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Widening military-civilian gulf breeds mistrust

– Washington has found itself in a crisis over the proper relationship between senior civilian and military officials. It’s a tension that shows little sign of abating, regardless of how the Syria issue plays out: Underlying forces seem guaranteed to make it worse.

Every administration has its share of disputes with the Pentagon, but when it comes to where and how U.S. armed forces will be used, civil-military relations have not been this tense and precarious since the end of the Cold War. Military officers are increasingly willing to express their personal opinions about interventions, while civilian policymakers are increasingly willing to disregard professional military advice. Worse, a growing number of individuals from both “sides” seem unaware of the appropriate civilian and military roles and relationships, and their conflicts play out in public more prominently and immediately than ever before.

For example, senior civilian officials have strongly contested Gen. Martin Dempsey’s doubts about intervening in the Syrian civil war. The New York Times reported that Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is “adamant that he not influence the public debate about whether to strike Syria,” but Obama administration civilians and Capitol Hill staffers will tell you that the general has emphasized only the risks and costs associated with intervening. “They,” meaning the military, “just don’t want to do it” is a common refrain.

The Pentagon has taken to selectively leaking its strong opposition to intervening to journalists and think tank analysts.

These civil-military tensions have also been revealed in reviews of what military responses – if any – were available on the night of the terrorist attacks on the temporary mission facility and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.

Despite the military’s repeated explanations, policymakers (primarily Republicans) have refused to accept that force could not have been deployed in Benghazi. In May, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said to Charlie Rose: “Why is it that the military could not get there until almost 24 hours after the attack? You can get on a Delta flight here at the Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. and fly there faster than our military was able to get there.” In closed and open sessions, military commanders have described the distance, logistics and force-protection challenges that prevented combat aircraft and special operations forces from deploying. Yet, even as late as last Thursday, House members expressed their disbelief that no military assets could have saved the day.

Duel over expertise

Duke University scholar Peter Feaver has described this civil-military tension as a principal-agent problem, where theoretically only civilian principals have the authority and only military agents have the expertise. Since the Sept.11, 2001, attacks, however, many civilian officials have helped to develop and implement U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations around the world. They now believe that they have a clearer and more realistic understanding of what military force can achieve.

Subsequently, my impression is that civilians increasingly think they possess the expertise to assess operational plans and that professional military advice is merely another opinion to consider when evaluating use-of-force options. In effect, civilians have become both principal and agent.

Meanwhile, military officials who might have once refrained from discussing sensitive issues are now more willing to share their opinions. After surviving multiple deployments to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where inadequate political guidance and flawed military strategies hindered U.S. policies, they feel obliged to speak their minds. They also track proposals for using force – via op-eds and blogs – at a much greater level of detail than they did a decade ago. Furthermore, throughout the professional military education system, officers are taught to think critically and divergently, and to candidly express their opinions through their chain of command.

Inevitably, and unfortunately, a greater volume of private military opinions is anonymously spilling into the public sphere. While officers have a constitutional right to express their personal views, they also have a professional obligation to avoid weighing in on political matters. Many officers quoted in news articles and blogs likely have no access to current intelligence assessments or operational plans that are under discussion in National Security Council meetings. Yet these officers start from a default conviction that civilian officials have dangerous and unrealistic expectations of what military power can achieve.

Role of partisanship

This civil-military split is further promoted by the insatiable demand for news. An increasing number of journalists stalk the tunnels under Capitol Hill, where policymakers are happy to expound on sensitive foreign policy issues. Similarly, as a result of embedded reporting from the wars of the past dozen years, journalists have deeper relationships with now-senior military officials than they did in the past, and they can find a “senior Pentagon official” to condemn White House policy.

The split will likely be deepened by the worsening partisanship in Washington. The impression one gets is that the party out of power no longer perceives the military as a neutral institution, but rather as the uniformed face of the White House it serves. Democrats demonized the military and its operations during the Bush administration. Now, it is Democrats who embrace President Obama’s drone strikes and interventions, while Republicans harshly question the expertise and motivations of uniformed officials. The military is supposed to be above partisanship, but Washington might not allow it to be.

What is most dispiriting about the apparent deterioration of civil-military relations is that it is hard to see what would improve the situation. There has been a great deal of analysis of the need for the four armed services to operate more jointly (“getting purple”) and for the military and civilian agencies to coordinate preventive and stability operations (through a “whole of government approach”). However, there is little thinking about how senior civilian and military officials should cooperate in the iterative military planning process between the Pentagon and the White House. It is possible disagreements are being left at the Situation Room door, but this is unlikely, since history shows that intense civil-military disputes emerge in public when they have not been resolved in private. And what is in the public domain should disturb any principled civilian or military official.

Micah Zenko is the Douglas Dillon fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes the blog Politics, Power and Preventive Action.