Advisers, Not Advocates
The military's proper role in U.S. policymaking.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

Americans have been aware of significant civil-military tensions since the early years of the Clinton administration. Although such tensions are not unprecedented, they have produced concerns about the health of civil-military relations.

Most of the most highly publicized disputes between the uniformed military and the Clinton administration reflected cultural tensions between the military as an institution and liberal civilian society, mostly having to do with women in combat and open homosexuals in the military. But there were also attempts by the uniformed military to undermine the Clinton administration’s foreign-policy initiatives (for example, in the Balkans).

Some observers chalked these tensions up to the perceived anti-military character of the Clinton administration, but the tensions did not disappear with the election and reelection of George W. Bush. Indeed, civil-military relations became more strained as a result of clashes between the uniformed services and Bush’s first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, over Rumsfeld’s efforts to “transform” the military from a Cold War structure to a leaner, rapid-response force, and also over his planning and conduct of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Instances of military officers’ undercutting Rumsfeld and his polices in pursuit of their own goals — what Peter Feaver has called “shirking” (e.g., anti-Rumsfeld leaks to the press), “foot-dragging,” and “slow-rolling” — continued apace. In addition, public criticism by military officers of civilian leaders reached a fever pitch, highlighted by the so-called “revolt of the generals” in the spring of 2006, which saw a number of retired Army and Marine generals publicly and harshly criticize Rumsfeld.

Indeed, the Bush administration was beset by the most serious crisis in civil-military relations since the Civil War. According to accounts in both Bob Woodward’s The War Within and Tom Ricks’s The Gamble, the highest levels of the uniformed military not only opposed the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq and insisted that their advice be followed, they also subsequently worked to undermine the president even after the surge decision had been made.

With Rumsfeld’s departure and the success of the surge, some expressed hope that harmony might return to U.S. civil-military relations. But while Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates, did much to improve the civil-military climate, subsequent events — such as Gates’s firing of two service secretaries and a service chief and his forcing the retirement of a combatant commander, as well as the current tension between the Obama administration and the uniformed military over Afghanistan — make it clear that the state of civil-military relations remains turbulent.

Writing before the 2008 election, Richard Kohn, a prolific writer on civil-military relations, penned a piece titled “Coming Soon: A Crisis in Civil-Military Relations?” for the Winter 2008 issue of World Affairs. He predicted that “the president elected in November will inherit a stinking mess, one that contains the seeds of a civil-military conflict as dangerous as the crisis that nearly sank the Clinton team in 1993. Whether the new president is a Republican or Democrat makes only a marginal difference. The issues in military affairs confronting the next administration are so complex and so intractable that conflict is all but inevitable.”

He continued: “[T]he new administration, like its predecessors, will wonder to what extent it can exercise civilian ‘control.’ If the historical pattern holds, the administration will do something clumsy or overreact, provoking even more distrust simply in the process of establishing its own authority.”

Subsequently, during a panel discussion on the topic of civil-military relations at the Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth in March 2009, Kohn was a bit more optimistic, arguing that “the Obama administration has taken dramatic steps to avoid a fight with the military.” He noted that First Lady Michelle Obama’s first official visit outside Washington, D.C., was to Fort Bragg, N.C. He also highlighted Obama’s retention of two holdovers from the Bush administration: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, who was nominated for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president kept Gates and Mullen, Kohn argued, to show respect for the senior military leadership and to ensure continuity during difficult wartime conditions.

Kohn also noted President Obama’s cleverness in seeking out other former senior military leaders for posts in his administration, including retired Marine Corps general James Jones (as national security adviser), retired Army general Eric Shinseki (as secretary of veterans’ affairs), and retired Navy admiral Dennis Blair (as director of national intelligence). In selecting these individuals for his administration, the president “arranged it so that he is free to ignore the advice of his uniformed chiefs and field commanders because he will have cover of General Jones by his side, and other senior military in his administration,” Kohn said. “At the same time,” Obama demonstrated “that he has been reaching out to the military and wants to have military judgment.”