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The Limits of American Power and Civil-Military Relations

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The Limits of American Power and Civil-Military Relations

A Framework for Discussion

by Thomas Donnelly

Small Wars Journal Op-Ed

It has been fascinating to follow the discussion sparked by Andy Bacevich's short but incisive piece on "The Petraeus Doctrine" in the Atlantic. However, two elements of the essay have been overlooked. Bacevich's core complaints are less about the structure of the U.S. Army (or the military more broadly) or its operational doctrine than they are about the underlying issues of the limits of American power and civil-military relations. The analysis of the John-Nagl-versus-Gian-Gentile debate is merely a framework for these larger questions.

Take the second question first. Bacevich concludes with what he rightly describes as "the biggest question of all." That is, in the American democracy, do the essential choices about war rest with soldiers or civilians? The presumption he makes, however, that the decision to prosecute the Long War has been delegated to the military, isn't correct: rather, it's been the military (with top-cover from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) that's been trying to dodge the decision. One may well argue that the Bush Administration has made unwise choices, but they are undeniably choices that have been validated by the American political process. Bacevich has elsewhere argued that the course of events since the 2006 election has disregarded the democratic process, but that's not right, either. The Democrats victories in the 2006 elections gave them a congressional majority, but not a large enough majority to override the Constitution's presumptions in favor of the commander-in-chief.

Bacevich similarly disparages at the quality of the war-policy debate, and it's hard to disagree. But quality is no more the measure of democratic legitimacy than is any particular outcome. As a matter of the historical record, America's domestic debates about war have generated more heat than light. And, when it came to Iraq, what is remarkable in retrospect is how long it took to translate civilian guidance -- President's Bush's oft-stated goals of a stable and representative government in Baghdad -- into military policy. The Decider decided; alas, the commander-in-chief did not sufficiently command, and the uniforms, too frequently, shirked.

So it is the new civilian leadership -- in the form of a chastened, post-2006 President Bush and current Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- that finally is dragging a still-reluctant military into embracing the irregular warfare mission. Just this Monday, Gates continued his jeremiad against "Next-War-It is" and "the defense bureaucracy's priorities and lack of urgency opposed to a wartime footing and a wartime mentality." This may be a strategic error, but it's his civilian job to make the call. If anyone's outside our norms of civil-military relations, it's those in the Gentile-Bacevich camp.

And so to the second question. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the conventional-force advocates are looking for ways to constrain what they see as an unhealthy American, exceptionalist tendency to meddle in other peoples' political affairs. Bacevich has long made this argument and makes it again in the Atlantic article, though by proxy. He approvingly quotes Gentile's critique of Nagl's "breathtaking" assertion about "the efficacy of American military power to shape events."

Realism -- that is, a cold-blooded assessment of costs and benefits -- is no small virtue in the exercise of power. But this, along with realism about the limits of technology, was a central theme of Gates' speech at National Defense University. And he allowed as how "we are unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon." Yet he went on to say "that doesn't mean we may not face similar challenges in a variety of locales." This is not, as Bacevich portrays it, of "inescapable eventuality" of wars to come, or America's predestined strategic fate, it's an overdue recognition that we don't just get to fight the wars that are congenial to generals.

Nor is Gates attempting to re-fight the last war. (This trope should be banished forever, but let it be noted that irregular warfare was America's "first way of war;" Small Wars Journal readers would do well to read John Grenier's -- and he was an Air Force officer! -- book by that title.) It's the conventional-force school that is attempting to accomplish what Bacevich claims is Nagl's goal: reducing and precluding U.S. strategic options.

It was a reasonable decision, as Bacevich points out, to refocus the Army on conventional combat after Vietnam; the Soviet 8th Guards Army had its engines idling in East Germany. It's much harder to come up with a similar land-force threat today; Chinese military modernization is focused on the maritime, air, space and electromagnetic realms and the Russian army's performance in Georgia was underwhelming. Invading Iran would call for lots of tanks, but if we're precluding options, that would be high on my list.

By all means, let's continue the debate on the purpose of America's land forces, but let's take the mission -- as defined by the Constitutional civilian authority -- as the point of departure. And yes, let's not disguise a strategy and policy agenda in force-structure clothing. Let's just also not claim all purity on one side.

Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow in defense and security policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously, he served as policy group director and professional staff member for the House Armed Services Committee.

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Sat, 10/04/2008 - 2:20pm


SWJ most certainly accepts your kind offer as much of that debate's seeds were sown here.

Thanks much and S/F



Sat, 10/04/2008 - 12:46pm

      The limits of American power and civil-military relations debate in our democracy shall never be resolved because of the human element. I am rather convinced that academics such as UNC History Professor Dr. Richard Kohn can spend the rest of their lives exploring this without hope of resolution or consensus. I contend that "these larger questions" are important primarily because they increase recognition that this process is complex, subjective, and destined to remain largely opaque.

&nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; I was present for the speech at National Defense University and feel that Mr. Donnelly's assertion that Secretary Gates "continued his jeremiad against 'Next-War-It is'" needs clarification. I think that it is more fair to say that he expanded upon this view because many misunderstood the earlier pronouncements: <I><B>When referring to "Next-War-itis," I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would be irresponsible not to do so.... My point was simply that we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide, both short-term and long-term, all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today.</I></B>

&nbsp; &nbsp; &nbsp; I fully agree that Andy Bacevichs piece on "The Petraeus Doctrine" in the <I>Atlantic</I> was riveting. In fact, I have asked John and Gian to defend their positions personally in a point-counterpoint format--and they have agreed. This debate shall appear in the next issue of <I>Joint Force Quarterly</I> and we shall be happy to submit a prepublication transcript to <I>SWJ</I> for consideration.

Semper Fi,

Thanks for helping me understand--not the underlying debate so much--but the furor that the rather unexceptional Atlantic article has caused. I certainly applaud your note about civilian predominance. Not only here, but on the local cocktail circuit, there is an ominous impression that the Good People want to change the Constitution because they don't like what it has allowed the incumbent president to do with it. Clausewitz: 'No other possibility exists ... than to subordinate the military point of view to the political Amen. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford