Syria and Civil-Military Relations

My latest for The Atlantic, "It Isn't the Military's Place to Weigh In on the Syria Debate," has posted.


My latest for The Atlantic, “It Isn’t the Military’s Place to Weigh In on the Syria Debate,” has posted.

Many reports in recent weeks have expressed frustration from serving officers, most of whom “agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because military personnel are reluctant to criticize policymakers while military campaigns are being planned.”

In fact, they ought be more than reluctant. They simply should not do it.

For the record, I tend to share much of the skepticism about the now-on-hold operation and frustration with the public diplomacy that got us here. For that matter, I sympathize with members of the armed services, many of whom have been deployed multiple times to fight in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in being hostile to the idea of yet another engagement — even one that would ostensibly be limited to a few airstrikes. But while service members are human beings and will naturally have private views on proposed military action, they have a professional duty to refrain from public commentary on decisions that are the purview of Congress and their commander-in-chief.

It’s a fundamental tenet of our system that civilian leaders make policy and that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines carry it out faithfully and vigorously. For members of the uniformed military, and in particular its commissioned officers, to publicly question the president on such matters is a violation of professional military ethics and is dangerous to civilian-military relations.

Much more at the link but that’s the core argument.

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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. C. Clavin says:

    You have a valid point about the Military.
    I think you are wrong to criticize what boils down to the aesthetics of the diplomatic effort…without spelling out what exactly you would have done differently at each point in the process. It’s easy to award or take away style points…much harder to put yourself into the middle of something and discuss substance. Results matter…process…not so much. We got Syria’s chemical weapons, and didn’t get dragged into a quagmire.
    I said all along I didn’t think Obama was stupid enough to dragged into that mess. Turns out I was right. Assuming you agree with the results…then I fail to see what the problem is.
    In additon it appears to me, and to others, that the Syria agreement could be the outline for an agreement with Iran.
    To your main point: there a lot of folks, in addition to the military, who shouldn’t be weighing in on the Syria debate…everyone who was wrong about Iraq…and has been too stubborn or too stupid to revise their position.

  2. Mark Ivey says:

    Obama played a Kissinger card, political respect..

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with respect to serving officers. The question is a bit more open when talking about retired officers. In their case I think the matter of tone is more important than content.

  4. Mike says:

    Besides it is Scales; prone to exaggeration, a consultant and contractor

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: While retired officers are theoretically bound by the UCMJ and its prohibitions of criticizing the president while receiving a pension, they are for all practical purposes mere citizens and therefore able to speak their mind. The reason I include Bob Scales in the discussion is that he purports to speak for serving senior officers. And, as a general rule, retired generals—especially recently retired generals—are often taken as speaking for the active force.

    @C. Clavin: I’ve discussed that in multiple previous articles and comment threads. My only purpose in noting my agreement with much of the criticism under discussion is to make it clear that I’m agreeing with the fact of serving officers weighing in on public policy, not the content of their commentary.

  6. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I think you are wrong to criticize what boils down to the aesthetics of the diplomatic effort…without spelling out what exactly you would have done differently at each point in the process.

    Exactly. OTB, as of late, has been little more than “OBAMA, UR DOIN IT WRONG” without ever going out on the limb of what constitutes doing it right.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Gold Star for Robot Boy: Doug and I have been quite clear on this: No military intervention. No red lines. No bold proclamations that “Assad must go” without a plan to make that happen. Quiet diplomacy in the background to do all that we can to prevent the spread of the conflict, mitigate the refugee crisis, and help friends in the region deal with the spillover.

  8. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @James Joyner:
    “No red lines” strikes me as 100% Monday morning-quarterbacking. Everybody treated the use of chem weapons as a red line – including the most recent GOP presidential ticket:

    RADDATZ: What happens if Assad does not fall, Congressman Ryan? What happens to the region? What happens if he hangs on? What happens if he does?

    RYAN: Then Iran keeps their greatest ally in the region. He’s a sponsor of terrorism. He’ll probably continue slaughtering his people. We and the world community will lose our credibility on this. Look, he mentioned the reset…

    RADDATZ: So what would Romney-Ryan do about that credibility?

    RYAN: Well, we agree with the same red line, actually, they do on chemical weapons, but not putting American troops in, other than to secure those chemical weapons. They’re right about that. But what we should have done earlier is work with those freedom fighters, those dissidents in Syria. We should not have called Bashar Assad a reformer.

    It was only after the red line was crossed that world leaders realized while they meant what they said, they didn’t really mean what they said.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Gold Star for Robot Boy: But we were counseling against the “red line” rhetoric quite some time back. It was just a bad idea.

