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Risa Brooks, Jim Golby, and Heidi Urben (“Crisis of Command,” May/June 2021) level serious charges against the U.S. military’s leadership, contending that its influence has grown to the point where “presidents worry about military opposition to their policies and must reckon with an institution that selectively implements executive guidance.” “Unelected military leaders,” they argue, “limit or engineer civilians’ options so that generals can run wars as they see fit.” And “even if elected officials still get the final say, they may have little practical control if generals dictate all the options or slow their implementation—as they often do now.” The authors’ grim assessment of the problems leads them to an equally grim conclusion: “Without robust civilian oversight of the military, the United States will not remain a democracy or a global power for long.”
If the military were acting the way Brooks, Golby, and Urben describe, then it would indeed be egregiously violating cherished norms of U.S. civil-military relations. Fortunately for the republic, however, their allegations are not substantiated.
For one thing, the authors airbrush out of the picture the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. Although they describe President Barack Obama as being boxed in by generals during the debate over Afghanistan, the positions taken by the military were supported by the Defense Department’s top civilians. Robert Gates, Obama’s secretary of defense, and Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, were deeply involved in developing Washington’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and staunchly supported it both publicly and in interagency debates. In this, they were at odds with some of Obama’s advisers, such as Tom Donilon, his national security adviser, and Joe Biden, his vice president. In other words, the disagreement was the product of a Defense Department–White House schism, not a civil-military one.
Brooks, Golby, and Urben also claim that “military leaders often preempt the advice and analysis of civilian staff by sending their proposals straight to the secretary of defense, bypassing the byzantine clearance process that non-uniformed staffers must navigate.” The secretary of defense, however, already has the tools to prevent that process from affecting policy. He could, for example, simply refuse to review military input without civilian advice. Although the secretary should avoid making decisions without seeking the civilian counsel of his own staff, that failure falls on the secretary, not the military. The best way to address the civil-military imbalance is to strengthen the civilians, not weaken the military.
Separately, most of the examples the authors use to demonstrate failing civilian control—including the role of Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in creating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and senior military officials’ pushback against President Donald Trump’s orders to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Syria—are really the policymaking process working as designed. The interagency system rightly gives the military expansive influence. Although the civilian-military relationship is an unequal one by design, with civilians alone possessing the authority to decide policies, the military has the right and the responsibility to contribute its expertise as policies are shaped. This is particularly true as the armed services grow increasingly separate from the general public. In 1980, nearly 20 percent of Americans had served in the military. By 2018, that number had dropped to about seven percent. As specialists, military leaders have important contributions to make in areas of policy in which many civilians lack expertise, such as what makes for success in war and how to foster cohesion within units.
The best way to address the civil-military imbalance is to strengthen the civilians, not weaken the military.
Military influence in the policymaking process, moreover, is predicated on a strong belief that the armed forces will salute and carry out their orders once civilian leaders make a decision. There is little evidence that the military is currently shirking this role. Although the authors make the serious charge that “Obama’s generals signaled that they would accept nothing less than an aggressive counterinsurgency in Afghanistan,” those generals did accept less under both Obama and Trump. And under President Biden, the military has followed the administration’s orders to begin withdrawing all U.S. troops from the country.
Brooks, Golby, and Urben also downplay other sources of civilian oversight beyond the president and the executive branch. Congress, too, has that same authority. What observers sometimes term “insubordination” is often the legislative branch forcing the military to disclose information that the executive would rather avoid being held accountable for. When Obama and Trump complained that the generals were boxing them in on Afghanistan by roping in sympathetic legislators to make their case, it wasn’t a story of the military refusing to implement the president’s orders; it was a story of the president not wanting to pay a political price for a decision that the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders considered important.
Members of Congress will always use their powers of oversight to make the military’s views public. In February 2003, for instance, congressional leaders forced Eric Shinseki, the army chief of staff, to concede that Washington would need several hundred thousand troops to stabilize post-invasion Iraq—far more than Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had approved. “Congress too rarely demands that the military bow to civilian authority, instead weighing in selectively and for partisan reasons,” Brooks, Golby, and Urben write. But it is unreasonable to expect legislators to act otherwise. Politicians will use military support for their purposes as long as it proves politically expedient.
Finally, the authors are curiously silent on one of the most significant episodes in U.S. civil-military relations: the incident that took place in Lafayette Square during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. On June 1, Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared alongside Trump for a photo op in military fatigues, immediately after police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear peaceful protesters from a public space. The incident seemed to be of a piece with the Trump administration’s attempt to pit the military against protesters, with helicopters harassing marchers in Washington, D.C., and National Guard soldiers occupying the centers of major American cities. Not surprisingly, in a February poll, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute found that public support for the military fell by 14 percentage points from 2018 to 2021.
The only practical constraint on the politicization of the U.S. military is its own professionalism.
Less noticeable to the public but crucially important for civil-military relations, however, was Milley’s powerful apology—which effectively delineated the boundaries between civilian and military authority. “I should not have been there,” he said flatly. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
In the end, as Milley’s behavior made clear, the only practical constraint on the politicization of the U.S. military is its own professionalism. Although there is some worrying degradation in this area, it is unreasonable to expect the strident politicization of American society not to affect the military that is drawn from it. It is a tribute to the strength of the U.S. military’s professionalism that partisan politicization in the military remains as limited as it is.
The type of civil-military relationship that Brooks, Golby, and Urben advocate—complete subordination of the armed forces to civilian direction during policy formation and execution—would eliminate any meaningful check on the judgment of civilian officials. The latitude enjoyed by the U.S. military doesn’t prevent elected leaders from determining and achieving their policy preferences. It simply requires those leaders to pay the political price of public scrutiny. That accountability should be welcomed, not shunned.
KORI SCHAKE is Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She served on the National Security Council and in the U.S. State Department in the George W. Bush administration.
Peter D. Feaver
The question of whether civilian control over the U.S. military is in crisis is an especially hoary debate in security studies. The political scientist Samuel Huntington’s classic book on the topic, The Soldier and the State, now nearly 65 years old, spoke of a post–World War II “crisis of American civil-military relations.” After the Vietnam War, leaders in Washington debated whether to blame the debacle on too much or too little civilian control. Analysts made different yet related arguments in the aftermath of the United States’ swift victory in the first Gulf War, when the military’s status and influence stood in stark contrast to the supposed dysfunction of the civilian branches of government. It is in this rich tradition that Risa Brooks, Jim Golby, and Heidi Urben have made their case that the current relationship between military officials and civilian leaders is “broken.”
It is tempting to ask how anything could be in a permanent state of crisis, especially when that crisis has never culminated in a military coup. Brooks, Golby, and Urben answer that the decline in civilian control of the military, which they trace back to 1986, when the Goldwater-Nichols Act created an empowered joint staff and chairman, has reached its apex in the present moment. Civilian control, they argue, is even more precarious today, and only dramatic steps can restore it to health.
U.S. civil-military relations, however, are better understood as a stormy but durable marriage, one in which the spouses endlessly bicker and vie for advantage but never destroy each other or the union that binds them together. In theory, divorce is possible, but in practice, all the parties are too committed to the common good to reach a genuine breaking point. Rather than being in a state of crisis, these relations are in constant friction—sometimes severe, sometimes less so.
Viewed this way, the United States is indeed approaching a temporary high point in civil-military friction. This cycle’s apogee was January 6, 2021, when the military had to ponder something it had never before seriously considered: the possibility that violent insurrectionists taking over the U.S. Capitol would thwart the peaceful transfer of power. Although the system struggled to find its footing for a few fateful minutes as Defense Department leaders wrestled with how to respond to appeals for help from the Capitol, the relationship never even came close to collapsing.
In hindsight, there are several strong points in the U.S. system that helped keep civilian control intact during the Trump years. A team of senior military leaders, particularly the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs, were committed to upholding civilian authority. They kept their collective eye fixed squarely on their oath to the Constitution and eschewed the Trumpian personality cult that a polarized political environment attempted to press on them. A cadre of respected senior military retirees spoke up to defend norms and help the profession police its ranks. Finally, over the last decade, the professional military educational system has renewed its commitment to teaching and reteaching the basics of civil-military relations.
