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


Mackubin Thomas Owens

But as recent events have shown, Kohn was prescient in his more pessimistic World Affairs essay, where he predicted that a new administration was likely to do something clumsy, “provoking even more distrust simply in the process of establishing its own authority.”

Obama, perhaps inadvertently, sowed the seeds of the current civil-military discord with his campaign rhetoric: He used Afghanistan as a club to beat the Republicans in general, and John McCain in particular, over the head about Iraq. In Obama’s formulation, Afghanistan became the “good war” and “the central front on terror,” from which we had been distracted by our misadventure in Iraq.

In keeping with his promise to reinvigorate the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, President Obama announced in March a “comprehensive new strategy . . . to reverse the Taliban’s gains and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government,” pledging to properly resource this “war of necessity.” The new operational strategy called for a counterinsurgency approach focusing (as did the surge strategy in Iraq) on the security of the population and rejecting the “counterterrorism” approach that NATO had followed during the Bush years, one that concentrated on using special-operations forces and air strikes launched from unmanned aircraft to hunt down and kill al-Qaeda terrorists.

In the early summer, Obama abruptly fired the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, and replaced him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a known counterinsurgency specialist. He presumably did so because General McChrystal had been Gen. David Petraeus’s right-hand man in Iraq when a counterinsurgency strategy was successfully implemented.

When General McChrystal took command of NATO forces in June, he initiated an assessment of the forces required to execute what he had been led to believe was the president’s preferred strategy. His confidential study was completed in August and sent to the Pentagon. At about the same time, President Obama delivered a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in which he once again spoke favorably of a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

During this time period, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen told Congress that more troops would be needed, and experts suggested that the number of additional soldiers and Marines necessary to execute the new strategy was 30,000 to 40,000. Yet despite having received the assessment, the president did nothing. Obama had apparently begun to rethink his hard line in Afghanistan out of concern that his political base did not support any troop increase.

The perception that the president’s actions on Afghanistan were motivated by political factors rather than strategic ones was reinforced by several clumsy missteps, including the naked attempt during the McChrystal review by General Jones, the national security adviser, to intimidate military commanders in Afghanistan into reducing their troop requests to a politically acceptable level, and a White House directive to the Pentagon not to forward a request for more troops. The most troubling of these was a report in the Wall Street Journal that the White House ordered General McChrystal not to testify before Congress. This was a serious mistake on the administration’s part, contributing to the perception that it is trying to muzzle the military.

News reports indicate that officers on General McChrystal’s staff and elsewhere throughout the uniformed military establishment were frustrated by Obama’s failure to make a decision about how to proceed in Afghanistan and what they perceived as attempts to muzzle the general by cutting off his legitimate access to Congress. They wondered why, after declaring the conflict there a “war of necessity,” the president had not provided the necessary means to fight it properly. And having selected General McChrystal to turn things around in Afghanistan, they wondered why President Obama had not supported him the way that George Bush supported General Petraeus in Iraq.

But while the response of certain members of the uniformed military illustrates the truth of Kohn’s prediction that a clumsy step by the administration would sow distrust on the part of the soldiers, thereby increasing civil-military tensions, the steps taken by some also served to undermine healthy civil-military relations. First someone leaked General McChrystal’s strategic assessment to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Then an article published by McClatchy quoted anonymous officers as effectively saying that General McChrystal would resign if the president did not give him what he needed to implement McChrystal’s preferred strategy.

Such actions on the part of the uniformed military are symptoms of a serious civil-military-relations problem: the widespread belief among military officers that they should be advocates of particular policies rather than simply serve in their traditional advisory role.

The cornerstone of U.S. civil-military relations is simple and straightforward: The uniformed military is expected to provide its best advice to civil authorities, who alone are responsible for policy. While reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of military action, the decision to take such action lies with civilian authorities, not with a military commander.

Of course, uniformed officers have an obligation to stand up to civilian leaders if they think a policy is flawed. They must convey their concerns to civilian policymakers forcefully and truthfully. If they believe the door is closed to them at the Pentagon or the White House, they also have access to Congress. But the American tradition of civil-military relations requires that they not engage in public debate over matters of foreign and defense policy. Moreover, once a policy decision is made, soldiers are obligated to carry it out to the best of their ability, whether their advice is heeded or not.

– Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.