It is no secret that the relationship between the U.S. military and civilians in the Bush administration has deteriorated markedly since the start of the Iraq war. In 2006, according to a Military Times poll, almost 60 percent of servicemen and servicewomen did not believe that civilians in the Pentagon had their "best interests at heart." In its December 2006 report, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group—of which Robert Gates was a member until President George W. Bush tapped him to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense last year—explicitly recommended that "the new Secretary of Defense should make every effort to build healthy civil-military relations, by creating an environment in which the senior military feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the President and the National Security Council."

But the tensions in civil-military relations hardly started with Iraq; the quagmire there has simply exposed a rift that has existed for decades. During the Vietnam War, many military officers came to believe that their unquestioning obedience to civilian leaders had contributed to the debacle—and that, in the future, senior military leaders should not quietly acquiesce when the civilians in Washington start leading them into strategic blunders.

For a time after Vietnam, civilian and military elites avoided a direct confrontation as military leaders focused on rebuilding the armed forces to fight a conventional war against the Warsaw Pact and civilian officials were largely content to defer to them on how to do so. But the end of the Cold War uncovered deep fissures over whether to use the military for operations other than foreign wars and how to adapt military institutions to changing social mores.

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.

The new secretary of defense therefore has a lot on his plate. In the short term, Gates must play out the endgame of a war in Iraq that he admits the United States is "not winning" but that he and the president do not want to "lose" either. He must continue the efforts to transform the U.S. military while repairing a ground force that has been nearly "broken" by almost four years of continuous combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Gates can hope to succeed at those tasks only if he manages to rebuild a cooperative relationship between civilian leaders and the U.S. military. He must both rethink how civilian officials oversee the military and clarify the boundaries of legitimate military dissent from civilian authority.

The key is that Gates needs to recognize that Rumsfeld's meddling approach contributed in significant measure to the problems in Iraq and elsewhere. The best solution is to return to an old division of labor: civilians give due deference to military professional advice in the tactical and operational realms in return for complete military subordination in the grand strategic and political realms. The success of Gates' tenure in the Pentagon will hinge on his reestablishing that proper civil-military balance.


There is an inherent tension between senior military leaders and their civilian overseers. Debates about using force, contrary to popular perception, tend to pit reluctant warriors against hawkish civilians. The current civil-military breach actually began with the Vietnam War. The decision to intervene in Vietnam was driven largely by civilian leaders: Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, and a supporting caste of lower-ranking officials. From the start, the senior military leadership was unenthusiastic about committing U.S. ground forces to Southeast Asia. Even after civilian officials persuaded them that vital national interests were at stake, they had serious reservations about Washington's strategies for the ground and air wars. By the summer of 1967, military discontent had reached such a level that the JCS reportedly considered resigning en masse. They did not, but the damage done by the military leadership's willingness to salute and obey as the debacle in Vietnam unfolded was not lost on junior officers.

In one of the most memorable passages in his memoir, former Secretary of State Colin Powell recalls that during Vietnam, "as a corporate entity, the military failed to talk straight to its political superiors or itself. The top leadership never went to the secretary of defense or the President and said, 'This war is unwinnable the way we are fighting it.'" Colonel H. R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty—a book that was long featured on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's reading list—demonstrates that this lesson of Vietnam has now been thoroughly internalized by the contemporary officer corps. The implicit message of McMaster's military bestseller is that unqualified allegiance to the commander in chief needs to be rethought.

The Vietnam experience was a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode civil-military relations. Only the Cold War kept it from going off. There was mutual agreement then that the military's primary mission was to prepare for a conventional war in Europe with the Warsaw Pact, and civilian leaders gave the military great latitude in determining how it did so. Still, Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams consciously reconfigured active-component army divisions so that they could not go to war without Reserve or National Guard "round-out brigades," thus ensuring that future presidents would have to fully mobilize the country in order to fight a major war.

The post-Vietnam officer corps truly began to assert itself only after the inauguration of Bill Clinton, the first post-Cold War president and a man who came into office with an already difficult relationship with the military. Large cuts in the defense budget (27 percent between 1990 and 2000), significant personnel reductions (33 percent of the active component over the same period), and an ambitious social agenda (integrating gays into the military and allowing women to join the combat arms) placed civilian and military leaders in an openly adversarial relationship. A greatly accelerated operational tempo, as the armed forces were deployed to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and other global trouble spots, only worsened the strain.

