Obama’s Civil-Military Relations

Interesting piece by Rosa Brooks about the tensions between Obama’s national security staff and the senior officers of the US military.  While I see many of the points raised by the retired and not so retired officers Brooks speaks with, I have to raise a red card and say, wait a minute.

There is this belief that the military is a super-hierarchical organization that follows orders and enforces compliance down the chain of command.  This is more than just a little bit exaggerated.  Here are some examples from the Afghanistan mission that suggest otherwise:

  • Obama’s 2009 decision to surge was aimed at limited population centric counter-insurgency, which meant focusing the effort and the surge where the Afghans lived.  While there is much I disagree with in Rajiv Chandrasekaran‘s Little America, it is clear that the US military did not concur with Obama on this and sent their troops where they felt like.  Specifically, the Marines surged into Helmand and not Kandahar.
    • The line in the book is that it was because the Canadians didn’t want help in Kandahar which is just simply bullshit.  I cannot say it any other way–Harper by 2009 was eager to drop the responsibility for Kandahar and the 2008 Manley Panel made extension of the mission contingent on getting more help. If this meant losing command of Kandahar, the Canadians would have been fine with that.

  • The Marines sent to Afghanistan as part of the surge refused to be part of the ISAF chain.  Not only did this mean carving out a special Regional Command (SW) for just Helmand, but apparently they followed orders coming from the Marines in the US and not the folks at the top of the ISAF chain of command.  This un-did much of the work that had been done to bring some unity of command to the effort.
  • In a briefing by a Canadian exec officer, it became clear that when the Canadians had to deal with two US battalions under their command, things got confusing because the two battalions had different views and different behavior even though they were part of the same army.

My basic point is this: the military is a whole lot less unitary and obedient than claimed.  I am not saying that Obama should distrust the military, but any civilian leader needs to take their advice with giant grains of salt, just like any advice they get from any agency.  That McChrystal was asking for 80,000 troops definitely seemed to outsiders to be an effort to get 40,000.  The military frequently gives three options, which games the decision process towards the middle option.  Those guys are not stupid.

Anyhow, the Brooks piece is interesting and instructive, but we need to
keep in mind that both sides of the civil-military relationship
mis-understand the other.  The military does not have a monopoly of
insight here.  The US military needs to remember that they were led
poorly in this past decade by their own officers–Franks, Myers, Pace.

Is there a crisis in US civil-military relations?  Not sure.  I was sure when Rumsfeld was SecDef, but not so sure now.  Well, the sequester is a crisis of civil-military relations as the budget cuts have no strategy or plan.  Of course, if the Obama folks had a real plan for cutting the military’s budgets, that would create heaps of stories about civ-mil crisis as well, but at least that would be a crisis worth having.

by Steve Saideman

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