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September 28, 2010

Our Ongoing Civil-Military Relations Crisis
Posted by Michael Cohen

Today's gobsmacking quote from the new Woodward book.

"Mr. President," Tien said, "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell General [Stanley A.] McChrystal [the U.S. commander in Afghanistan], 'I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I've chosen to do something else,' you're going to probably have to replace him. You can't tell him, 'Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.' And then where does that stop?"

The colonel did not have to elaborate. His implication was that not only McChrystal but the entire military high command might go in an unprecedented toppling - Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. Perhaps no president could weather that, especially a 48-year-old with four years in the U.S. Senate and 10 months as commander in chief.

Excuse me while I count all the ways in which Colonel Tien's statement is reflective of the ongoing civ-mil crisis in this country.

A) "Mr. President," Tien said, "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here." 

Hmm. The very idea that the President of the United States could ever be in a situation where he "defies" the military chain of command on a decision related to national security decision-making pretty much turns the 230-year tradition of civilian control of the military on its head. What I have trouble seeing here is how Col. Tien could possibly say this to the President of the United States.

B) "Because if you tell General [Stanley A.] McChrystal [the U.S. commander in Afghanistan], 'I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I've chosen to do something else,' you're going to probably have to replace him. You can't tell him, 'Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.'" 

Putting aside for a second that the President is under no obligation whatsoever to accept the military judgment of any of his military commander .  .. the President can actually quite easily tell McChrystal to do it his way. You know why? He's the f***ing President of the United States.

If McChrystal didn't want to be overruled by POTUS perhaps he should have offered him a series of recommendations for what to do in Afghanistan - not COIN or nothing - and perhaps he should have made damn sure his assessment didn't leak to the press, which of course helped to limit Obama's options. Or perhaps McChrystal and Petraeus should have stopped incessantly leaking to the press about why only escalation AND COIN could save the day in Afghanistan.

It takes some real chutzpah to spend the summer and fall of 2009 publicly and privately trying to force the President's hand on escalation and then argue that because of this inappropriate pressure Obama has no choice but to go along with it or risk a rift with the same people that are surreptitiously trying to box him in. 

C) "The colonel did not have to elaborate. His implication was that not only McChrystal but the entire military high command might go in an unprecedented toppling - Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command."

Can we be very clear what this implicit threat represents - political blackmail by the military on the commander-in-chief. Go along with our strategy or we're all going to resign and embarrass the hell out of you. How does that NOT represent a crisis in civil-military relations? You have generals; even civilians like Gates acting as though they get a veto over the President's decision-making on national security.

What is perhaps most troubling about this is Colonel Tien, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, General McChrystal have all risen through the military ranks. Surely they've had the principle of civilian control of the military drilled in their heads throughout their military career. And yet here you have four individuals basically acting in a way that violates the most basic tenets of civil-military relations in this country.

That's a crisis folks.

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Not going to get into the whole thing right now (and probably not until I finish the book and come back from vacation in like two weeks), but...

What is perhaps most troubling about this is Colonel Tien, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen, General McChrystal have all risen through the military ranks. Surely they've had the principle of civilian control of the military drilled in their head throughout their military career. And yet here you have four individuals basically acting in a way that violates the most basic tenets of civil-military relations in this country.

This suggests that "the principle of civilian control of the military" really IS "drilled in [the] head" of career officers, which is just really not all that true. And the big reason for this is that there's a very, very, almost vanishingly small number of military officers who actually have professional contact with the president, or with any of the civilians for whom they work (which is to say the president and the SECDEF, and to some extent Congress and the various representatives of the president's political and national security staffs).

When guys get to be four-stars and they're told "you work for the president now," it's not the same as the relationships they've had with uniformed superiors in the past. And the big reason for this is that all of a sudden, they're not working for a guy who knows more about their job than they do.

I don't tell you this to say that defiance of the president's wishes or manipulation of his political position is appropriate or welcome, only to explain that we don't live in a world where guys spend 35 years learning how to "appropriately" or "properly" behave in their working relationship with the President of the United States.

It is indeed a crisis, and it's fed not just by the military but by elected civilians, like John McCain, who openly value the views of the military over those of the Commander in Chief.