Clinton's tense relationship with the military hampered his ability to make good on a number of campaign promises. After criticizing the first Bush administration for not doing enough to end the bloodshed in the Bosnian civil war, Clinton promised a more assertive U.S. policy of humanitarian intervention. In response, Powell (then chairman of the JCS) published an opinion piece in The New York Times and an essay in Foreign Affairs arguing against such a policy and on behalf of more restrictive criteria for the use of force, which became known as the Powell Doctrine. The military's reservations about intervening on the ground in Bosnia played an important role in limiting U.S. military options to air strikes in August 1995.

Another of Clinton's early initiatives was to end the Pentagon's policy of excluding homosexuals from the military. This had also been an important campaign plank, one to which he was reportedly deeply committed on civil liberties grounds. When he tried to implement it, however, Clinton ran into a firestorm of military and congressional opposition. He had to back down and accept a face-saving compromise—"don't ask, don't tell"—which most analysts do not regard as a real change in policy.

The poor civil-military relations that plagued the early years of the Clinton administration continued to affect it right up to the end of Clinton's second term. By the spring of 1999, it was apparent that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic would cease his ethnic cleansing in Kosovo only in response to military force. Clinton and his civilian advisers, such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, advocated the use of limited air strikes and the threat of ground operations. The JCS, however, pushed for a more extensive air campaign while resisting any threat to use ground forces. Within days of the start of the war, a torrent of leaks sprang from the Pentagon about how the president had intervened in Kosovo against the better advice of the military. The JCS subsequently did as much to constrain the campaign in Kosovo as to facilitate it—to the point of dragging their feet on supplying certain forces to General Wesley Clark's NATO operation. While promising to provide Clark with everything he needed, the Pentagon delayed for weeks in sending him the Apache attack helicopters he had requested and then never allowed him to actually use them.

This military resistance to many of the Clinton administration's initiatives should not have been surprising. After all, the senior military leadership emerged from the Vietnam debacle believing that civilians could not be trusted with weighty decisions that affected both the military's internal organization and where and how the military was used. Powell boasted that he and his post-Vietnam military colleagues had "vowed that when [their] time came to call the shots, [they] would not quietly acquiesce in half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons."

Even after Powell's military retirement in 1993, the Powell Doctrine remained alive and well in the Pentagon. Powell's successor as chairman of the JCS, General Hugh Shelton, remarked to me in a 1999 interview, "I firmly believe in [former Secretary of Defense Caspar] Weinberger's doctrine, amplified by General Powell, and I think that we followed that" in the Kosovo operation. Echoing Powell, Shelton argued that military force should be the tool of last resort and proposed what he called "the Dover test" for committing U.S. forces to combat: "When bodies are brought back, will we still feel it is in U.S. interests?"


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."

This brought immediate friction with military leaders (and their allies on Capitol Hill), who had deep reservations about both the style of the new secretary of defense and the substance of his policies. Rumsfeld dismissed these concerns. "If that disturbs people and their sensitivities are such that it bothers them, I'm sorry," he told the Pentagon press corps. "But that's life, because this stuff we're doing is important. We're going to get it done well. We're going to get it done right. The Constitution calls for civilian control of this department. And I'm a civilian. And believe me, this place is accomplishing enormous things. We have done so much in the last two years. And it doesn't happen by standing around with your finger in your ear hoping everyone thinks that that's nice." Some military visionaries, such as Admiral William Owens and Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, hopped aboard the transformation bandwagon. But Rumsfeld did not trust even those in the uniformed services who seemed to support his revolution. Transformation, he believed, would take place only with considerable civilian prodding and guidance. By the fall of 2001, as a result, Rumsfeld's relations with the senior military and congressional leaderships could not have been much worse. Many observers predicted that he would be the first cabinet-level casualty of the Bush administration.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the early stages of the global war on terrorism in Afghanistan imposed a temporary truce between Rumsfeld and senior military leaders. But as the Bush administration made clear that it considered Iraq the next front—a view most military professionals did not share—this truce broke down. In the face of what they saw as military intransigence, Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz showed little compunction about meddling in such issues as the number of troops required and the phasing of their deployments for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The clearest display of civilian willingness to override the professional military on tactical and operational matters was Wolfowitz's cavalier dismissal of troop-requirement estimates by General Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff. In congressional testimony in February 2003, Wolfowitz dismissed Shinseki's assessment that the United States would need in excess of "several hundred thousand troops" for postwar stability operations as "wildly off the mark." Wolfowitz got his way.