In fact, across three decades of post–Cold War history, examples abound of the system working properly—even when military leaders disagreed with civilian directives. The institution that resisted President Bill Clinton’s efforts to change how gay men and women served in uniform eventually implemented Barack Obama’s repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The military then adhered to Donald Trump’s reversal of some of the same orders, and it is currently implementing Joe Biden’s reversal of the reversal. The military also worked with civilian leaders to manage Obama’s deep budget cuts, as well as the even more disruptive limits imposed by the 2013 sequestration. Military leaders welcomed the fiscal relief of the Trump years, but they are now preparing for a very different environment under Biden. None of this, however, is new. In the decades after World War II, civilians and military officers wrestled with similar thorny issues.
That said, leaders on both sides of the civil-military relationship must continually shore up the foundations of their partnership. Here, Brooks, Golby, and Urben’s recommendations can serve as an especially reliable guide. Their list—including strengthening civilian officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, publicly denouncing retired officers who violate professional norms, and updating regulations and best practices regarding service members’ use of social media—will be vital for getting civil-military relations back on track.
U.S. civil-military relations are best understood as a stormy but durable marriage.
This is only a start, however. Trump’s tenure revealed just how much the U.S. system depends on respect for norms and taboos. The United States’ form of representative democracy gives extraordinary power to elected leaders, unelected political appointees, and career civilian officials. The United States has survived as a functioning republic not because these actors lack the power to destroy its constitutional order but because they generally choose not to test the outer limits of their authority. Nevertheless, when the people elect a president whose stock in trade involves flouting norms and mocking taboos, civil-military relations come under extraordinary strain. The best thing Americans can do in the near term to restore the health of civil-military relations is to inventory those norms and renew the commitment to upholding them. Specialists and generalists alike, both in government and elsewhere, need to review how the U.S. system of civilian control works and what it needs to function more effectively.
Americans should also be clear that civilian control is not synonymous with good policy. Although Brooks, Golby, and Urben avoid this conflation, there is a temptation among some scholars to broaden the definition of healthy civil-military relations to include optimal geopolitical outcomes. This is an understandable error. The purpose of the military is the security of the state, and if a system keeps producing policies that make the state less secure, can that system really be considered healthy?
Perhaps not, but Americans should not ask more of civilian control than it can deliver. Civilian control means that the elected agents of the voting public get to make the decisions, including which decisions they wish to make themselves and which they wish to delegate to others. It does not mean that those leaders will make wise decisions or even merely lucky ones. It is a mistake to claim, as is often done, that civil-military relations are on the rocks because the United States intervened in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. Each major decision in those wars involved fractious debate, but all were ultimately made by civilians. That includes the original decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, the choices around the post-invasion planning, the decision to surge troops in Iraq in 2007, the judgment to couple a temporary surge in Afghanistan in 2009 with an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal, the resolution to intervene in Libya in 2011, the decision to leave Iraq altogether in 2011, and Biden’s recent choice to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Leaders on both sides of the civil-military relationship must continually shore up the foundations of their partnership.
The Trump administration’s decision to delay the withdrawal from Afghanistan seems closest to a case of military preferences prevailing over the president’s. Yet even then, civilian control prevailed. If Trump had been truly determined to withdraw from Afghanistan, he could have done so, as he showed in his misguided abandonment of Washington’s Kurdish allies in Syria in 2018. Only in the final days of the Trump administration—with the president promoting bogus claims of electoral fraud while secretly directing a tiny cabal of loyalists to hastily impose poison-pill defense policies—did the system of civilian control truly begin to break down. But even then, Trump’s refusal to work through the formal chain of command allowed military leaders to slow roll his decisions. Although that response may have technically violated civilian control, it paradoxically shored up civilian authority in the long run.
Finally, leaders should direct more energy toward fixing the civilian side of the civil-military equation. Historically, analysts have focused primarily on the military’s voluntary subordination to elected officials. Leaders should, of course, continue to watch for any signs of trouble. The open letter published in May 2021 by a group of retired military leaders calling themselves “Flag Officers 4 America,” which questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, is an appalling example of the erosion of military ethics. Retired senior officers should call out such incidents and top active-duty leaders must remind the rank and file that defending the Constitution means not spreading falsehoods about legitimate constitutional processes. Senior military officers should also take the temperature of their subordinates, particularly in the middle and junior ranks, to ascertain whether the unprofessionalism on display among retired officers has seeped into the active force.
