Command Climate: U.S. Civil-Military Relations – Any Role for Congress?

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Civilian control of the Military has been a core value since the founding of the United States of America. This creates a healthy constitutional tension between the horizontal democracy of the government and the vertical structure of the military. The Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) recent Command Climate conference attempted to interrogate this dynamic called Civil-Military relations, looking at the military’s relationship with policy, politics, and the public. The panel members touched on a variety of intriguing issues, but we were able to tease out some of the general themes that emerged throughout the day.

Firstly, multiple panel members touched on the importance of communication and clarity of translation. Any strategy that requires geniuses to execute is a bad strategy, and the military must be able to fully and clearly explain their plans so that policymakers have sufficient information to make decisions regarding the use of force. However, the translation of the President’s policy into strategy can be difficult, as can the communication of the military realities of these strategies back to the executive branch. One example of this the panel cited was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. According to then-President Bush’s policy, a 10-year plan was the most realistic strategy, but a 3-year plan was more palatable. The resulting 3-year plan constituted bad military advice, and failed resulting in extreme financial losses and a war running 12 years past its original expectancy. The reality is that without Civil-Military cooperation, we make bad plans. In order to mitigate this dilemma, they proposed the creation of a community of civilian and military advisors, who would work together consistently to create an ideological climate in which there is sufficient transparency and understanding to make snap decisions easier to execute while lowering risks due to miscommunication. Although the promotion of better communication in pursuit of fully informed decision-making is admirable and ideal, it became clear from this conversation that in this context the President and his non-elected cabinet are the “civilians” in the equation. What was unclear from this conversation is the role of Congress and the general population in making decisions to use armed force.

Another aspect of decision-making that was discussed was the concept of “Best Military Advice”, a term that the panel deconstructed to expose the fallacies within this seemingly “rational” guidance. “Best Military Advice” is the idea that the military as a unit produces one plan of action that is superior and rational and therefore should be followed. However, this concept erases the debate that occurs within the military in order to produce strategies, and increased transparency regarding the planning process and intra-military debates would be extremely positive and informative for the public. Furthermore, all military officers have biases, making no strategy entirely neutral, so increased transparency could expose these biases and promote healthy criticism of military actions, increasing accountability to the civilian population. Military advice is given by a person and often wrong considering the unpredictable nature of war. Also, “Best Military Advice” as a term pits civilian leaders against military leaders by eroding frank discussions about risks. By deconstructing assumptions regarding the pure “rationality” of military strategies and the political policies that inform them, we can begin to look at the actual processes of making these decisions and demand increased transparency so that the public can be more involved in the conversation. Keynote speaker Admiral Michael Mullen, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, identified that the Military has been drifting away from the American people. According to him, America has not been involved in these most recent wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, and that the next decision to join a war must reside with the American people. Increased transparency could promote the nationalization of decision-making needed to inspire an honest debate regarding future uses of the military.

Another interesting topic that emerged was the militarization of non-military activities. The panel identified the migration of civilian activity into military channels as a result of funding. The military in the United States is not underfunded and has the capability to move funds in a way that many other institutions, including civilian agencies cannot. As a result, these institutions need to rely on the military during crises, and their tasks go to the military as well. As a result we are mobilizing an institution that in its current state is trained to exercise the use of force for situations that may not need direct military involvement. One such example includes the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which garnered an incredibly militarized response from both the governments of the countries with the largest outbreaks and the countries, including the U.S., who attempted to mitigate the crisis. In light of this process of militarization, one must question what steps we need to take to restructure our institutions so that we do not have to overly rely on the military for crises of diverse natures.

Overall Command Climate was an enlightening event regarding military perspectives on and suggested improvements for Civil-Military relations. It is clear that increased transparency and honest debate are necessary for improving the way in which we approach military strategy-making in the future. More ambiguous is how Congress and the civilian population as a whole, not just civilians working in government institutions or within the cabinet, can become more involved. Unfortunately, involvement of Congress does not appear to be of much concern to those who study civil – military relations. Perhaps it should be.

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