What should we make of the tidbits from an administration’s private war council deliberations that seep out into the public view? When a president is weighing the kind of decision Barack Obama will present tonight, how appropriate is it for senior military leaders to make their views publicly known? According to the principle of civilian control of the military — a cornerstone of our democratic system — the armed services execute the orders of the commander in chief, whatever those orders may be, and leave all the decisions in the hands of their duly elected masters.
At the same time, of course, the military leadership is supposed to feed into those decisions by providing their best advice. This is where the question arises regarding how private or public that advice should be. According to Kori Schake
over at the Shadow Government blog of ForeignPolicy.com, it’s entirely appropriate for military views to be publicly aired, and the White House has misconstrued the issue:
What the White House wanted was the military to give their advice solely in private, minimizing the cost to the president’s for ignoring that advice. ¬†They wrongly equated a public debate in advance of the president setting policy as insubordination.
For my fellow Democracy Arsenal blogger Michael Cohen
on the other hand, there is no constitutional basis or historical tradition for according the military any special consideration in debates over war policy. Whether or not I join in Michael’s “grade-A silliness” rating of Kori, I definitely see problems.
Going back to underlying principles, let’s parse the relationship between military advice and political decision. In our republic, the military is an instrument of state — fighting the nation’s wars when called upon to do so. Being ready to execute whatever mission the country might ask means standing apart from the political process that decides what those missions should be. The role of military advice is to feed into those decisions with professional judgments on the feasibility of different options, the actions and resources they would require, and the likely consequences.
This is a tricky enough task in itself, requiring a lot of discipline and agnosticism to remain an honest broker. These are highly complex matters, not precise engineering calculations. So with all this in mind, how does Kori’s depiction square with the purpose of civilian control of the military?
The U.S. military has wide latitude to influence national security policy in the making; only once the president and Congress establish policy and law must they salute or resign. Thirty five years into an all-volunteer force, when so few Americans have military experience, it is crucial not only to good policy but to public understanding that our military give their judgment to educate our judgment.
But it’s the president’s choice. That’s what he gets elected for. ¬†He does not, however, get to make his choices without having to explain why he disregarded military advice.
Does the line Kori draws make sense — i.e. between latitude for the military before versus after a decision has been reached? Is there really no tension between the military’s obligation to salute sharply post-decision and their freedom to exert “influence” while the question is still under discussion? And if we believe civilians are the proper authority to determine the military’s missions, then should the prevalence of Americans with military experience matter? After all, if this is a fundamental principle, why should that be a factor? And then, how is the idea of a presidential burden of proof on military advice not a big fat asterisk on civilian control? For that matter, given the obligation for the military to advise presidents on their options, shouldn’t most of their advice fall outside a binary choice of acceptance or rejection?
I know there are a lot of readers here with military service; I’ll be interested in your views on this question. But also those without.
White House photo: Pete Souza