What qualities should we look for in our political leaders in a time of war? The standard answer these days is that they must be able to set precise objectives for the military to meet and then resist any inclination to meddle as the military meets them. They must also sustain popular support and international understanding without revising war aims or interfering in the conduct of operations, for the only thing worse than mission creep is micromanagement.

It is no surprise to find that military organizations, at least, take this position. The supposed spinelessness and ineptitude of politicians is often one of the few things about which military officers can agree. Coping with a resolute and wily enemy is difficult enough without having to deal with pesky and often amateurish civilians on one's own side, especially now that modern communications have made it possible for politicians to keep in touch with soldiers on the battlefield. Vietnam is usually cited as the prime example of what happens when these rules are disobeyed. In that war, civilians, it is claimed, imposed intrusive restraints on military operations in the name of dubious theories of controlled escalation, and the result was a debacle.

So accepted has this new conventional wisdom become, however, that now even politicians themselves are intimidated by it. Thus President George H.W. Bush, writing after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, noted his determination to give Colin Powell, the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "the freedom of action to do the job once the political decision had been made. I would avoid micromanaging the military." The reason? Bush "did not want to repeat the problems of the Vietnam War (or numerous wars throughout history), where the political leadership meddled with military operations."

The ill-fated interventions in Beirut in 1983-84 and in Somalia a decade later are also often held up as object lessons, with politicians blamed in both cases for becoming too ambitious and carelessly shifting objectives mid-mission, causing the operating environment to change from benign to hostile and casualties to be taken without any strategic gain. It was after Beirut that then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger issued his famous guidelines restricting future U.S. military operations to cases involving vital national interests, clearly defined objectives, and the advance support of the American people. After Somalia, clear "exit strategies" joined the list of desiderata.

In his important new book, Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen describes all this as the "normal" theory of civil-military relations: the idea that civilian control must be exercised firmly within the political sphere but barely at all within the military sphere. Cohen challenges that theory, however, by arguing that such a model bears scant relationship to what is actually required for success in war.

Cohen has strong things to say about the recent cases that have helped forge the current conventional wisdom. But to make his point he ranges further back in time, assessing the performance of four civilian leaders of democracies who guided their countries to victory in major wars, even after facing serious early setbacks. The first two of his examples, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, are well known; less so are Georges Clemenceau, France's leader for the concluding stage of World War I, and David Ben Gurion, Israel's leader during its wars of independence. Cohen's accounts of their wartime experiences are marked by good writing and good sense, and are worth reading on their own terms, regardless of any general lessons they might teach. The book's larger significance, however, lies in its successful attempt to draw such lessons, which show why prevailing views of the subject are misguided.


The core of Cohen's argument is straightforward and convincing. War is a ruthless and cruel business, not for the squeamish. Successful wartime leaders combine an unfaltering strategic vision with tactical flexibility and understand that wars have to be fought with a view beyond the next battle to the peace that will follow. These leaders communicate their vision not only to the public and their allies, but also to their generals—and if the latter cannot or will not find an appropriate military route to the goal, the leaders replace them with others who can and will.

Lincoln's rapid turnover in generals reflected his search for those who could overcome caution and take the war to the Confederacy, as well as his intolerance of those who followed their own preferences for a compromise peace. Clemenceau did not attempt to set precise objectives for his generals, a futile endeavor as the military situation became increasingly fluid, but he made sure that he understood the issues at the heart of their debates, and that his own views on the peace negotiations prevailed. Ben Gurion, meanwhile, worked hard to preserve his authority by reshaping the Israeli army into a disciplined and unified force. He noted the views of his military experts but felt that being "knowledgeable in technique" was not enough, and considered an "open mind and a common sense ... essential" for wise judgment.

Of the four, however, it is Churchill who stands out for Cohen as the true exemplar of the wartime leader. This is hardly an original view, but it has gone out of fashion in recent years, in part as a reaction to the development of a right-wing Churchill cult, but mostly as a consequence of revisionist scholarship that stresses his chronic depression, bullying behavior, and occasionally appalling strategic judgments. The United Kingdom was spared the full consequences of Churchill's folly, in this view, only by a combination of the resistance of the chiefs of staff and the luck in having, in Hitler, an opponent whose own misjudgments were even worse.