Colonel Tien was obviously wrong, but he must have sensed that he could get away with being insubordinate. Officers, like dogs, can tell by eye contact who is the alpha. And he did get away with it, didn't he. Ironically Obama ended up replacing McChrystal after all.

Remember, Obama has already summoned McChrystal to Air Force One in Copenhagen for a chewing-out after McChrystal (and Petraeus) had made speeches in London, England with their views on the war, and McChrystal had dissed Biden's views. (McChrystal showed up for that presidential session in his battle fatigues, by the way, and not in a proper uniform which would have been his Class A's. Insubordinate.)

Officers who rise through the ranks do not get the principle of civilian control of the military drilled into their heads throughout their military career. What they learn is that they (the officers) are the proper guardians of the flame and putting up with civilians, to include lying to them and using other subterfuges, is part of the game.

Some history. "After the April 1961 failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion early in his administration, President John Kennedy, who felt the Joint Chiefs of Staff had failed to provide him with satisfactory military advice, appointed retired General Maxwell Taylor to head a task force to investigate the failure of the invasion.

"Shortly after the investigation concluded, the Kennedys' warm feelings for Taylor and the President's lack of confidence in the Joint Chiefs of Staff led John Kennedy to recall Taylor to active duty and install him in the newly created post of military representative to the president. His close personal relationship with the President and White House access effectively made Taylor the President's primary military adviser, cutting out the Joint Chiefs. On October 1, 1962, Kennedy ended this uncomfortable arrangement by appointing Taylor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position in which he served until 1964." --wiki

that sober me up.....

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This is crisis of leadership, and it starts at the top. POTUS has failed to lead which is a direct result of a lack of experience in organizational management. He failed to recognized that, he relied upon Political people like Rham rather than Jones to get the best from the military and hold them accountable. The Mil leadership is also at fault, if the Gen/Adm can fully support the orders given by POTUS they should do the honorable thing, be honest, tell him why and then resign.

Excellent analysis.

The pressures building within the military are in part because they know about the peak oil crisis and its threat to the military, whether the civilian government knows it or not.

When guys get to be four-stars and they're told "you work for the president now," it's not the same as the relationships they've had with uniformed superiors in the past.

I hadn't seen this. This is the best elucidation of the situation I've seen - the Tien quote jumped out at me as well, & I Tweeted it in the spot (http://twitter.com/MikeDrewWhat/status/25756756795).

@Don Bacon - The whole point is that there should be no doubt in any military man's mind when they're about to walk into a room with POTUS who will be alpha. That is the crux on the principle under discussion. Because if civilian control depends on first-year presidents wining staring contests over military question with actively-serving decorated combat veterans with stars on their shoulders and breastplates down their wastes, you just threw your civilian control out the window, my friend. That's the ballgame. Next it'll be, "Well, clearly the lesson is that we *need* to elect presidents who have some military standing in their background (as opposed to merely finding it an additive qualification) that will allow them to stand up to the generals." Before long, one of all the new president-elects' activities will be get outfitted for his/her Inauguration uni. I jest. But the point is, the military knows who the big dog is, or else it's insubordination and undiscipline. It's just that simple. It dismays me to here Gulliver say tht the indoctrination (literally in this case) is not that way in practice. Not that I expect it to be perfectly upheld everywhere in the ranks, but the example we're looking to here verges on gross breach at the highest level. I'm just a lowly citizen, but in my view that's a bad-bad & we probably want to get it looked and corrected.

Great post, Michael.

Michael, your post deserves wide notice. In some sense are we seeing the results of the hyperbolic patriotism, religiosity and general self-righteousness that we've heard during the Bush years were permitted to be systematically promoted in the ranks of the Army and Air Force? I feel an odd symmetry between your analysis and a story this week that an Air Force Academy cadet has come forward to complain that the pressure to become an evangelical Christian, coming from faculty and fellow students, has become unbearable, and that the Academy, according to other sources, had basically become an evangelical fort. If our professional military has come to believe too many presidents' praise that it is the vessel of Americanism, they may well ask, why shouldn't we tell the commander in chief what to do?

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