraeus discussed delaying the Obama Administration’s planned July 2011 drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. The Times described these appearances as “a campaign . . . to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the American-led coalition can still succeed.” Asked whether Petraeus’s remarks were made with White House approval, deputy press secretary Bill Burton was quick to assure the public that, when it comes to the conduct of the war, “there’s no daylight between the president and his commanders.”

But even if he had had authorization from the executive branch, Petraeus should not have been chatting with Katie Couric about policy, or trying to convince the American public of anything. The absence of so much as a raised eyebrow among journalists showed how much the boundary between strategic policy, which is supposed to be the realm of the civilian commander in chief and his advisers, and military tactics, which are the province of the armed forces, had already eroded. It was a strange time for the media to be silent about military overreach: just two months earlier General Stanley McChrystal had been dismissed for, as President Barack Obama put it, “undermin[ing] the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”

Things got worse in December, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had to remind the senators debating whether to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell that we don’t give the military a say in policy decisions. Senator John McCain and other Republicans insisted that opposition within the armed services to ending the ban on gays serving openly should dictate Congress’s decision on the matter. “I cannot think of a single precedent in American history,” Gates responded, “of doing a referendum of the armed forces on a policy issue. Are you going to ask them if they want fifteen-month tours? Are you going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq? That’s not the way our civilian-led military has ever worked in our entire history.”

Then, in January, Petraeus pointedly released a “state of the war” address to the troops just hours before Obama’s State of the Union speech. Petraeus’s statement, posted on NATO’s website, avoided gloomy words like “fragile” and “reversible” that had marked a White House assessment released six weeks earlier. Instead, Petraeus insisted that American forces had “halt[ed] a downward security spiral” and “inflicted enormous losses.” Making no mention of July 2011, he spoke only of 2014, the target date set by NATO for transferring security responsibility to Afghan forces. By contrast, Obama in his annual address reiterated that in July “we will begin to bring our troops home.”

Something is clearly wrong with our relationship with the military, and the problem runs deeper than arch missives to the troops, presumptuous TV-interview banter, or the propriety of combat-unit questionnaires. Our generals are getting bolder, and we’ve lost our ability to recognize when they are overstepping their constitutional powers. This is not the threat of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower spoke about; this is new. The military isn’t trying to ramp up spending. It’s interjecting its voice into the sphere of statecraft as it never has before.

Since Julius Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon, civil-military relations have determined the course of empires as well as of republics. The American founders’ designation of the president as commander in chief in Article II of the Constitution was meant as a safeguard against any would-be Caesar. In Federalist Paper No. 69, Alexander Hamilton laid out the case that the president’s military power should be limited not by any parallel military authority but by Congress.

We’ve been debating the exact nature of the civil-military divide ever since, but the few genuine challenges to civilian control have occurred in wartime, exemplified by General George McClellan’s defiance of President Abraham Lincoln’s orders to move against the Confederate Army during the second year of the Civil War. McClellan said that he needed more time to prepare for the campaign, privately likened Lincoln to “a well-meaning baboon,” and was often peremptory in his direct dealings with the president. Lincoln responded, “If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time,” and eventually dismissed him. Historians have treated McClellan leniently, though, in part because it was not until the Civil War that civilian control—like many other constitutional aspirations—really took root and the military, as a result, became more thoroughly depoliticized.

Civilian control was a national issue only once in the twentieth century: when President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command in April 1951, during the Korean War. MacArthur was imperious to begin with, and his improbably successful amphibious landing at Inchon in September 1950 and deep advance into North Korea reinforced his sense of infallibility. When the Chinese sent some 300,000 soldiers across the Yalu River into North Korea and began steadily rolling back American territorial gains, MacArthur recommended that the United States destroy bridges over the Yalu, bomb Chinese staging areas and supply lines in Manchuria, engineer the invasion of China by Chiang Kai-shek, and blockade the entire Chinese coast. Truman favored limited war, judging MacArthur’s plan politically untenable. Moreover, senior American officers—including Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff—opposed escalation.