Cohen has little time for these critics, marking them down as unable to appreciate what Churchill's leadership really meant and too ready to discount the value of his ability to inspire and take charge. Certainly the great man often got things wrong. But with so much uncertainty and confusion, that was inevitable. The real question, Cohen notes, is whether Churchill got the most important things right more often than those around him, and here the evidence supports the quality of the prime minister's vision. Churchill did give his generals a torrid time, but his purpose was not to harangue them into submission or take over their responsibilities. Rather, it was to prod them into actions that might carry higher risks but also more chance of victory. Given the current debates on casualty aversion, it is noteworthy that none of Cohen's four cases ever made low casualties the highest priority. Churchill saw his role as countering the military's tendency to stick with an established line rather than confront awkward facts. "The whole habit of mind of a military staff is based on subordination of opinion," he observed; challenging received opinions might put the military under pressure, but that was just part of the nature of war, which was "a business of terrible pressures."

The moral of Cohen's story for a wartime leader is to pick your generals wisely, treat none as indispensable, and immerse yourself in the details of their trade. Learn about new technologies and logistical problems, follow debates on tactics, read intelligence reports, and reflect on past military experience. The point is not to second-guess your generals or to plan campaigns yourself, but to be able to engage them in dialogue, keep them on their toes, and deny them opportunities to blind you with science or avoid oversight by arrogantly asserting a superior professionalism. And then there are some decisions, Cohen reminds us—often involving your own side and not the enemy's—that are so difficult that only a politician can make them. No purely military analysis could have led Ben Gurion to order the attack on the arms ship Altalena, for example, because his reason for doing so was to deny the Irgun the ability to wage war autonomously from the main Israel Defense Forces. And although the British military understood the need to destroy the French fleet at Oran after France's surrender to Germany in 1940, only a politician such as Churchill could have given such a fateful order.

From Cohen's perspective, then, a civilian vow of noninterference in military affairs is tantamount to a dereliction of duty. War management is political through and through, not only in setting objectives but also in handling allies, isolating enemies, tapping national resources, and setting conditions for peace. It is a political responsibility to assess the burdens a society can accept and the harm it can legitimately impose on others, and where necessary, to lead a people up to these limits or away from them. And even when it comes to the conduct of operations, situations change and generals and admirals often disagree among themselves. A single, constant military consensus is the exception rather than the rule, and the reasons for preferring one course to another are often at least as political as they are technocratic.

Cohen has chosen to focus on heroic war leaders who meddled to great effect. He does not, unfortunately, discuss for the sake of comparison civilian leaders who meddled disastrously, or note the fine line between success and failure. In his new history of the Six-Day War, for example, Michael Oren gives high marks to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol for putting off the first Israeli strike until the international conditions were right—but at the time, this tactic appeared to his general staff as dangerous dithering that might allow the Arabs to seize the initiative. Had Eshkol got the timing wrong he would have left office under an even greater cloud than did his successor, Golda Meir, who assessed Arab intentions and capabilities reasonably but wrongly in 1973.

The true lesson of Cohen's analysis, therefore, is not that good political leaders always meddle to good effect and militaries should appreciate their decisive contributions. Rather, the point is that war's fundamentally political character requires meddling even though its quality and impact cannot be guaranteed. As useful as professional wisdom may be, it can never answer the most important questions or supply a reliable shortcut to success.


Until recently, the legitimacy of civilian input into military strategy would have seemed so obvious that few would have felt the need to make the case for it at any length. One would be hard put to find many instances in history, after all, when political leaders did no more than set war aims and then stand aside while the military got on with the job. An important question raised by Cohen's book, then, is why the idea that this is what should happen has taken hold in the United States over the past few decades.

The answer begins in Korea. In 1950, President Harry Truman followed his military's advice and allowed U.S. forces to cross the 38th parallel and proceed to the Yalu River—at which point they were chased all the way back again by large numbers of Chinese troops. Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur wanted to rectify the situation by taking measures that might have led to a wider war. Unwilling to run such risks or brook such insubordination, Truman sacked him, taking considerable political heat in the process.

Still, the military's irritation with the restraints involved in limited war lingered. Not liking the assignment they were given, the generals' response became to ask for a different one. This gave them a ready-made excuse if they were overruled and things went awry: they could always point out that their advice had not been followed and might conceivably have prevented disaster. The problem lay dormant during Dwight Eisenhower's two terms, when the president had the personal authority to outrank his generals and had few occasions to worry about the conduct of actual operations. But it returned with a vengeance during John F. Kennedy's presidency, when civil-military relations became truly dreadful.

Kennedy's secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, was determined to replace the Pentagon's institutionalized wheeling and dealing with his version of rational decision-making, something that infuriated officers who suddenly found their most cherished programs being challenged by intense young professors. In return, the military chiefs provided advice that was usually misjudged, contradictory, and followed their own foreign policy rather than the president's. The chiefs' strategic objectives appeared to be to glorify their own services and deflect blame if things went wrong. Their proposed operations reflected a crude model of the Cold War and a cavalier attitude toward nuclear exchanges, and thus the civilians often felt that they had little choice but to substitute their own plans.

