Thursday, August 19, 2010

Filling the Void and Re-balancing Civ-Mil Relations

Bernard Finel has a very good post on civil-military relations - a topic he's written very often on. His main points are concern over the politicization of generals driving policy, that blame doesn't really matter, that presidents can fire generals but doing so is tricky, and that presidents often use the uniforms to see wars. I have to say that I find Bernard's arguments compelling and on the mark.

Sure, generals are often over-political and too often drive policy and therefore there is an imbalance in what we should consider "normal" civ-mil relations. And he's right that everyone is to blame: the generals should know better and the politicians should have tighter reins. But I think he's leaving one point out: the nature of military leadership. U.S. military doctrine demands that leaders act based on their best interpretation of their commander's intent. If that intent is nebulous enough, subordinate leaders have wide flexibility of action. And that's where we've come to in Afghanistan.

Our Afghan strategy, if you could call it such, is horribly vague to the point of uselessness, which I see has a failure in leadership at the highest levels here in DC. Any general, with 30-plus years of leadership experience, will naturally fill that void with how he best interprets his commander's intent. In this case it seems to simply means: win in Afghanistan. So I think that is what Generals McChrystal and Petraeus were and are attempting to do. I don't see this as a power grab by the generals and I don't necessarily see the President as trying to use them to sell the war. Nor do I see it as a crisis - yet. But the civilians aren't providing the leadership they should and the generals are filling that void as their nature dictates they should. The only solution to this particular imbalance, in my mind, is not to fire generals, but instead create a viable strategy and policy and provide the generals the leadership they need and deserve.

UPDATE: Adam Elkus, via Twitter (@Simlaughter): "To some degree I think the scope of contemporary doctrine often reflects this strategic uncertainty" - This is quite likely. And if he's right, I think the probability of a civ-mil disaster is looming.


  1. I think you're bang on point here.

  2. Ditto, with one caveat. I don't think this addresses the gripes that Finel has with McChrystal at IISS.

  3. I think Finel's piece, while containing some valuable points, is heavily warped by his disagreement with the COIN approach in Afghanistan. I think your post, Gunslinger, is much more on the money, and I'd take it a step further.

    Most senior civilian officials graduated from universities at least a decade or two ago. They have used whatever paradigms of conflict analysis they learned in school, but generally not modified them much since then. I've heard quite a few describe how time constraints, intellectual/personal limitations, or a combination thereof have prevented them and their colleagues from updating the basic frameworks of analysis they use to conceptualize conflict dynamics.

    As a result, I think many (though by no means all) senior civilian officials don't have a strong grasp on the nature of the problems that confront them. They're still working from an entirely state-centric playbook, and mistakenly map the assumptions associated with state actors in the international system onto non-state actors (even though those assumptions may not even be true for state actors anymore). Rationalist and essentialist paradigms that contribute to gross oversimplification continue to hold sway, and persist in part because of a studied disdain for 'getting into the weeds' on strategic problems.

    That creates disconnects with those who conduct a fine-grained analysis as part of a more methodical approach to developing strategic options. Which isn't to suggest the military always gets it right and civilians always get it wrong. Just that there are some institutional cultural factors here that are contributing to the vacuum in strategic leadership that you so eloquently point out.

    UK operations in Sierra Leone in 2000/2001 provide some interesting historical examples as well. There GOCs were to varying degrees out front of their political masters, having realized from first-hand examination of the problem that the half-way measures prescribed in Whitehall were not viable options on the ground.

  4. MK,

    I think that's a plausible explanation for why so many people are not sufficiently capable of doing their jobs, but I think that's kind of a stretch to explain the civ-mil issues.

    Occam's razor to the rescue.

    The vacuum in strategic leadership stems from the fact that the electorate is not too bright and selling a coherent strategy to them will be difficult to do. It would require first developing a coherent strategy, which would involve some very unpopular choices, and then selling the strategy to the public, angering many people with those unpopular choices and expending lots of political capital.

    With competing political priorities other than Afghanistan on the President's table, he's chosen to not expend that capital. He has either (a) avoided making the tough decisions, leaving military leaders to fill the gap; or (b) made the decisions, but opted to make those decisions appear as though they were made by the military, whose judgment is less prone to public scorn. If it's (a) then shame on him for avoiding the issues - an abdication of leadership. If it's (b) then shame on him for straining the civ-mil relationship in order to avoid a difficult task - weak leadership.

  5. Schmedlap -- I think you're right on the money here, and more broadly in your dispute with Bernard over the subject of the president's complicity in this so-called "crisis." It's far too easy to say that the generals are running wild, but to what end? Bernard repeatedly insists that the political leadership doesn't have the knowledge base or level of understanding necessary to hold military leaders to account, but I think that's a cop out. You can delegate authority but not responsibility, etc etc.

    Anyway, the point is what I said up front: I think you're dead right on this.


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