Undaunted, MacArthur released a statement to the international press, without White House clearance, that outlined his plan to personally negotiate an end to the war, and sent a letter to House minority leader Joseph Martin that cast the Korean conflict as a war of necessity to stop the spread of Communism. Martin read the letter on the floor of the House. After first ordering a report on the Lincoln–McClellan clash, Truman decided that MacArthur had to go. The firing produced hysterical rhetoric from Truman’s political opponents and caused his popularity to plummet, but the president’s role as commander in chief was unequivocally affirmed. General Matthew B. Ridgway, MacArthur’s replacement, performed brilliantly in Korea while staying in his lane, and a Senate inquiry confirmed the constitutional propriety of Truman’s action. MacArthur later told historian Samuel Eliot Morison that a theater commander should be allowed to act autonomously, with no presidential guidance. “He never crossed the Rubicon,” wrote Morison, “but his horse’s front hoofs were in the water.”

Six years after MacArthur’s dismissal, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote The Soldier and the State, which articulated what would become the consensus view of civilian-military relations. Huntington argued that American military officers had evolved into a disciplined, technically competent, and conservative group. They had become professionals, which usefully removed them from the realm of politics. He proposed a theory of “objective control”—later called the “normal theory”—which calls for military obedience to civilian leaders in areas of strategic or political discretion and civilian deference to the military on operational matters. Under Huntington’s theory, civilians devise the grand strategy and then relinquish the battlefield to the armed forces to execute it.

This division held up for decades after MacArthur, through the end of the Vietnam War. But many soldiers who served in Vietnam, including those who would lead the armed forces in the 1980s and 1990s, decided that their commanders should have dissented more vigorously from the civilian leadership. “My generation, as a result of Vietnam, did see it as their duty to make their views known,” retired Air Force general Joseph Ralston, who served two tours in Vietnam and was vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bill Clinton, told me. “The Vietnam experience,” added Walter Slocombe, former undersecretary of defense and an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, “made the military excessively suspicious of civilian ‘interference.’ ” The day of reckoning, however, was delayed: in the Gulf War and in the Balkans, Norman Schwarzkopf and Wesley Clark gained national prominence, but because the operations were quick and successful, they refrained from insinuating their views about the strategic aims of the nation into policymaking. Sometime during George W. Bush’s presidency, though, the system described by the normal theory began to break down.

Today officers seem eager to speak up, and the war on terror gives them plenty of opportunities to do so. The global American military presence required to maintain our spheres of influence and to prosecute the counterterrorism campaign has made American generals and admirals effectively proconsuls of the U.S. government, often more powerful than civilian ambassadors and envoys. At the same time, the quick-response demands of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency have put many decisions previously in the hands of civilians into those of military officers. With the proliferation of media outlets that allow the military to speak directly to the American public, which often lionizes military leaders at the expense of civilian ones, the result is a civilian leadership increasingly likely to internalize military priorities and attitudes.

These trends accelerated during Bush’s second term. In the planning for the Iraq war, the military had little influence over the strategic designs of civilian Pentagon officials, who spurned the warnings of the Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, that the invasion plan involved far too few ground troops. But when the American civilians charged with running the country proved broadly incompetent, things changed. Once the Sunni insurgency arose and Iraq headed toward civil war, more and more of the decisions about Iraq’s future were left to the military. It was more a matter of political desperation than executive innovation when a beleaguered Bush delegated strategic authority in Iraq to Petraeus, who had just supervised the incorporation of counterinsurgency into U.S. Army and Marine Corps doctrine. Although most senior military officers had doubts about the surge in troops ordered by Bush in 2007, its tactical success consolidated Petraeus’s power and prestige and made counterinsurgency as a strategic instrument harder to challenge. Petraeus came to overshadow everyone in Iraq, the American ambassador and the Iraqi leadership included. And we got to watch it all on television, with regular commentary by the general himself.

