Civil-military relations haven’t been this bad in decades

MicahZenko, “The Soldier and the State Go Public,” Foreign Policy, 25 September 2013

Washington has found itself in a crisis over the proper relationship between senior civilian and military officials. This has played out in recent op-eds (“A War the Pentagon Doesn’t Want“) and articles (“Some U.S. Military Officers Not Happy With Syrian War Prep“), which have been countered by other op-eds (“No Military Consensus on Syria” and “U.S. War Decisions Rightfully Belong to Elected Civilian Leaders, Not the Military“). It’s a tension that shows little sign of abating, regardless of how the Syria issue plays out: Underlying forces seem guaranteed to make it worse.

Every administration has its share of disputes with the Pentagon, but when it comes to where and how U.S. armed forces will be used, civil-military relations have not been this tense and precarious since the end of the Cold War. Military officers are increasingly willing to express their personal opinions about interventions, while civilian policymakers are increasingly willing to disregard professional military advice. Worse, a growing number of individuals from both “sides” seem unaware of the appropriate civilian and military roles and relationships, and their conflicts play out in public more prominently and immediately than ever before. …

What is most dispiriting about the apparent deterioration of civil-military relations is that it is hard to see what would improve the situation. There has been a great deal of analysis of the need for the four armed services to operate more jointly (“getting purple”) and for the military and civilian agencies to coordinate preventive and stability operations (through a “whole of government approach”). However, there is little thinking about how senior civilian and military officials should cooperate in the iterative military planning process between the Pentagon and the White House. It is possible disagreements are being left at the Situation Room door, but this is unlikely, since history shows that intense civil-military disputes emerge in public when they have not been resolved in private. And what is in the public domain should disturb any principled civilian or military official.

Read the full article here.