But the weakest component, the one most in need of strengthening, is civilian. Every element of the civilian pillar could be improved. Key steps include educating political appointees at the top of the interagency process, providing professional development to career civil servants, and increasing awareness within the legislative branch of the processes by which civilians at all levels exercise oversight of military policy. Perhaps most important of all, leaders must give due attention to citizens’ understanding of basic civics and the foundations necessary for healthy civil-military relations. Yes, the military should be reminded of its obligations and ultimate subordination. But in the long run, it is the civilian side of the relationship that will dictate the republic’s health.
PETER D. FEAVER is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University. In 1993–94 and 2005–7, he served on the U.S. National Security Council Staff.
Both Kori Schake and Peter Feaver provide helpful context for understanding the contentious debate about U.S. civil-military relations. We agree that, for now, there is no acute crisis. We are also sympathetic to Feaver’s claim that civil-military relations are often naturally fractious. Debate can be constructive, and too much agreement is not conducive to healthy military policy.
Even so, we remain convinced that there has been a quiet yet steady breakdown in civilian control of the armed forces over the past 30 years. These problems are more serious and far-reaching than Schake and Feaver describe. The erosion has been incremental and cumulative—a steady process of degradation rather than a single breaking point. It has largely flown under the radar, aided by a lack of public awareness, the military’s extraordinarily high approval ratings, and partisan polarization that discourages meaningful reform.
As both Schake and Feaver note to varying degrees, civilians have played a role in damaging the military’s nonpartisan ethic. The exploitation of military service and symbols by politicians, for instance, continues unabated. In the months since our article was published, there have in fact been new affronts to the military’s neutrality, with some politicians seeking to draw the military into the country’s culture wars. In July, Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, suggested that senior officers’ perspectives on U.S. racial politics should be a litmus test for their promotion to flag rank, saying that he “may start probing nominees” about their views. As long as American politics remain polarized, politicians on both sides of the aisle are unlikely to stop using the military for partisan gain.
Polarization and negative partisanship, moreover, are not confined to elected representatives. These traits are also evident among the American public. Survey research by one of us (Jim Golby) and Feaver has shown a troubling trend: that voters increasingly want the military to take their side in partisan debates. Such divisions mean that even when the military behaves in a nonpartisan fashion, just about any action it takes can be interpreted as partisan. Although we agree with Feaver that civil-military relations would benefit from a renewed focus on civic education, that will probably not be enough to address the problem. For the public to stop viewing the military as a partisan actor, politicians will need to stop treating it as one.
There are other opportunities to improve civilian control that policymakers can and should pursue. Here, we could not agree more with Feaver’s points. Political appointees would indeed benefit from additional education on civil-military issues, and the civilian civil service should have more opportunities for professional development. As Schake notes, one way to strengthen civilian control is “to strengthen the civilians.” But this does not require weakening the military, as she suggests we advocate. Instead, we argue for institutional parity: organizations such as the Office of the Secretary of Defense should be as strong and effective as the Joint Staff and the combatant commands, which have grown in size and influence in recent decades. Although civilian staffers in the Pentagon do not have independent authority to issue orders, effective civilian control today is impossible without their oversight.
There are also some hopeful signs that Congress is playing a more active role in its oversight responsibilities, as Schake highlights. In June, lawmakers voted to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force, the long-in-place resolutions that allowed, respectively, the first and second U.S. wars against Iraq. Lawmakers have also advanced legislation that would remove decisions about whether to prosecute sexual assault from the military chain of command. Bipartisan support for both measures is particularly encouraging, as it demonstrates that there are areas of common ground where Congress can reassert civilian control.
Reasserting civilian control also includes a role for the military—despite Schake’s claims that there is nothing amiss there. Surveys reveal that a good portion of officers consistently believe that they should have a right to autonomy over operational and tactical matters. When policymakers impose timelines or troop limits that clash with officers’ preferences, some officers view those directives with cynicism. These attitudes need to change. Senior officers owe civilian leaders candid advice about the military consequences of political decisions, but they cannot—and should not—dictate outcomes.