It has been in Afghanistan, though, that the combination of an emboldened military and a pliant civilian leadership has produced the most alarming results. Obama backed himself into a corner by committing to Afghanistan as the “war of necessity” that Bush had neglected for the invidious “war of choice” in Iraq. Obama did relieve David McKiernan as commander in Afghanistan, but only to underwrite a counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign of the sort developed by Petraeus, proving that he was unable to reclaim full strategic authority from the military.

Dismissing McChrystal earned Obama some credibility within the military as a forceful and decisive leader. But replacing him with Petraeus, given Petraeus’s celebrity and the disarray within the civilian ranks on Af-Pak policy, made it nearly impossible for Obama to publicly question his new commander. Additionally, the substantial political dimension of the counterinsurgency program—“winning hearts and minds”—has enabled military officers to claim political expertise previously denied them. The resulting tendency is for politicians to adopt military concerns to the point of abdicating their independent authority over the armed forces, moving journalist William Pfaff to say of the United States “what was once said of Prussia—that it is a state owned by its army.”

In Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward suggested that the president, in escalating the Afghanistan campaign, yielded to the deployed military against his own better judgment. In his inimitable way, Woodward channels Douglas Lute, a senior adviser at the National Security Council, to describe Obama’s decision:

Obama had to do this eighteen-month surge just to demonstrate, in effect, that it couldn’t be done. The surge would be expensive, but not so much that the country could not absorb it. Obama would have given the monolithic military its day in court and the United States would not be seen as having been driven off the battlefield. The only way Lute could explain the final decision was that the president had treated the military as another political constituency that had to be accommodated.

If it’s true that the generals’ demands so profoundly affect strategic policy, the future—or at least the nature—of the republic is in play.

Many if not most civilian analysts believed counterinsurgency in Afghanistan was unlikely to succeed, and likely to inspire more insurgents than it killed or deterred. A good number of military professionals agreed. In the end, though, the latter group put aside their doubts. The generous assessment of this change of heart is that the military is institutionally optimistic about what it can accomplish; a more sinister reading is that a militarized foreign policy ensures that Congress will continue to provide the military with the oversize budget that fighting two wars requires, while maintaining the military’s influence in national-security policy. This is not the same thing as a military conspiracy to compromise civilian control. But the dilution of that control is the logical outcome of a national policy based on endless war.

The problem is not likely to disappear. Forty years have passed since the draft ended, and its revival is politically untenable. Although more than a quarter of American presidents have been generals, no president elected since the end of the Cold War has had significant military experience. The armed forces have become an insular professional class. At the same time, the United States has moved toward a quasi-imperial—or, to use Niall Ferguson’s more tantalizing term, “crypto-imperial”—model of security, whereby open-ended military deployments keep the homeland safe by effectively pushing its borders outward. This is what turns generals into proconsuls, especially when their areas of responsibility are, as Central Command’s have been for a decade, theaters of war. Foreign governments view regional commanders as the principal representatives of the United States, and their military exploits and media prominence afford them greater visibility and authority than their civilian counterparts in the State Department, which has roughly one fourteenth the Pentagon’s budget and one thirty-third the personnel. (The air campaign in Libya is the rare exception in which the views of the State Department seem to have won out over those of the military.) The ramifications are clear: presidents with decreasing military experience direct regional combatant commanders newly emboldened to second-guess civilians on strategic matters.

In this light, an inclination on the part of some senior military officers toward seizing a greater share of putatively civilian authority is not surprising. More alarming is the same inclination appearing among the junior officers. In a recent issue of Joint Force Quarterly, a Pentagon-sponsored military magazine, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Milburn contends that a military officer’s oath and code of ethics accord him the “moral autonomy” to disobey an order he believes would harm the United States, its military, or the soldiers in his charge “in a manner not clearly outweighed by its likely benefits.” Milburn’s argument conjures the image of a troubled German soldier refusing to execute a Jewish prisoner, or a noble G.I. disobeying Lieutenant Calley’s order to massacre Vietnamese families at My Lai. Milburn, however, quickly turns the argument from “the obligation to disobey an illegal order” on the tactical level to “the strategic level of decisionmaking,” at which he believes the soldier’s judgment “provides a healthy check in the execution of policy.” Milburn ultimately imagines a dialogue of equals between civilians and soldiers, playing into entrenched post-Vietnam truth-to-power fantasies.