When those "postwar" operations ran into trouble, finger-pointing and mutual recriminations between recently retired generals and civilian leaders in the Bush administration brought the persistent fault lines in U.S. civil-military relations to the fore. Lieutenant General Gregory Newbold, former JCS director of operations, wrote, in a searing piece in Time, that it was his "sincere view ... that the commitment of [U.S.] forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions—or bury the results." Newbold joined a raft of other recently retired generals—including General Anthony Zinni (former head of Central Command), Major General Paul Eaton (former head of the Iraqi training mission), Major General John Riggs (former head of the army's transformation task force), and Major Generals Charles Swannack and John Batiste (former division commanders in Iraq)—in calling for Rumsfeld's resignation. According to a Military Times poll, 42 percent of U.S. troops disapprove of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq.

In the fall of 2006, the White House and influential hawks outside of the administration finally conceded that the United States did not have the troop strength to secure contested areas in Iraq. But by then, senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq had come to believe that U.S. forces were part of the problem, rather than the solution, as the insurgency had morphed into an interconfessional civil war. So instead of asking for more troops, as they did in the run-up to the war, many senior commanders in Iraq began to argue that the United States needed to lower its profile and reduce its footprint. Less than 40 percent of troops supported an increase in force levels, the Military Times found. General John Abizaid, the current head of Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in November that he did "not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem" in Iraq. In response to prodding from Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Abizaid explained that he had "met with every division commander, General [George] Casey, the corps commander, General [Martin] Dempsey [head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq]. ... And I said, 'In your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?' And they all said no."

Abizaid and other senior U.S. commanders believed increasing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq would be counterproductive. As Abizaid explained on 60 Minutes, "There's always been this tension between what we could do and what the Iraqis do. If we want to do everything in Iraq we could do that, but that's not the way that Iraq is going to stabilize." In congressional testimony, he noted, "We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect ... [but] when you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the army and the Marine Corps." But despite such protests, the military leadership was once again overruled by civilians in Washington—leading to the "surge" taking place right now.


Why did civil-military relations become so frayed in the Bush administration? James Mann recounts in his book Rise of the Vulcans that key civilian figures on Bush's national security team believed that the Clinton administration had failed to "keep a tight rein" on the military. Rumsfeld famously thought of civilian control of the military as the secretary of defense's primary responsibility, and he, along with Wolfowitz and other top administration figures, came into office convinced that they would have to resort to more intrusive civilian involvement to overcome service parochialism and bureaucratic inertia. After 9/11, Rumsfeld and other civilian proponents of a war for regime change in Iraq realized that the key obstacle to launching such a war—and waging it with minimal forces, in line with Rumsfeld's vision of military transformation—would be the senior leadership of the U.S. Army. Instead of listening to the warnings of military professionals, they resolved to overcome both widespread military skepticism about the war and, in their view, the bureaucratic inertia dictating how the services thought about the size and the mix of forces necessary to accomplish the mission. The fact that Wolfowitz, rather than Shinseki, prevailed in the debate about the force size necessary for the Iraq war shows just how successful the Bush administration was in asserting civilian authority over the military.

In their determination to reassert civilian control, administration officials were even willing to immerse themselves in operational issues such as determining force sizes and scheduling deployments. As former Secretary of the Army Thomas White recalled, Rumsfeld wanted to "show everybody in the structure that he was in charge and that he was going to manage things perhaps in more detail than previous secretaries of defense, and he was going to involve himself in operational details." Such an intrusive form of civilian oversight was bound to exacerbate friction with the military.

In his seminal treatise on civil-military relations, The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington proposed a system he called "objective control" to balance military expertise with overall civilian political supremacy. Huntington recommended that civilian leaders cede substantial autonomy to military professionals in the tactical and operational realms in return for complete and unquestioning military subordination to civilian control of politics and grand strategy. Although not always reflected in practice, this system has shaped thinking about how civilians ought to exercise their oversight of the U.S. military for 50 years. When followed, it has generally been conducive to good civil-military relations as well as to sound policy decisions.

The Bush administration embraced a fundamentally different approach to civilian control. Administration officials worried that without aggressive and relentless civilian questioning of military policies and decisions at every level, they would not be able to accomplish their objective of radically transforming the military and using it in a completely different way. Former Defense Policy Board member Eliot Cohen—recently named by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as counselor for the State Department—provided the intellectual rationale for this more intrusive regime. His book Supreme Command was read widely by senior members of the Bush national security team, reportedly even landing on the president's bedside table in Crawford, Texas.

Cohen's thesis was that civilian intervention at not only the strategic but also the tactical and operational levels was essential for military success. In order to overcome military resistance or incompetence, civilian leaders needed to be willing to "probe" deeply into military matters through an "unequal dialogue" with their professional military subordinates. Commenting in May 2003 on the Bush administration's performance, Cohen noted approvingly that "it appears that Rumsfeld is a very active secretary of defense, rather along the lines essential for a good civil-military dialogue: pushing, probing, querying. But not, I think, dictating in detail what the military should do. [On Iraq,] the Bush administration was engaged in what was a very intensive dialogue with senior military leadership, and I think that was right." As late as April of 2006, Cohen still thought that "one could say much to defend Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld against the recent attacks of half a dozen retired generals" who criticized his (and his deputies') handling of the Iraq war.

Unfortunately, things did not go as planned, and, in retrospect, it would have been far better for the United States if Bush had read Huntington's The Soldier and the State rather than Cohen's Supreme Command over his 2002 summer vacation. Given the parlous situation in Iraq today—the direct result of willful disregard for military advice—Bush's legacy in civil-military relations is likely to be precisely the opposite of what his team expected: the discrediting of the whole notion of civilian control of the military.


Defense Secretary Gates now faces a doubly difficult situation: little real progress has been made in transforming the U.S. military, and it is now embroiled in a conflict that not even he is optimistic about. Worse, he has to address these problems in a climate of distinct frostiness between civilians in the Bush administration and senior military leaders. Former Secretary of the Army White, summarizing the Bush and Rumsfeld legacy, noted, "By definition, [secretaries of defense] are civilians. Some of them might have had experiences in their younger years in the military, but their job, among other things, is to take the wise advice offered them by the military and think that over and give it some credence and then make a decision. The question is, have we lost the balance of that? I think they went too far." Gates' key challenge, therefore, is to reestablish that civil-military balance.

To be sure, Gates cannot and should not abdicate his responsibility to exercise civilian control of the military. In a democratic political system, decisions about war and peace should be made not by soldiers but by voters through their elected leaders. At the same time, however, Gates should encourage, rather than stifle, candid advice from the senior military leadership, even if it does not support administration policy. The military has a right and a duty to be heard. After all, soldiers are the experts in fighting wars—and it is their lives that are ultimately on the line. If senior officers feel that their advice is being ignored or that they are being asked to carry out immoral orders, they should resign. Indeed, had Shinseki or Newbold resigned in the run-up to the Iraq war, he would have sent a powerful message about the military's reservations about the war—one far more effective than protests after the fact. Threats of resignations among the Joint Chiefs may be influencing the Bush administration's Iran policy (including derailing plans to use nuclear weapons against hardened Iranian nuclear installations). Barring such extremely serious reservations, after senior military officers have had their say, they should salute and obey.

Ironically, General David Petraeus, the recently appointed commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, has in the past written of the failure of the senior military leadership to talk straight about the Vietnam War and its impact on subsequent U.S. civil-military relations. Petraeus is himself now in a position to advise both the administration and the new Democratic-controlled Congress. In his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus promised that he would give his "best professional military advice, and if people don't like it, then they can find someone else to give better professional military advice." Hopefully, he will speak candidly—and Gates will listen.

The proper balance would give civilian leaders authority over political decisions—such was whether the United States should stay in Iraq or use force against Iran—and the military wide leeway in making the operational and tactical decisions about how to complete a mission. The line between the two realms is not always perfectly clear, and sometimes military considerations affect political decisions, and vice versa. But the alternative—civilians meddling in matters of military expertise—is almost as bad as the military involving itself in politics. Whenever the civil-military balance is off-kilter in either direction, the country suffers as a result.

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  • Michael C. Desch holds the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at Texas A&M's George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is the author of Civilian Control of the Military and the forthcoming Democracy Triumphant?
  • More By Michael C. Desch