Civil-Military Relations and Partisanship

Many commenters on civil-military relations change their tune according to whose ox is gored.

Andrew Exum publishes this email from a “particularly careful student of civil-military relations”:

How many of the people who think we have a serious civil-military problem because the military is controlling Obama (or whatever word one wants to use) also a) complained when Shinseki spoke out about the Iraq war strategy, b) thought Rumsfeld was correct in general to ride roughshod over the generals in 2001-2003, and c) thought that the generals complaining about Bush’s Iraq strategy should have piped down and been quiet?

Ex retorts that “we should always be having a dynamic debate about these issues lest we grow complacent” but concedes that “it’s worth noting how partisan preferences shape when and how people choose to get their panties all up in a twist on this.”  In an update, he cites some inconsistent postings on the matter from Andrew Sullivan.

Fair enough.  But I would contend that the examples given by the civil-military relations student aren’t drawn with particular care.

a) Eric Shinseki was the Army Chief of Staff and was testifying under oath to the Congress, which is charged with overseeing and funding the armed forces under Article I of the Constitution.   Asked a direct question about how many forces he believed, in his professional opinion, were necessary to complete the mission in Iraq, he gave it.    Even though I was by that time a proponent of the war, it never occurred to me that Shinseki did anything other than his duty.

b) Donald Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense and had every right to “ride roughshod over the generals” who he correctly thought were fighting for institutional perquisites against his preferred vision for transforming the military.  He did it in a particularly demeaning manner which was counterproductive to his aims and insulting to men with decades of honorable service.  Bob Gates has demonstrated that its easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar, having managed much more severe cuts in programs desired by the Services through deft internal maneuvering.

c) For the most part, the generals in question were retired from active duty.  I wrote several posts at the time, both defending their legal right to do so and worrying about the impact on civil-military relations.   The problem was the perception that the generals were speaking for their former institutions rather than giving their personal opinions.  This was especially true for generals very recently departed from active service.

One of Ex’s commenters recommends Colonel Matthew Moten‘s essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “Out of Order: Strengthening the Political-Military Relationship.”  I read it on the plane last week and second the recommendation.  It is, alas, not yet available online for non-subscribers but should be released once the next issue hits the stands.  It addresses some of the issues above in detail.

Image Credit: Nino Jose Heredia, Gulf News

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I honestly don’t know how one can read the pre-releases from Obama’s War and come away with the impression that President Obama has been “rolled” by the generals.  But evidently people are.


    I guess you can’t reason somebody out of something they weren’t reasoned into in the first place.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Agree.  I do think the generals were putting on a ton of pressure to get their way, which is a different issue.

  3. We heard similar things during the Clinton years about military-civilian tension. as I recall.


  4. madawaskan says:

    The President has full control of his generals-unless he cares too deeply about fleeting public opinion-in that way if you mean the generals had Obama by his greatest weakness then maybe begin to see your argument.
    Still as I recall it-the pressure was used primarily to make him speed up his decision process and secondarily to hold him to his campaign promises and then his later promises as President to beef up troops in Afghanistan.
    Obama and Democrats had been dealing in the abstract and the ultimate reality based community-the military-was facing winter in Afghanistan.
    The force that has brought down so many great militaries over history.
    That isn’t a trivial concern-it was a looming and pressing reality.

  5. madawaskan says:

    A real deadline-not some term paper due date you can negotiate with *friendlies*.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    James Joyner says:

    Friday, September 24, 2010 at 15:00

    “Agree.  I do think the generals were putting on a ton of pressure to get their way, which is a different issue.”

    So what’s new Jim? There’s always been a strong nationalistic militarist bloc of public opinion and the military from the days of the civil war and probably earlier have tried to utilise it to pressure the civilian leadership. It happened in Germany before WW 1, notoriously in Britain during WW 1 (which is why Churchill was determined thare was going to be no repeat of that nonsense in WW 2) and of course notoriously when MacArthur tried to roll Truman (he’d never have tried it on with FDR) and when the military tried to roll Washington during the Vietnam years. There’s strident militarist clique in today’s GOP (who regularly pine for Petraeus as their candidate in ’12) so of course some generals think they can try it on with Obama and Gates. I doubt it will fly because the country is distinctly chastened by the consequences of Iraq where 70% of the country think it was a disaster and Afghanistan where a somewhat narrower majority can’t wait to leave.