When I asked General Ralston about these issues, he took a more traditional view: “If a civilian order is not illegal, unethical, or immoral, I should carry it out. If I think it is, I should resign.” But when a high-ranking officer sees in civilian strategic policy “colossal misjudgment,” Ralston said, he should forthrightly try to persuade the civilian leadership to change its position. Milburn’s blithe assurance that “generals like being generals, and thus would select judiciously those causes for which they were prepared to sacrifice their careers,” however, is not viable. If enough soldiers chose to exercise the moral right to oppose civilian leadership that Milburn vouchsafes for each one, the result would be a complete breakdown of the chain of command.

Absent an outright traitor or psychopath in the Oval Office, though, a government takeover of the tanks-at-the-White-House sort seems farfetched. The more likely result, and the one suggested here, is a coup d’esprit, in which civilian leadership voluntarily submits to the military way of thinking. The risk that this state of affairs poses to the country is considerable: soldiers’ essential expertise is not in grand strategy but in the operational art of warfare. If they are left to determine the United States’ strategic and diplomatic direction, they will tend to do so on the basis of the feasibility of their operational missions or, worse, on the perceived need to develop the operational capability of fulfilling future missions—another hazard of an open-ended war. Under this sort of mind-set, counterinsurgency in Afghanistan makes sense because we can do, or need to be able to do, counterinsurgency. The larger national purpose of our being in Afghanistan, and the strategic context that determines the advisability of intensive counterinsurgency, are obscured. Those officers who do venture consciously into the realm of grand strategy are likely to get it dangerously wrong, as MacArthur did.

But are civilians better at setting national-security strategy? Normal-theory orthodoxy says they are. Most generals aren’t by training or temperament attuned to the longer-term political consequences of the use of force. Eliot Cohen, whose book Supreme Command provides an extensive critique of the normal theory, goes even further. He argues that a statesman’s worldly prudence trumps a general’s morality and operational savvy. The dialogue between civilian and military leaders needs to be unequal, but in the opposite direction: the civilian leadership should have more say in operational and tactical matters. Civilian wartime leaders routinely have to contend with opinionated and sometimes willful military officers. At the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson faced down General John J. Pershing’s objections to the armistice, and even Franklin Roosevelt, whose wartime relationship with the military was smooth and direct, proceeded with the invasion of North Africa in 1942 against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs, understanding that the wholesale invasion of northern Europe favored by the Chiefs was unfeasible at that time. (It’s worth noting that none of these generals made their objections public.)

Most statesmen, of course, are not visionaries; for every Lincoln or Churchill there may be several James Buchanans or Neville Chamberlains. But, as George W. Bush said, someone has to be the decider, and the elected civilian charged with and accustomed to balancing the full range of national concerns remains the best option. In the case of Afghanistan, those concerns include the fiscal strain that ongoing warfare imposes on an already battered American economy, and the inspiration that American military action against Muslims may provide to existing and potential enemies. By contrast, combatant commanders, however well informed, are obligated to focus narrowly on the resource requirements of their assigned missions and on the welfare of the troops under their command. “Particularly when operations are going badly, the civilian leadership has every right, and indeed an obligation, to ask hard questions, demand alternatives, and, if necessary, overrule the generals—and, in particular, find new generals,” says Walter Slocombe. “Civilians also have an obligation to question military judgments about what is required militarily to carry out a proposed course of action. And they have a right to insist on knowing in some detail what is being done and about to be done, so that they can take into account the action’s political effects.”

