Memo to the President: How to Transform Civil-Military Relations

"To make civil-military relations an asset rather than a headache, the next president will have to take steps early to get everyone working from the right playbook."

Relations among political leaders, civilian agencies and the military blow hot and cold. At this point, things are rather chilly.

For more effective coordination between civilians and soldiers, the next occupant of the Oval Office will need to instill a better leadership style, review the command at the Pentagon, and renew the ethical foundation of government service.

Managing the mix of civil-military affairs always invites controversy. The Constitution blends authority in way to prevent one from eclipsing the other, delivering both a delicate balance and constant friction. As chief executive officer of the federal government and commander-in-chief of the military, the president’s goal is always to maximize the competing virtues of both. The Constitution provides for a strong civilian executive who can wield military power as a unified instrument. On the other hand, the Founders didn't want an armed force that would be a mere tool of its political master. Hence, for example, members of the armed forces swear their allegiance to the Constitution rather than to the commander-in-chief.

The constitutional framework leaves plenty of space for throwing sharp elbows.

The history of American civil-military relations is replete with ups and downs—from the uneasy triangle between Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton, to Truman’s firing of MacArthur, to Lyndon Johnson picking targets for the military in Vietnam.

For most of America's history, the strains appeared most prominent under the pressure of wartime service. That changed during the Cold War, when a large standing military became a fixture of the American life. Since the 1950s, concern over civilian control of the military has reappeared periodically like the recurring irritant of psoriasis.

Enter Samuel Huntington. In 1957, he published The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil Military Relations. Huntington neatly describes how civil-military activities work. The military operates in a separate but subordinate sphere, he concluded. Political leaders do the politics and provide the overarching guidance of what is to be done. The military sticks to its area of competence—the application of military power. If America were a car—the civilian leaders would steer, the military would be the wheels. Each would stick to its own function.

The military loved Huntington. His framework gave them clear, precise guidance. In the wake of the Vietnam debacle, Huntington's influence became even more dominant. To many in uniform, that great failure was caused by politicians who not only failed to fulfill their responsibilities—mobilizing the nation for war and building public and political support for the effort—but also committed other blunders by intruding into military affairs, exceeding their competence, and micro-managing the conduct of conflicts.

Yet, even after the bitter experience of Vietnam, civil-military relations continue to see sharp disconnects. Carter had scant use for advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Under Reagan and the first Bush, respect for the military surged, as did the influence of the Pentagon. During the Clinton years, critics complained that the military overstepped its bounds, wielding undue influence. Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, promised to re-assert civilian control. Subsequently, President Obama has been criticized for marginalizing military input into the most serious decisions.

Huntington's influence has never been fully eclipsed—but it has also never worked very well. That’s because Huntington was dead wrong. What he described in The Soldier and the State was not how civil-military relations really work. Further, it is not even how they should work. Wars can't be won with military commanders camped out on Mars and civilian leaders living in a condo on Venus.

Washington has been reading the wrong manual.

A far better guide for how to think about squaring the circle between the White House, the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom appeared in 2003, with Eliot Cohen's book, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime. Cohen's book not only details Huntington's mistakes, it describes a model for healthy civil-military relations even under the most difficult of occasions.

Cohen argues that, rather than envisioning civil-military operations as separate spheres, they should be recognized as domains that overlap. Relations work best when both civil military leaders are adept at operating in the gray area in between. Soldiers shouldn't play politics, but they should be competent in the political affairs that shape policy. Political leaders shouldn't try to act like lance corporals, but they must understand enough about the affairs of the armed forces to recognize when military instruments are being used in a suitable, feasible, and acceptable manner—and when they are not.