During the Cuban missile crisis, for example, the first offerings from the Joint Chiefs of Staff set as the U.S. objective the liberation of Cuba, even as the president set down the more restricted goal of removing offensive weapons from the island. When asked what the Soviet reaction might be to their preferred option of massive air strikes against the island, the brass answered, "Soviet reaction unknown." And they were still pressing for offensive action when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev conceded.

Kennedy later remarked that the first advice he would give to his successor was "to watch the generals" and not think that "just because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn." In picking the sympathetic General Maxwell Taylor to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in his constant probing of military advice, and in his readiness to impose his own strategic vision, Kennedy followed the course Cohen recommends.

Then came Vietnam. The real source of the disaster there was the unwillingness of both the politicians and the generals to confront honestly the nature of the conflict in which the United States had become involved and devise a viable strategy for waging it. The problem, in other words, was the war's macromanagement, not its micromanagement. Yet somehow the notion that the military got it more right in Vietnam than the civilians did took hold. The public lost confidence in the politicians rather than the generals, and the politicians even lost confidence in themselves.

This sorry state of affairs has since been reinforced by the fact that few senior policymakers have spent time in uniform, and fewer still have faced combat. Many of the current generation of political leaders, in fact, went out of their way to avoid combat in Southeast Asia, for reasons of both principle and self-preservation, and as a result are now unproven in their own eyes and in those of their senior commanders. This leaves them at a moral disadvantage when it comes to deciding how others must fight and possibly die.


Cohen does a good job in undercutting the historical and theoretical claims of the supposedly "normal" condition of civil-military relations, demonstrating that the most successful war leaders have interfered regularly and ruthlessly. Whether his advice can be followed easily today, however, is unclear. His heroes were all engaged in titanic struggles for survival, with defeat always a possibility. The stakes were total and so was the war effort. But for the United States today, overwhelmingly superior to all other military powers, all wars are now limited, and thus leaders do not have quite as strong an incentive as did Cohen's quartet to make sure the job is done right.

Civilians have abdicated responsibility for strategic management for so long, moreover, that reclaiming it now will be difficult. The military wants the American armed forces to be used for regular wars alone, against opponents who will allow themselves to be beaten in decisive set-piece battles. The Persian Gulf War turned out well enough for it to be taken as a vindication of this approach, and of the supposed virtues of management by professionals to boot. Yet Cohen demonstrates that it was precisely the lack of political guidance at the end of that war—the willingness to go along with General Colin Powell's desire for a quick termination and the failure to provide careful instructions to General Norman Schwarzkopf during cease-fire negotiations with the Iraqis—that helped bequeath the problem of Saddam Hussein to future administrations.

The inadequacy of the "normal" model, moreover, was painfully evident during the Kosovo war. The terms set by the politicians at the start of the war in March 1999 became patently irrelevant after a few days of fighting, yet it proved enormously difficult to change the mandated strategy of modest air strikes with no land campaign. There was micromanagement aplenty but, as revealed by the memoirs of NATO's supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark, it came largely from the top brass back in Washington who consistently failed to back him. Many of the arguments, meanwhile, turned on the political judgments of military men, such as when British General Michael Jackson famously refused to "start World War III" by implementing Clark's orders to stop the Russians from using the Pristina airport—a dispute that hinged on different views of future relations with Moscow.

Recent efforts in Afghanistan confirm that America's opponents, in any case, rely increasingly on irregular warfare, in which every act is informed far more by politics than by conventional military considerations. But the American military still recoils from getting involved in such conflicts and derides the worth of constabulary duties and nation building. It will thus take significant pressure from the civilian leadership to make the armed forces accept and rise to the new challenge. Such wars, furthermore, call for even more civilian control than the conventional variety. In Somalia, Cohen notes, "far from abusing the military by micromanaging it, the Clinton administration abused it by failing to take the war seriously and inquire into means, methods, and techniques."

As the Bush administration moves into the second year of its "war on terror," therefore, it may come to find the arguments for strong and engaged civilian oversight of that effort increasingly compelling. On subjects ranging from the use of local proxies to planning for regime change in Iraq to defense policy reform, the choices of its own armed services may well appear questionable and quarrelsome. Accepting and acting on such feelings will be difficult, however, since, after years of being told that military affairs are not really their business, many senior politicians now balk at asking tough questions or challenging military judgments even as they set ambitious goals. But Cohen's logic remains sound, and it would be a shame if it took a calamity, resulting from a combination of military misjudgment and civilian passivity, before it gets a hearing.

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