War Is Too Important to Be Left To [Insert Rival Here]

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"It's a mess…" Anonymous senior administration official on American operations in Libya

The minimalist steps taken by the Obama Administration in Libya have failed to secure regime change and the resulting stalemate between pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces has only revived strains in modern civil-military relations.  The American Republic is not in danger of succumbing to a military coup d'etat, but the gap between civilian and military spheres has been readily recognized from within and from without the government.  The mess in the above quote refers not to the situation on the ground in Libya but the dysfunction plaguing Administration national security policy-making and again the culprit is the "culture clash" between the civilian commander-in-chief and military officers.  While few countries have figured out how to conduct a war solely in pursuit of humanitarian aims without a full commitment of available resources, the difference in civilian and military leaders regarding the efficacy of applied military force (especially of the magnitude possessed by the U.S. military) over the past two decades has started to complement the polarization coloring other policy debates. Problematic civilian-military relations are not uncommon in U.S. history; however, a polarized relationship is and its emergence could exacerbate the challenges of an uncertain international security environment for an increasingly faltering American superpower.

Appetite for Intervention

Following the nation’s (unexpectedly) stunning victory in the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush famously remarked the United States had finally kicked the “Vietnam Syndrome.”  Coupled with the collapse of the nation’s sole existential threat, American political and intellectual leaders pondered the possibility of a “unipolar moment” and, for the first time since the early days of Cold War bipartisanship, both major parties embraced opportunities to exercise military force as a solution to foreign policy problems.

Nevertheless, the victory in the Persian Gulf War may have re-legitimized the use of force and the Bush 41 Administration’s successful stewardship may have demonstrated the efficacy of a healthy civilian-military division of labor, but the prospect of a militaristic American foreign policy led to a sharp divergence in opinion between civilian and military leaders.  In this newfound enthusiasm to use military force, civilian leadership was prepared to override misgivings and objections from military leadership.  

To apply a broad brush to the two decades since 1991, the 1990s witnessed the application of force to achieve humanitarian aims (the Clinton Doctrine) and the 2000s featured the exercise of force to achieve democratization (the Bush Doctrine).  

Under the Clinton Administration, a liberal Democratic Party (the locus of post-Vietnam War opposition to use of force abroad) rallied in support of overseas interventions in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia.  In the case of the latter, the party’s concession to the utility of force principally took the form of peackeeping forces and, during the 1999 war in Kosovo, a campaign solely consisting of airpower.  

The election of a conservative Republican Bush 43 Administration and the return appointment of many veterans from the Persian Gulf War era (Richard Cheney, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz) led many to conclude the exercise of force would occur only after a rigorous review, with commensurate resources, but above all, sparingly.  Instead, the events of September 11 and an offensive campaign against Islamic jihadists resulted in a decade long commitment of ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to stand up democratic regimes.  

In the 1990s, the Administration’s aversion to ground forces may have reflected a lingering skepticism in longtime Democratic Party leaders and policymakers, but many accounts from the period also document the military’s inclination to present only unacceptably large (and thus politically unpalatable) operational requirements when asked for options.  At best, civilian leadership may have been unrealistic in expecting bloodless military solutions to nettlesome problems like failed states and rogue terrorists, but, at worst, the military may have been guilty of purposely seeking ways to shirk guidance from their commander-in-chief.

In the 2000s, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld compelled military commanders to craft a leaner operational plan for Iraq.  The quiescence of the flag officers and Rumsfeld’s approach and style were tolerated as long as his plans achieved success.  However, as conditions in Iraq worsened and Rumsfeld resisted calls for a greater commitment of ground forces and a shift in tactics, dissatisfaction rapidly emerged and civilian-military relations reached their nadir in 2006 with the “revolt of the generals,” when six retired flag officers openly called for Rumsfeld’s dismissal.  President Bush eventually dismissed Rumsfeld after a poor electoral showing that fall.

To date, the matters of civilian-military relations has been confined to the executive branch.  However, during this same period, divergent electoral preferences became evident as well.

Not Just a Culture Clash...

Again applying a broad brush, during the 1990s, military service members began demonstrating a consistent preference for and self-identification as conservative Republican. Separately, by the end of the 2000s, civilian government workers had become a key constituency for liberal Democrats.  

Nominally, the preferences dovetail with the political platforms of the two parties -- Republicans have historically favored a muscular foreign policy while Democrats have been longtime advocates of greater governmental regulation.  

However, parochial matters are a factor as well and, in the end, two key populations central to the operations and functions of the American government have become key voting blocs and special interests firmly ensconced in opposing political parties.  

The philosophical affinity to the party is reinforced by an exchange of votes for benefits and vice-versa and both the affinity and patronage are cemented when defended against the countervailing priorities of the opposing party and its constituencies.

In the emergent battle over the 2012 budget, the 2012 Republican blueprint has taken the defense budget off the table and Democrats refuse to explore any substantial reductions to the size of government.

Acknowledged, genuinely held and diametrically opposing viewpoints regarding the role of government do indeed separate the parties, but this rigidity is destroying possibilities for much needed compromise.

Witness the fallout from the recent political face-off over the 2011 budget.

Messes, Consequences, and Opportunities

On April 18th, independent ratings agency Standard and Poors announced, “the material risk that U.S. policymakers might not reach an agreement on how to address medium- and long-term budgetary challenges by 2013” led it revise its outlook downward from “stable” to “negative”.

While the Standard and Poors was merely warning investors, the act demonstrated
how such gridlock is closely watched by third parties who recognize clearly, more so than the actual participants, the consequences.  

In an era of uncertainty in the international security environment, warnings are rarely provided.  Heaven help the Republic if its adversaries were to recognize the opportunities.