Many examples of enlightened civilian oversight of the military—Lincoln’s focus on destroying Lee’s army rather than occupying Richmond to keep European powers at bay; Clemenceau’s nixing the occupation of the Rhine to calm battered allies; Churchill’s calibration of air assaults during the Normandy invasion to minimize French civilian casualties and hence postwar resentment; Ben-Gurion’s decision not to take control of the West Bank in 1948 to avoid antagonizing major powers and noncombatant Arab states; Truman’s rejecting MacArthur’s total-war strategy in light of U.N. reservations, allies’ incapacity, and the Soviets’ newly acquired nuclear capability—showcase the statesman as a strategic realist. He restrains the military’s natural (and understandable) penchant for exploiting operational advantages whenever they emerge and seeks the most durable strategic position for his country.

The United States’ current crypto-imperial strategy, however, is decidedly antirealist. With a military budget at their disposal that dwarfs that of our nearest rival, American statesmen feel little compulsion to restrain themselves when projecting our power abroad. They may genuinely worry about, say, impinging on Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia or trampling Muslim sensitivities, but the war against transnational terrorists overrides all such concerns. The perceived threat to America’s global interests is great, its weapons are superior to those of its enemies, and its forward deployments are ready to be used quickly, decisively, and with extreme prejudice. The result has been a decline in statecraft and the careless transfer of authority to the military.

The military’s expanded role remains concealed when a feckless and embattled civilian leadership cedes strategic authority to an especially enterprising and capable military commander, as Bush seemed to do with Petraeus in Iraq. But it plays havoc with civil-military relations when a president is searching for a nuanced solution to a complex military and diplomatic problem while his military leadership is pushing, unchecked, for larger and longer deployments and more resources. Unfortunately, the latter situation has arisen in Afghanistan. Obama’s realism is in conflict with Petraeus’s doctrine of counterinsurgency. And on account of Petraeus’s standing in America’s crypto-imperial geopolitics—arguably comparable with MacArthur’s status in 1951—his view has won out.

The remedy is a chief executive who appreciates the risks of strategic overstretch and is willing to rein in military leaders. In Afghanistan, Obama has recognized the risks but has not imposed the restraint that would minimize them. More U.S. soldiers died there in 2010 than in any other year since the war began. The conditions for counterinsurgency success—passable Afghan governance, competent Afghan security forces, less resilient and more reconcilable Taliban elements, a more cooperative Pakistan—are not crystallizing. Most of America’s NATO allies are dialing back their commitments, convinced that Western powers’ occupation of Afghanistan has cast them as colonizers, inspired Muslim radicalization, and raised terrorist threats in Europe and worldwide. The popular wave of democratic revolt now sweeping the Middle East has made American basing arrangements with illiberal regimes in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates more tenuous; we might be seeing the end of Central Command’s outsize power there, regardless of the outcomes of the protests. In a February address to West Point cadets, Defense Secretary Gates himself said that any future secretary of defense who advised a president to use a large American ground force for regime change and nation building should “have his head examined.” At the same time, American forces started to withdraw from such areas as the Pech Valley—areas once considered critical to their success—and Rolling Stone revealed that General William Caldwell IV had directed a psychological-operations team charged with using propaganda to manipulate enemy “hearts and minds” to instead focus its talents on persuading visiting senators and congressmen to continue funding the war.

The American public perceives the futility of our campaign in Afghanistan: as of October 2010, 60 percent considered it a lost cause. Yet Petraeus has continued to angle for a longer-term commitment. He is neither as naïve nor as grandiose as MacArthur was. To the contrary, he has a very keen sense of what the market for military assertiveness will bear. That makes his swagger all the more worrisome: he knows what he can get away with. He has continued to play the warrior-statesman, using his position, as one pro-Petraeus Obama Administration official admitted to the New York Times, “to shape public opinion” and “narrow the president’s options.”

The July 2011 target date for beginning the withdrawal reflected not only the president’s reluctance to escalate but also his timorousness toward the military. Obama certainly understands that the United States faces no existential threat from Al Qaeda, and that no war designed to mitigate that threat is really one of necessity. It’s a hard choice; the president wants neither to appear a quitter nor to perpetuate morbid procrastination at the behest of stubborn generals. But perhaps there is a third option: he could restore a healthy inequality to civil-military relations by announcing, in defiance of his own grace period, a policy of strategic de-escalation forthwith. That would be kind of a coup.

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is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

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