Political control of the military is the new battleground
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The battle of ideas between President Trump and “the establishment” is entering a new round. The first concerned America’s role in the world. A second round questions constraints on executive power. America benefits if the establishment elevates its game this time. Civilian control of the military is one of the issues at stake, but not in ways elites assume.

As a candidate, Donald J. Trump successfully challenged the post-World War Two consensus. Others dueled over policy nuances and disparaged Trump for his supposed lack of substance. The latter spent his time questioning conventional wisdom.

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This resonated with Americans who saw the United States bearing the costs but reaping few benefits of the global order. Elites never bothered to defend why and how America is better off under the status quo or what they would do to address the downsides. The establishment never owned up to its 21st century fiascos. In their complacency, they never saw failure coming.

 

President Trump has placed retired generals into senior levels of his administration, appointed active duty 3-star general H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, hired outspoken Obama critics from the Pentagon and intelligence communities, and may give the Pentagon greater latitude in approving military operations. Critics argue that these choices threaten civilian control of the military.

They miss the point. President Trump leaves little doubt that he is in control.

He has applauded troopers at CENTCOM and CIA officials for voting for him; promised a major boost in defense spending; demanded a tougher war against ISIS; questioned the competence of his generals; placed political adviser Stephen Bannon on the National Security Council’s Principals Committee; cast doubt upon the intelligence community, publicly emphasized his insistence on using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” after McMaster characterized the term as misleading, and reportedly has asked for intelligence judgments that support his policy proposals.

Together, these issues suggest that the nature of civilian control might be subtly changing. Since World War Two, objective control (as Samuel Huntington put it) has been practiced. The military (and intelligence agencies) agree to be a-political in exchange for significant professional autonomy and latitude. The result is an exceptionally skilled military and intelligence community that would never mount a coup.

This is hardly the global norm. Most around the world prefer subjective control. Those in power select and promote officials based on patronage and political alignment. Getting the guys with the guns and secrets on your side, keeping them happy but off-balance, and promoting internal competition helps many governing elites sleep well at night.

Which relationship is better for 21st century America?

Objective control is supposed to render quality advice and judgments. The issues, however, often involve high degrees of uncertainty. Military advice is thus imperfect and subject to human biases. Intelligence is not a crystal ball, either. Analysts deal with inconclusive and contradictory information and try to make sound conclusions.

Military or intelligence officials, for instance, who support certain actions may downplay risks and highlight opportunities. Those opposed might emphasize risks and drag their feet to implement unwelcome decisions. A desire to avoid being wrong or perceived as taking political sides could lead officials to hedge their advice.

Under subjective control, military leaders and intelligence officials are expected to advance the president’s political agenda. Their futures are tied together. If it all comes down to educated guesses anyway, why not promote those who help a President do what he or she wants to do? Maybe half-hearted policies reinforced by carefully hedged advice and analysis help to explain why “the world’s greatest military” cannot seem to win wars anymore.

Subjective control, however, quickly tends to hollow-out and politicize the military and intelligence communities. Those wanting promotion may give appealing advice to the president. A general opposed could offer contrary advice with the expectation of gaining favor with the other party. Politicians get this. Trust erodes. Many thus require generals to purchase their stars as a down-payment on loyalty, in return for license to exploit their official position for profit. Professional competence is no longer their top incentive.

President Trump is right to demand better performance. Examining the reasons for America’s persistent national security problems can yield important avenues for reform. A slide toward subjective control, however, would be damaging. Seeing both models in action leaves me with no doubt that objective control is better.

Having rational discussion about civil-military relations and national security reform may be difficult in today’s toxic environment, but these issues must not get lost in the vitriol.

Christopher D. Kolenda, a senior fellow at the Global Policy Center, recently completed his doctoral dissertation “End-Game: Why American Interventions Become Quagmires” at King’s College London.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill