Civilian Control – How Trump Can Reverse the Trend of Failures in Recent Conflicts

trump_mattisOn the campaign trail, President-elect Donald J. Trump lambasted American generals for their failure to win wars. Now he has selected from their retired ranks to fill key cabinet level positions.

As confirmation hearings begin, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and others fear that civilian control of the military could be eroded if retired General James Mattis becomes Secretary of Defense.

The important discussions about whether to waive the 7-year cooling off period for Mattis tend to miss an even bigger civil-military challenge: America’s track record since World War Two has been terrible. Reverence for the military by a disengaged public has masked this problem and eroded accountability. Continued failure to win wars has the potential to badly damage civil-military trust – and America’s credibility in the world.

The United States practices what Samuel Huntington calls “objective control” of the military – the latter agrees to refrain from politics in exchange for substantial professional autonomy and a privileged voice in matters of war.

This autonomy is not absolute. Eliot Cohen shows how the most effective statesmen exercise intense oversight on generals and their strategies. Political scientist Peter Feaver suggests political leaders guard against the military’s all-too-human tendency to follow the orders they like and subtly circumvent those they don’t.

These are different aspects of a complicated relationship, but all presume a special role for the uniformed military in waging war. This merits examination.

For conventional wars, like the second world war or first gulf war, the elements of national power tend to operate like a relay team. The diplomats try to avert war or build a coalition to fight it. When war is declared, the military receives the baton and fights to win, lose or draw. They hand the baton back to the diplomats to craft a peace treaty. The baton may then go to the development community to repair the damage. The U.S. national security architecture is structured to wage war this way.

This mindset has created a bureaucratic approach to war that has led to recent failures.

Why? In contemporary and irregular wars, the interactions are different. Rather than operating sequentially as a relay team, the elements of national power must operate concurrently – more like a basketball team. Relying on a single player all the time undermines the team’s performance. Even those blessed with a Michael Jordan or LeBron James get this.

Our political and military leaders do not. Bush over-relied on military force in Afghanistan and Iraq, leading to quagmires in both conflicts. During the 2009 deliberations over Afghanistan, President Obama was reportedly upset that the military only provided options in terms of troop levels. The generals were suspected of trying to trap him into a surge.

But by asking ONLY the military to provide options, Obama (like Bush) trapped himself. The assumption that the generals have a unique and privileged role in developing strategy is so deeply ingrained that not even a brilliant skeptic like Obama questioned it.

“As commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world,” Obama said to the New York Times, “I spend a lot of time brooding over these issues. And I’m not satisfied we’ve got it perfect yet.”

Trump and Mattis can learn from these mistakes.

If there is “no military solution” to contemporary wars, why seek only military options? By doing so, a President is asking the military for strategies that cannot possibly work.

This sets our troops up for failure and the military to be scapegoated for interventions gone wrong, heightening the risk of civil-military mistrust.

President-elect Trump need not fall into that trap.

There is no war without combat, but there is more to war than fighting. Waging contemporary war successfully requires the integration of all elements of national power. This is what the Trump administration needs to do.

Because the elements of national power must interact concurrently rather than sequentially, Trump should also weigh options in which diplomatic, political, or economic elements of power are the priority – with the military playing a supporting role.

The generals have a privileged role regarding the use of military force. Their professionalism protects American freedom, credibility, values, and lives.

For matters of policy and strategy, however, the military should be a co-equal partner with other elements of national power. This distinction helps keep civil-military relations in a healthy place and increases the likelihood of waging war successfully.

Christopher D. Kolenda, senior adjunct fellow at Center for a New American Security, is a former Pentagon senior advisor and task force commander in Afghanistan

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Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC