In the 2010 bestselling book, Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward recounts President Barack Obama's friction with his military chain of command as he sought options for ending the war in Afghanistan. (1) Woodward paints a compelling picture of a frustrated president who felt "boxed in" by his military commanders who were presenting him with only one real option--deploy 40,000 more troops for a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy and an uncertain timeline. The president and his civilian advisors could not understand why the military seemed incapable of providing scalable options for various goals and outcomes to inform his decision-making. Meanwhile the military was frustrated that their expert advice regarding levels of force required for victory were not being respected (Woodward 2010).
Such mutual frustration between civilian leadership and the military is not unique to the Obama administration. In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously chastised the military for its resistance to altering the invasion plan for Iraq. The military criticized him for tampering with the logistical details and concepts of operations, which they claimed led to the myriad operational failures on the ground (Gordon and Trainor 2006; Ricks 2007; Woodward 2004). Later, faced with spiraling ethnic violence and rising U.S. casualties across Iraq, George W. Bush took the advice of retired four-star General Jack Keane and his think tank colleagues over the formal advice of the Pentagon in his decision to launch the so-called surge in 2007 (Davidson 2010; Feaver 2011; Woodward 2010).
A similar dynamic is reflected in previous eras, from John F. Kennedy's famous debates during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Allison and Zelikow 1999) to Lyndon Johnson's quest for options to turn the tide in Vietnam (Berman 1983; Burke and Greenstein 1991), and Bill Clinton's lesser-known frustration with the military over its unwillingness to develop options to counter the growing global influence of al-Qaeda. (2) In each case, exasperated presidents either sought alternatives to their formal military advisors or simply gave up and chose other political battles. Even Abraham Lincoln resorted to simply firing generals until he got one who would fight his way (Cohen 2002).
What accounts for this perennial friction between presidents and the military in planning and executing military operations? Theories about civilian control of the military along with theories about presidential decision making provide a useful starting point for this question. While civilian control literature sheds light on the propensity for friction between presidents and the military and how presidents should cope, it does not adequately address the institutional drivers of this friction. Decision-making theories, such as those focused on bureaucratic politics and institutional design (Allison 1969; Halperin 1974; Zegart 2000) motivate us to look inside the relevant black boxes more closely. What unfolds are two very different sets of drivers informing the expectations and perspectives that civilian and military actors each bring to the advising and decisionmaking table.
This article suggests that the mutual frustration between civilian leaders and the military begins with cultural factors, which are actually embedded into the uniformed military's planning system. The military's doctrine and education reinforce a culture of "military professionalism," that outlines a set of expectations about the civil-military decision-making process and that defines "best military advice" in very specific ways. Moreover, the institutionalized military planning system is designed to produce detailed and realistic military plans for execution--and that will ensure "victory"--and is thus ill suited to the rapid production of multiple options desired by presidents. The output of this system, framed on specific concepts and definitions about "ends," "ways," "means," and expectations about who provides what type of planning "guidance," is out of synch with the expectations of presidents and their civilian advisors, which in turn have been formed from another set of cultural and institutional drivers.
Most civilian leaders recognize that there is a principal-agent issue at work, requiring them to rely on military expertise to provide them realistic options during the decision-making process. But, their definition of "options" is framed by a broader set of political objectives and a desire to winnow decisions based, in part, on advice about what various objectives are militarily feasible and at what cost. In short, civilians' diverse political responsibilities combined with various assumptions about military capabilities and processes, create a set of expectations about how advice should be presented (and how quickly), how options might be defined, and how military force might or might not be employed. These expectations are often considered inappropriate, unrealistic, or irrelevant by the military. Moreover, as discussed below, when civilians do not subscribe to the same "hands off" philosophy regarding civilian control of the military favored by the vast majority of military professionals, the table is set for what the military considers "meddling" and even more friction in the broken dialogue that is the president's decision-making process.
This article identifies three drivers of friction in the civil-military decision-making dialogue and unpacks them from top to bottom as follows: The first, civil-military, is not so much informed by theories of civilian control of the military as it is driven by disagreement among policy makers and military professionals over which model works best. The second set of drivers is institutional, and reflects Graham Allison's organizational process lens ("model II"). In this case, the "outputs" of the military's detailed and slow planning process fail to produce the type of options and advice civilians are hoping for. Finally, the third source of friction is cultural, and is in various ways embedded into the first two. Powerful cultural factors lead to certain predispositions by military planners regarding the appropriate use of military force, the best way to employ force to ensure "victory," and even what constitutes "victory" in the American way of war. These cultural factors have been designed into the planning process in ways that drive certain types of outcomes. That civilians have another set of cultural predispositions about what is appropriate and what "success" means, only adds more fuel to the flame.
First Order (Civil-Military) Friction: Differing Expectations for Civilian Control
In the classic The Soldier and the State (required reading by all military officers), Sam Huntington (1981) argued for what he labeled "objective" control of the military. In this model, which Eliot Cohen (2002) labeled the "normal" theory of civil-military relations because of its widespread acceptance across the military profession, civilian leadership should provide the military with broad objectives and then stand aside while the military professionals plan and execute the mission in the way they see fit. Just as one would not dictate to one's doctor how to perform surgery, presidents or civilian secretaries are considered unqualified to scrutinize details of military operations.
In the minds of many professional military officers, the Huntington (1981) model was validated by the negative example of President Johnson's hyperscrutiny of bombing targets during the Vietnam War, and by the positive example of George H. W. Bush's deference to the military in the execution of the first Gulf War in 1990 (Kitfield 1997). This narrative permeated the education system and the culture of the U.S. military for decades. Indeed, as an Air Force officer in the 1990s, I was taught that our failures in Vietnam were due to the fact that the military was forced to fight "with one hand tied behind its back." When President Bush claimed after Desert Storm, "By God--we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," military professionals understood that they had a commander in chief who would, as Ronald Reagan (1980) had promised, "never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win."
In contrast, Eliot Cohen (2002) demonstrates in his book, Supreme Command, that a more "hands on" approach to civilian control is likely to yield better outcomes. In his model, civilians respect the military's operational expertise, but the commander in chief is understood to have broader responsibilities and insight in his role as president, thus requiring him--indeed legally authorizing him--to determine whether or not various military options are sound. What the military considers the appropriate plan to achieve an operational "victory," a president might view as more strategically or politically risky given other macro objectives. President Kennedy colorfully described this mismatch when he remarked that the Joint Chiefs "advise you the way a man advises another one about whether he should marry a girl. He doesn't have to live with her" (Zegart 2000, 45).
The president's responsibility to see broader strategic issues and goals often leads him to disregard or override military advice. In Cohen's study (2002), for example, Winston Churchill insisted the military continue advancing beyond the point where the generals had declared the enemy defeated because he understood that where forces physically stood and held ground when the bullets stopped flying would dictate the terms of peace, especially in critical places like Berlin. Of course, the right to disregard operational expertise also grants presidents the right to make bold strategic errors as well. Consider that George W. Bush's decision to divert operational resources from an ongoing fight in Afghanistan in order to invade Iraq led to failure in the battle of Tora Bora, missed...