We remain convinced that there has been a quiet yet steady breakdown in civilian control of the armed forces.
Schake also finds no problems with the Pentagon’s current policymaking process, which often gives military leaders a bureaucratic advantage over their civilian counterparts. She notes that the secretary of defense has the prerogative to request advice from his civilian staff. But that the system does not automatically work that way is exactly our point. Unless it becomes common practice for civilian staff to scrutinize policy decisions, the military may too often get its way.
There has also been a well-documented deterioration in military officers’ belief in the importance of nonpartisanship. Although most officers adhere to the rules and avoid partisan debate, problems remain. The letter by retired flag officers that Feaver cites is a particularly egregious example—the result of the military turning a blind eye to 30 years of partisan endorsements by retired officers. Although no active-duty leaders signed the document, such distinctions may ultimately matter little: research shows that the public doesn’t often draw a distinction between active and retired members of the military.
Yes, there have been no acts of overt insubordination regarding a president’s decisions. By that measure, civilian control is indeed intact. But there have been efforts to shape those decisions through questionable means, despite Schake’s contention otherwise. Take the 2009 surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Schake is correct that civilian defense leaders sided with the military chiefs in favoring a fully resourced counterinsurgency, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But noting that some civilian officials agreed with the military or that President Barack Obama made the final decision misses our point. Even if some civilian officials agreed with the military’s recommendation, federal law demands that the military’s advice include more than a recommendation. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—typically with support from the Joint Chiefs and the combatant commanders—is required to prepare “military analysis, options, and plans” consistent with the president’s guidance. Public accounts of the deliberations over the 2009 troop surge indicate that military leaders slow rolled important aspects of Obama’s requests for discrete policy options, including a coherent counterterrorism proposal. Officers effectively kept some alternatives off the table by ensuring they were not developed promptly or fully. That is not a decision-making process operating as designed.
The fact also remains that military leaders did their best to increase the political costs Obama would pay for rejecting their advice, even though they may not have seen it that way at the time. According to the reporter Bob Woodward, General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command at the time, called a sympathetic Washington Post journalist the day after the paper published an opinion piece skeptical of the surge and suggested that the reporter write a rebuttal. General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, bluntly told an audience at a British think tank that he would not accept a solely counterterrorism-focused mission in Afghanistan. And a report drafted by McChrystal that called for a large troop commitment was leaked—a move that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates attributed to McChrystal’s office. As Feaver himself wrote at the time in Foreign Policy, “The leak makes it harder for President Obama to reject a McChrystal request for additional troops because the assessment so clearly argues for them.”
Here, Obama’s reflection on the matter in his memoir is worth repeating:
Looking back, I’m inclined to believe Gates when he said there was no coordinated plan by [Mike] Mullen [then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], Petraeus, or McChrystal to force my hand. I know that all three men were motivated by a sincere conviction in the rightness of their position, and that they considered it to be part of their code as military officers to provide their honest assessment in public testimony or press statements without regard to political consequences. . . . But I also think that the episode illustrated just how accustomed the military had become to getting whatever it wanted.
Although Schake may believe that the military should serve as a “meaningful check on the judgment of civilian officials,” we do not share that view. The institutional checks in the U.S. system of government should come from Congress, the courts, and the executive branch, not the uniformed military—no matter how seasoned, how professional, or how informed they might be.
In the end, the eternal question about civil-military relations—Is it a crisis, or isn’t it a crisis?—distracts from real debate, forcing people into defending one of two extremes at the expense of addressing a far more complex reality. Civilian control varies in degree—not in absolutes. Focusing only on coups or overt military insubordination is unproductive. It makes it harder for the public to see that there is a problem and push for reform through its elected representatives.
Like Schake and Feaver, we were encouraged that the military weathered the political turmoil of the era of President Donald Trump and withstood the test posed by the January 6 attack on the Capitol that he instigated. But the erosion of important civil-military norms long predated Trump, nor has it suddenly disappeared since he left the White House. The United States can do better, and Americans should demand as much—from society, from their elected leaders, and from the military.
America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security