Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military Relations

Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military Relations

Mini Teaser: The U.S. military is now more alienated from its civilian leadership than at any time in American history, and more vocal about it.

by Author(s): Richard H. Kohn

Goldwater-Nichols strengthened the Chairman by making him principal military adviser to the President and Secretary of Defense, but explicitly designated the chain of command from the President through the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander, leaving the Chairman out purposely and denying him command authority "over the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any of the armed forces." He is supposed to function as a link in communication between President, Secretary of Defense and field commander only if the President specifically so directs. The truth is that Powell tailored all of his actions in the Gulf War to fit the system of command and control he was then instituting in the Pentagon for the post-Cold War world: according to a senior officer involved, "to give the N|ational~ C|ommand~ A|uthorities~ no options...to control the discussion by presenting just one approach, which was the option of his choice."

Astoundingly, Powell later boasted about reversing the relationship between national goals and military means, turning the age-old Clausewitzian formula about war being an extension of policy on its head: "our |the Joint Chiefs'~ military advice was shaping political judgments from the very beginning....|W~e were able to constantly bring the political decisions back to what we could do militarily. And if there's one story that is going to be written out of Desert Storm and Just Cause and everything else we've done, it's how political objectives must be carefully matched to military objectives and military means and what is achievable."(9)

Even more troubling, General Powell took it upon himself to be the arbiter of American military intervention overseas, an unprecedented policy role for a senior military officer, and the most explicit intrusion into policy since MacArthur's conflict with Truman. It was Powell, as Senior Military Assistant, who oversaw the writing of Weinberger's 1984 speech outlining the six criteria for American intervention abroad.(10) According to Washington Post reporter Don Oberdorfer, Powell resisted intervention in Somalia for at least four months, but surprised the Bush administration by reversing himself, and within a month American soldiers were on the ground.(11) Powell's public statements on the subject in the last two years have been increasingly bold. Under his leadership, the uniformed military gained an enormous public voice on the subject of when, where, and in what circumstances American military power should be used. His opposition to intervention in Bosnia now approaches legend; perhaps more than any single individual he restrained first the Bush, and then the Clinton, administrations from action.

Many became uncomfortable at this military intrusion into foreign policy, particularly when General Powell published, at the height of the presidential campaign in 1992, a New York Times op-ed piece, warning explicitly against intervention in Bosnia.(12) Even more unfortunate was an article in Foreign Affairs in the Winter 1992-93 issue, the timing of which constituted a clear, public declaration of principles from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to an incoming president who ran and won on an exclusively domestic agenda, who possessed little foreign policy experience, and no credibility in military affairs. The uniformed head of the American armed forces defined the American role in the world, commented on American society, and asserted that "I share responsibility for America's security...with the president and commander in chief, with the secretary of defense and with the magnificent men and women--volunteers all--of America's armed forces." In this article, the General claimed that our nation is "obligated to lead" in the world, and then he repeated the Weinberger formula of conditions, processes, and methods under which American forces can be used to intervene. In its defense of past actions, a defeated administration's policies, and its strictures for the future, General Powell was offering his own views on foreign policy, in contravention to the tradition of American civil military relations since the beginning of the republic.(13)

Mutiny in the Ranks

THE VERY WORST breach of civilian control occurred just after Bill Clinton's election on the question of homosexuals serving openly in the armed forces. General Powell knew of President-elect Clinton's position. Powell had for a year taken very public stances in support of the existing policy on excluding homosexuals, in spite of the comparison with earlier discrimination against African-Americans and the heat he must have taken from civil rights advocates and allies in the African-American community. General Powell must have felt very strongly indeed on this subject, for he virtually defied the President-elect, never denying publicly the rumors in November-December 1992 that he might resign over the issue, doing nothing to scotch rumors that his fellow chiefs might do the same, doing nothing to discourage retired generals from lobbying on Capitol Hill to form an alliance against lifting the ban. General Powell and the Joint Chiefs then appeared to negotiate publicly with the President at a meeting in late January 1993--and privately through the Secretary of Defense, the press, and Congress--for the compromise finally forced on Bill Clinton last summer. On this issue, the military leadership took full advantage of a young, incoming president with extraordinarily weak authority in military affairs. Nothing did more to harm the launching of the Clinton administration than "gays in the military," for it announced to Washington and the world that the President could be rolled. If the one group pledged by law and tradition to obey could roll him, then everyone could--or at least could try.

Almost forgotten in this great public imbroglio that same January is the fact that General Powell also issued a watered-down roles and missions report to the Congress after a public call for study and change by Senator Sam Nunn. Under Goldwater-Nichols, the Chairman must periodically study the services (and report to Congress), and perhaps revise their relative roles and missions. These are enormously sensitive issues, for roles and missions mean money and forces. Apparently Powell was more willing to battle the new President over homosexuals and ignore the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on roles and missions, rather than confront the service chiefs, for he allowed them to delete the most most meaningful proposals for change. As a result, at a time of presidential transition when civilian authority was vulnerable, General Powell was "in the face" of the two most powerful civilians in military affairs.

The implications of this behavior at the beginning of the Clinton administration were enormous. Defiance at the top led to resistance all down the line, and, even more troubling, to the ridicule and contempt expressed openly about the President across the officer corps and throughout a military already reeling from reductions, talk of a pay cut, and the general uncertainties of the end of the Cold War. The problem was both dramatized and aggravated by incidents like those described at the beginning of this article. By the spring of 1993, personal observations and contacts by scholars of civil-military relations, backed up by a wide selection of press reports, indicated that the civil-military relationship between a president and the uniformed military had become the most sour in American history--no commander-in-chief ever so disliked or so reviled, or spoken of with such contempt and dislike by the professional military, as Bill Clinton.

In fairness to General Powell, it could be argued that in each case he acted with pure motives to get the best policy outcome he could, in the best interest of the country at the time and in the circumstances. After all, if there is a policy vacuum and the Congress must conclude a budget for the armed forces, should not the Chairman step in? If the President, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the National Security Adviser abrogated their responsibilities to make foreign and national security policy, should not the Chairman offer one? In an intervention like the Gulf, should not the Chairman mediate between the civilians and military, provide proper advice, prevent what he believes are misleading and dangerous plans from percolating up the chain of command, and otherwise act in a manner to secure proper, usable policy guidance from above and innovative, winning strategies from below? Should not the American people have the benefit of the views of senior military officers in policy debates so that the appropriate military action can be considered and the public debate informed? Should not the new administration be informed of military views on admitting homosexuals, the implications of such a step, and an acceptable outcome produced even if the process gets a bit messy and embarrassing?

If civilian control has eroded, are not civilians at least partly responsible? After all, it was Bill Clinton (or his staff) who put the homosexual issue on the table within 48 hours of the election victory. Our system of government frequently puts civilians into positions of great responsibility without proper preparation or experience. They stay a few years and move on. Twenty years ago, one scholar and veteran of the civil-military battles of McNamara's Pentagon wrote that "military men are anxious to receive policy guidance from their civilian 'masters,' at the same time they seek to protect their professional autonomy...." "The problem is not the overweening military," he concluded, "but the inadequate civilians, who, lacking the means, cannot even test their determination to exercise effective control. The danger... is not that the military may take over the country, but that the country is not able to preside over the military."(14)

Essay Types: Essay