The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Civ-Mil Relations in the 21st Century–Back to the Past

April 1, 2011

2011 has already energized much thought and scholarship about contentious politics, R2P, the efficacy of force, and, zombies. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (and the other countries in the region) are also bringing civil-military relations back into fashion.  When we speak of civ-mil relations, we can think of:

  • The most classic question: who guards the guardians (Janowitz, Huntington, Finer) ?  Will the army support the government and perhaps shoot at the citizens?  Will the army join the revolt? Or will it splinter?  How do governments coup-proof (Quinlivan)?
  • This developed into a second stream of research: how do stable democracies manage their militariesAvant, Feaver, Zegart and others have considered the problem of how civilian authorities deploy force, purchase equipment and develop doctrine when the folks with the guns have significant advantages in understanding the issues and the facts on the ground. 

The focus here is on the second–the balance of decision-making between civilians and uniformed personnel.  Peter Feaver was blasted yesterday by Tom Ricks, former Washington post military correspondent, author and blogger at, in reaction to Feaver’s new piece in International Security.  Feaver served on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council at the time of the surge, and he has written this piece to apply his scholarly  work to this experience and vice versa.  The article is essentially about who gets credit for the surge and a consideration of the big question in this area: who should make the big decisions?  The elected civilians or the uniformed experts?

‘The “professional supremacists” argue that the primary problem for civil-military relations in wartime is ensuring the military an adequate voice and keeping civilians from micromanaging and mismanaging matters. “Civilian supremacists,” in contrast, argue that the primary problem is ensuring that well-informed civilian strategic guidance is authoritatively directing key decisions, even when the military disagrees with that direction.’ (Feaver 89-90)

Feaver argues that the surge decision does not fall into either camp.  Ricks takes issue with Feaver for giving too much credit to Bush and his people and not enough to elements of the military (Generals Petreaus and Odierno).  This debate reanimates the question of how much civilian involvement is correct.

While my work of late (with David Auerswald) has been on the why–why do countries manage their military operations as they have in Afghanistan (revised version appearing in International Studies Quarterly in 2012)–the normative question of how much involvement is appropriate cannot be avoided.  I have always believed that war was too important to be left to the Generals.  Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means has many implications, including that politicians do not suspend their responsibilities when the fighting starts as the strategies and tactics of the battles have implications beyond the battlefield.  I was also influenced by Eliot Cohen’s book Supreme Command, which documented how Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion intervened significantly in military planning, making a huge difference in the success of their respective war efforts.

I received a fellowship that put me on the US Joint Staff’s Directorate of Strategic Planning and Policy (J-5)* on the Bosnia desk from September 2001 to August 2002, which provoked a crisis of confidence in my own views on these matters.  I worked on a daily basis with people directly under Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and found myself developing a great deal of contempt for the civilians that were imposing their will on the military.  Sure, part of this was identification with the uniformed folks around me, but most of it was watching a SecDef who was unwilling to listen to the advice of the military and being blind to the consequences.  He viewed the military as having been empowered by the Clinton Administration (indeed, the military folks expressed much nostalgia for that bygone era).  Long before the invasion of Iraq, I witnessed Rumsfeld’s efforts to ask questions until the respondent submitted to his will.  I was on the receiving end of the same snowflake (memo from Rumsfeld needing an immediate response) three times because the responses the first two times did not produce the desired answer (nor did the third).

After my year on the Joint Staff, I got to watch from afar Rumsfeld micromanage the invasion of Iraq into the failure of postwar planning.**  So, I began to feel as if war was too important to be left to the civilians.  My beliefs were also shaken by Cohen’s involvement in the Bush Administration as a cheerleader for the war and his role on the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee.  It seems like Cohen’s work was being applied too much–that the civilians thought they had all of the answers and even chose leading military officials according to how, ahem, supple they were (that would be Generals Myers and Pace, Bush’s Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).

So, where do I stand now?  Surely, war is still too important to be left to the Generals.  But it is now much clearer that the battles are too complicated to be left to the folks back home.  The advent of technology means that leaders in their offices can monitor the efforts of corporals and privates on the ground, but they should not.  Yes, there is now the strategic private or corporal: a low level grunt who can cause the entire mission to collapse because of a single bad decision (think Canada in Somalia in 1993 more so than Gitmo or Abu Ghraib).  But the tactical President or Prime Minister is even more likely to cause problems since they lack the expertise and attention to command every single unit in the field.  Rumsfeld cutting the numbers of military police units being sent to Iraq in 2003 stands out here.  Civilians should be choosing the strategies–COIN or not; invading Africa in 1942 or not; surging or not; but how these are carried out on the ground should remain in the military’s hands.

More importantly, we need to recognize that there is no perfect formula because the civilians are imperfect and the military leaders are imperfect. It is easy to pick on Rumsfeld, who was probably the worst Secretary of Defense in American history.  Churchill, who is often seen as the epitome of the wartime leader, thought that the Balkans were the soft underbelly of Europe and had a pretty mixed track record overall.  There is a tendency to conflate strong with smart (the strong state debate in the 1980s)–that strong civilian leadership will make the right choices.

The funny thing about hanging out with the military folks for a year is that I developed an appreciation not just that individuals matter, but that trust and relationships matter when it comes to war.  The key is not so much having a perfect division of labor between President, SecDef, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and operational commanders, but that they have good relationships with each other.  The decision-makers need listen to the advice, even especially if they do not want to hear it.  They do not have to follow it, but they ought to take it seriously.  The military needs to give its unvarnished views so that the President and SecDef can make informed decisions.

This may all seem obvious, but the debate between Feaver and Ricks suggests otherwise.  The quest for the perfect mix of professional and civilian supremacism is a chimera.  Feaver is probably wrong in giving heaps of credit to the Bush Administration, but he is right that better policy is likely to emerge when the focus is on the policy and less on one side or the other dominating the process.

* J-5 was run for much of my time by General George Casey, who later became a major player in Iraq and in the Feaver article.
** Feaver, in a footnote, argues that Rummy paid attention to the invasion and not the post-war planning, and correlates an attentive Rummy with success and an inattentive one with failure.  There are so many things wrong with this assertion that I had to address it here.

website | + posts

Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.