Saturday, May 12, 2007

Civil-Military Relations in the Bush Administration

Michael Desch has an interesting article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs on civil-military relations in the Bush administion, "Bush and the Generals." The main thesis is that the administration's management style on military affairs has caused a drastic deterioration in relations with the top U.S. general staff. There's disgruntlement throughout the officer corps, and Desch cites poll numbers as well indicating that a majority of rank-and-file U.S. military service personnel do no not believe that "civilians in the Pentagon had their 'best interests at heart.'"

Desch notes that there's a history of difficulties in civil-military relations dating back to the Vietnam War, but he's particularly hard on this administration. Here's a key passage from the text:

The Bush administration arrived in Washington resolved to reassert civilian control over the military -- a desire that became even more pronounced after September 11. Rumsfeld vowed to "transform" the military and to use it to wage the global war on terrorism. When they thought military leaders were too timid in planning for the Iraq campaign, Bush administration officials did not hesitate to overrule them on the number of troops to be sent and the timing of their deployment. And when the situation in Iraq deteriorated after the fall of Baghdad, tensions flared again. Retired generals called for Rumsfeld's resignation; there is reportedly such deep concern among the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) about the Bush administration's plans to use nuclear weapons in a preemptive attack against Iran's nuclear infrastructure that some of them have threatened to resign in protest; and the Bush administration's "surge" now has tens of thousands of more troops going to Iraq against the advice of much of the military.
Here's more:

Many expected the 2000 election of George W. Bush to usher in a new golden age of civil-military amity and cooperation. After all, Bush campaigned for military votes with the promise that "help is on the way" after eight years of supposed neglect. In his speech accepting his party's nomination in August 2000, he warned, "Our military is low on parts, pay, and morale. If called by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the army would have to report ... 'not ready for duty.' This administration had its moment. They had their chance. They have not led. We will." An administration that included two former secretaries of defense (Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney) and a former JCS chairman (Powell) ought to have had excellent relations with the senior military leadership.

But Bush also entered the White House with an ambitious defense policy agenda, which made continuation of the civil-military conflict all but inevitable. In a September 1999 speech at the Citadel, Bush had said that he intended to "force new thinking and hard choices" on the military. In the first few months of the new administration, Rumsfeld set out to transform the U.S. military in line with what he and other civilians anticipated would be a "revolution in military affairs."
Desch argues that the traditional civilian-military balance between strategic and tactical control on the use of armed force has been disrupted under the Bush Pentagon. A key example is Paul Wolfowitz's veto -- on the eve of the Iraq deployment -- of former General Eric Shinseki's call for several hundreds of thousands of soldiers to secure the country during the post-major conflict stage of operations.

One problem I have with the article is Desch's lack of evenhandedness in comparing civil-military relations across different presidential administrations. Desch duly notes the serious deterioration of civil-military relations during the Clinton administration. Recall in Clinton's first term the president called for dramatic increases in humanitarian operations -- in countries like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and various other conflict zones around the world. The defense budget was being slashed by post-Cold War cutbacks at the same time, and the officer corps had reservations about armed interventions, seeking a more restrained doctrine on the use of ground forces (embodied in the "Powell Doctrine," after Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell). The administration's activist social agenda for the military -- which included increasing the number of women in combat roles and allowing gay service personnel to serve in the armed forces -- also caused strains between Clinton and his generals. These conflicts caused deep and lasting strains in civil-military relations, right on up to the eve of the Bush administration's accession to power.

But Desch comes down harder on Bush, in my opinion because Desch fundamentally opposes the administration's neoconservative agenda, and particularly the Iraq War. Desch refers to Iraq with terms like "debacle" and "quagmire." He's particularly critical of the adminstration's philosophy of taking more hands-on, tactical control over military missions. Desch cites the obligatory civil-military relations literature to make the case that the "proper balance" between civilians and military leaders -- where Pentagon officials should follow a policy of deference to the general staff -- has been disrupted. There's certainly something to be said for that view, although it's hard not to read Desch's disdain for the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

In any case, read the whole article for yourself. The Bush administration made mistakes. I agree that Rumsfeld's "revolution in military affairs" had many flaws, especially the policy of going into Iraq with less than recommended troop numbers and a lack of planning for post-conflict operations. Yet, Desch shows a bias that undermines much of his argument. Moreover, the military top brass are not without their share of responsibility for problems in planning and execution.
As a Wall Street Journal editorial pointed out last year:

Mistakes are made in every war....But if we're going to start assigning blame, then the generals themselves are going to have to assume much of it.

A recent article by former Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor for the Center for Defense Information details how the U.S. advance on Baghdad in March and April 2003 was slowed against Mr. Rumsfeld's wishes by overcautious commanders on the scene. That may have allowed Saddam and many of his supporters to escape to fight the insurgency. General Abizaid also resisted the first assault on Fallujah, in April 2004, which sent a signal of U.S. political weakness. We don't agree with all of Mr. Macgregor's points, but it is likely that these Rumsfeld critics are trying to write their own first, rough draft of historic blame shifting.
Desch also takes on Professor Eliot Cohen, a Professor of Strategic Studies at John Hopkins University, and the author of a book on civil-military relations, Supreme Command. Desch says that Cohen's book was read widely by administration officials, and that President Bush had a copy of Supreme Command on "his bedside table in Crawford, Texas." Well, Cohen had something to say about the 2006 "generals' revolt" against the administration in a WSJ commentary piece last year. Cohen notes that there might be some fundamental truth to the generals' criticisms, yet:

Even making these assumptions...for recently retired general officers to publicly denounce a sitting secretary of defense is wrong, destructive of good order and discipline in the armed forces, and prejudicial to functional civil-military relations. It is not the same thing as speaking candidly before Congress, telling all to civilian or military scholars collecting oral histories, or indeed writing one's own memoirs after the heat of contemporary passions has cooled, and the individuals in question have left public office. Rather, this kind of denunciation means leaping into a political fight, and tackling the civilians still charged with the nation's defense.
Cohen's speaking about the retired generals, but his point does indicate that Desch's agenda for "restoring the balance" between civilian and military officials is a complicated affair, an agenda that could benefit from a wider examination of the various aspects of the Bush administration's stewardship.

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