You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Civilian Control? Surely, You Jest.

The principle of civilian control forms the foundation of the American system of civil-military relations, offering assurance that the nation’s very powerful armed forces and its very influential officer corps pose no danger to our democracy. That’s the theory at least, the one that gets printed in civics books and peddled to the plain folk out in Peoria.    

Reality turns out to be considerably more complicated. In practice, civilian control—expectations that the brass, having rendered advice, will then loyally execute whatever decision the commander-in-chief makes—is at best a useful fiction.

In front of the curtain, the generals and admirals defer; behind the curtain, on all but the smallest of issues, the military’s collective leadership pursue their own agenda informed by their own convictions of what is good for the country and, by extension, for the institutions over which they preside. In this regard, the Pentagon’s behavior does not differ from that of automakers, labor unions, the movie business, environmental groups, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Israel lobby, or the NAACP.

In Washington, only one decision is considered really final—and that’s the one that goes your way. Senior military officers understand these rules and play by them. When the president or secretary of defense acts in ways not to their liking—killing some sought-after weapons program, for example—they treat that decision as subject to review and revision.

To overturn or modify a policy they judge objectionable, military leaders forge alliances with like-minded members of Congress, for whom the national interest tends to coincide with whatever benefits their constituents. Senior officers also make their case by working the press, not infrequently by leaking material that will embarrass or handcuff their nominal superiors.

Sometimes, the military strikes preemptively, attempting to influence decisions not yet made. A classic example occurred in 1993: Led by General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior uniformed leadership mounted a fierce and very effective campaign to prevent President Bill Clinton from acting on his announced intention to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Powell and his confreres prevailed. A humiliated Clinton beat a hasty retreat and, thereafter, took care not to court trouble with an officer corps that made little effort to conceal its lack of fondness for him.

A more recent example occurred just a year ago. With President Obama agonizing over what to do about Afghanistan, The Washington Post offered for general consumption the military’s preferred approach, the so-called McChrystal Plan. Devised by General Stanley McChrystal, who had been appointed by Obama to command allied forces in Afghanistan, the plan called for a surge of U.S. troops and the full-fledged application of counterinsurgency doctrine—an approach that necessarily implied a much longer and more costly war.

The effect of this leak, almost surely engineered by some still unidentified military officer, was to hijack the entire policy review process, circumscribing the choices available to the commander-in-chief. Rushing to the nearest available microphone, members of Congress (mostly Republicans) announced that it was Obama’s duty to give the field commander whatever he wanted. McChrystal himself made the point explicitly. During a speech in London, he categorically rejected the notion that any alternative to his strategy even existed: It was do it his way or lose the war. The role left to the president was not to decide, but simply to affirm.

The leaking of the McChrystal Plan constituted a direct assault on civilian control. At the time, however, that fact passed all but unnoticed. Few of those today raising a hue-and-cry about PFC Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeak-er, bothered to protest. The documents that Manning allegedly made public are said to endanger the lives of American troops and their Afghan comrades. Yet, a year ago, no one complained about the McChrystal leaker providing Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership with a detailed blueprint of exactly how the United States and its allies were going to prosecute their war.

The absence of any serious complaint reflected the fact that, in Washington—especially in the press corps—military leaks aimed at subverting or circumscribing civilian authority are accepted as standard fare. It’s part of the way Washington works.

Which brings us to the present and to what is stacking up to be an episode likely to reveal a great deal about how much or how little actual civilian control currently exists. In adopting the McChrystal Plan, Obama added this caveat: U. S. troops will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan by July 2011. Before the president or anyone in his administration had explained exactly what that July 2011 deadline signifies, General McChrystal departed the scene, having violated the dictum that calls on senior officers to sustain, in public at least, the pretense of respecting civilians.

To replace McChrystal—and to forestall the growing impression that things in Afghanistan are falling apart—Obama appointed General David Petraeus, an officer possessing in abundance the finesse and political savvy that McChrystal lacks. Having now sacked two successive commanders in Afghanistan, Obama can hardly afford to fire a third, least of all someone of Petraeus’s exalted stature. It would be akin to benching Tom Brady or trading Derek Jeter. You might be able to pull it off, but not without paying a very severe price. You might even find yourself out of a job.

Within the past week, complaints dribbling out of Petraeus’s headquarters in Kabul—duly reported by an accommodating press—indicate growing military unhappiness with the July 2011 pullout date. Now, Petraeus himself has begun to weigh in directly. This past weekend, he launched his own media campaign, offering his “narrative” of ongoing events. Unlike the ham-handed McChrystal, who chose a foreign capital as his soapbox, Petraeus sat for a carefully orchestrated series of interviews with The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” each of which gratefully passed along the general’s view of things.

In the course of sitting for these interviews, Petraeus placed down a marker, one best captured by the headline in the Times dispatch: “Petraeus Opposes a Rapid Pullout in Afghanistan.” Or, as The Daily Beast put it, adding a twist of hyperbole, Petraeus told “David Gregory that he has the right to delay Obama's 2011 pull-out target for troops in Afghanistan." A bit over the top, but you get the drift.

Dexter Filkins of the Times interpreted Petraeus’s comments as “a preview of what promise[s] to be an intense political battle over the future of the American-led war in Afghanistan.” The operative word in that statement is “political,” with the stakes potentially including not only the ongoing war, but an upcoming presidential election.

At the center of that battle will be a very political general, skilled at using the press and with friends aplenty on Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans. To have a chance of winning reelection in 2012, Obama needs to demonstrate progress in shutting down the war. Yet it is now becoming increasingly apparent the general Obama has placed in charge of that war entertains a different view.

One, but not both, will have his way. Between now and July 2011, when it comes to civilian control, even the folks in Peoria will have a chance to learn what the civics books leave out.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University and author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.