Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Civil-Military Friction and Presidential Decision Making: Explaining the Broken Dialogue

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Civil-Military Friction and Presidential Decision Making: Explaining the Broken Dialogue

Article excerpt

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. …

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