  10. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    @James Joyner:
    And this is a perfect example of your second-guessing. Your “quite some time back” is April, after the first chemical attacks, not before.

    Thought experiment: It’s October 2012, and during one of the presidential debates the problem of Syria is posed to the candidates. Romney states the use of chemical weapon is a red line that cannot be crossed. But Obama, to the world’s surprise and dismay, says a chemical-weapon attack is NOT a red line to the administration because he’d rather not get hemmed in like that.

    Can you imagine the blowback? O NOEZ! Obama is throwing away the Chemical Weapons Convention! Israel is doomed! What message does this send to Iran? And the readers of OTB are supposed to believe, in light of those criticisms, you would back the president?

    James, it’s easy to take the test after you know the answers. But don’t tell us you were right all along – your readers deserve better.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    No military intervention. No red lines. No bold proclamations that “Assad must go” without a plan to make that happen. Quiet diplomacy in the background to do all that we can to prevent the spread of the conflict, mitigate the refugee crisis, and help friends in the region deal with the spillover

    No military intervention…check.
    No Red Lines…absent the Red Line there is no agreement. So…you’re against the agreement?
    No Bold assertions…I don’t remember any.
    Quiet diplomacy…
    Again…your complaint seems to come down to aesthetics.

  12. C. Clavin says:

    Here you are 16 days ago…

    Of course, backing out of military strikes that the administration spent days broadcasting to enforce a “red line” that Obama himself drew and has told us has been crossed repeatedly also makes Assad look stronger. Certainly, it makes Obama look weaker. But when all available options are bad, there’s no way to choose a good one. And it’s quite possible that the fallout from backing out of a boldly declared bad policy will be less than carrying out the bad policy. Then again, it’s conceivable that the president will ultimately carry out said policy, anyway, and also look weak and foolish for having hemmed and hawed so publicly.

    Even then…style over substance. Aesthetics. I’d just as soon someone like you stick to policy.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    You know…Obama has spent the majority of his Presidency cleaning up your parties messes…Iraq, the Economy, OBL…and fighting reflexive opposition on most everything else…Health Care, Growth, the Environment, Immigration.
    And here you are refusing to credit the outcome on this…your ODS is disguised by your intellect…but barely.

  14. dazedandconfused says:

    Ideally one would never lay down red lines but sometimes it’s very deliberately done anyway.

    “Surrendering the initiative” is sometimes the right move. Giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, there may be an Israeli angle to this. They too have made statements about CW being the one thing they can’t tolerate. They may be ready to do whatever it takes to stop it if it got loose and somebody used it on them, and it’s something that could be snuck into Tel Aviv. Can pick off sophisticated missiles from the air, but they would have to wade into that swamp to clean out the chem stocks. They would be hard pressed to do it, and guess who would have to foot the various “bills” for that?

    Assad deserved the warning, and a “rule of thumb” in diplo-speak is you really mean it if the stuff you say in channels you also state to the public.

  15. JohnMcC says:

    Read your Atlantic piece. It is unassailable that the civilian authority determines policy and the role of the military is limited to tactics and strategy in pursuit of that policy. Who could disagree? It was covered in 8th grade. But there was a little tickle of dissatisfaction…..

    I mean, there are examples like the Marshall Plan where the Cold-War strategy of confronting the Soviets in Europe had ever so much to do with our economic and political ties to what now is the EU.

    And there is (to me) the indisputable fact that Pres Johnson and in his turn Pres Nixon conducted the VietNam War in a way that led to unnecessary casualties (our and theirs and the innocent) because of electoral politics. Surely that sort of (expletive deleted) should make a response from the millitary side fair-dinkum.

    But I couldn’t really get a handle on how to say what my objections are — or even exactly what my objections are. Then I read at the blog RETHINKING SECURITY (h/t lawyersgunsmoneyblog) a review of an article in your own National Interest. Article was by Gian Gentile. Review was by A. Elkus. I have never heard of either gentleman, by the way.

    Basically, the point made in the review (seems a fair point after reading the Gentile piece) is that the non-official, thoroughly-agreed-upon consensus in the US Military (I suppose the Army is mostly who were talking about here) is that Iraq and Afghanistan are varieties of disasters.
    Disasters not only for the military but terrible defeats for the US of A and our foreign policy. They tend to think about this as STRATEGY. But when asked about mid-east operations, the concensus of NO MORE IRAQs translates into the policy of NO BOMBING SYRIA. And there you say they have crossed a line between strategy and policy.

    I think that the world doesn’t support clear lines between things. Neither Pres Obama’s red one nor your semantical one. It’s just too damn confusing out there.