Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Mind the Gap: Post-Iraq Civil-Military Relations in America

Mind the Gap: Post-Iraq Civil-Military Relations in America

On October 15, 2007, FPRI’s Program on National Security held a conference on American civil-military relations, hosted and co-sponsored by the Reserve Officers Association in Washington, D.C. Mackubin T. Owens, Frank G. Hoffman, Michael P. Noonan, and Robert Feidler, director of Strategic Defense Education at the ROA, served as panel moderators. In attendance were more than 100 individuals from academia, government, NGOs, the media, the military, and the public; nearly 300 individuals from several continents participated by live webcast. The conference papers will be published in Orbis and other outlets in 2008. Overall, most participants seemed to agree that American civil-military relations were troubled even before the Iraq war, which conflict has only exacerbated frictions.

FPRI thanks W.W. Keen Butcher, Robert L. Freedman, Bruce H. Hooper, and Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr. for their support of this conference. The views expressed herein are those of the speakers and should not be construed to represent any agency of the U.S. government or other institution.

Keynote Address

The Hon. Ike Skelton (D-MO), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, delivered the keynote address[1] focusing on the role of Congress in civil-military relations.

The Military and Society

Capt. John Allen Williams, USNR (ret.), professor of political science at Loyola University and president of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, addressed military-societal relations at the broadest level. His paper refined a typology first developed in a 1999 volume he co-edited with military sociologists Charles Moskos and David Segal.[2] In their model, civil-military relations are shaped primarily by the threats the military deals with, though colored by societal characteristics. Modern militaries are “heavily into reality” and sometimes have difficulty dealing with civilian societies. This, in Williams’ view, generally produces some degree of a civil-military gap. Williams’ new, post-9/11 model focuses on the hybrid threats posed by international, transnational, and subnational trends and actors—from peer competitors to terrorist threats to homeland security.

The military remains a (relatively) small professional force dependent upon a reserve component that is no longer a strategic reserve but an operationally ready one—indeed, the National Guard and federal reserves accounted for 20 percent of the combat fatalities in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The dominant professional archetypes include the combat leader and manager, soldier-statesman, soldier-scholar, and the soldier-constable. The differences in skill levels between officers and enlisted ranks are decreasing, and the military is moving more towards a flattened hierarchy. But the expected use of such forces in domestic missions may prove problematic for American civil-military relations in light of the Posse Comitatus Act and under worst-case scenarios like a WMD attack.

Public support for the military remains strong. Williams was concerned nonetheless that in recent surveys the most democratic branch of government, Congress, is “grossly unpopular compared to the most undemocratic part of the government, the military.” Meanwhile, while the embedding program has improved military-media relations, this trend is uncertain moving forward. More problematic has been the use of civilian contractors on the battlefield. While some functions (food service, etc.) are acceptably contracted out, other areas (such as security-oriented activities) deserve reconsideration.

Williams foresees a day when there will be full integration of women and homosexuals in the military due to changing societal norms and predicts that recruitment patterns, due to a lack of support for national military service, might evolve to a program of what he calls “supplemented volunteerism” where there would be both civilian and military service options.

Thomas E. Ricks, military correspondent of the Washington Post and author of Fiasco and Making the Corps, observes a lack of harmony between the military and the executive and legislative branches. The danger is not a coup but rather poor war planning, strategy, and implementation. He worries about an emerging “stab in the back” narrative over Iraq arising from the military where “Congress betrayed us, the media undercut us, and the American people lacked the stomach, the nerve, and the will to see it through.” Ricks also noted the problems with the use of military contractors. The overuse of such forces causes ambiguity for our troops on matters such as rules of engagement, may open the door for other nations to use contractors for military operations not to our liking (say, China using military contractors in Africa), and may lead to unintended political consequences for the countries of returning third-party nationals (e.g., what happens in El Salvador with the return of cohesive, trained Salvadoran contractors?).

Elizabeth Stanley, assistant professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University, and a former Army officer, observed that Williams’ initial analysis had omitted strategic culture. America’s technocentric strategic culture has become maladaptive, not because of technology itself, but because of the way it is used to implement grand strategy. She outlined several symptoms of the “cult of technology” which denigrate our strategy and capabilities: misallocation of resources, poor strategic assessment due to overestimation of capabilities, decreased ability to work with allies, increased vulnerability to potential allies, psychological insecurity, outsourcing and privatizing security, misunderstanding the nature of networks, and the technical bureaucratization of the military profession. Moving a technocentric culture into balance with a more human-centric approach “is the major change for post-9/11 civil-military relations, the military profession, and the way strategies should be done in this country.”

The Interagency Process

Bernard Carreau, senior fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University, formerly an advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and a deputy assistant secretary of Commerce, addressed the tactical and operational level civil-military relations of the interagency process—particularly the relationship between the Departments of State and Defense. Tensions emerged with the liberation of Kuwait, he said, and grew with the interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. September 11 created a momentary consensus within the government, but the invasion of Iraq elevated DoD over State on intervention matters. “The resources, authorities and missions of DoD have continued to grow while State’s resources have either stagnated or actually decreased.” The largely military composition of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq and programs such as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) have added to the civil-military imbalance on the ground.[3] It is not that foreign policy has been militarized; rather, DoD has been much more transformational due to the necessities and realities it has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, however, DoD, State, and USAID disagreed on priorities, especially on how to spend the initial $18.6 billion in reconstruction projects once the CPA stood up with its “dual chain of command between the military and the civilian sides.” DoD favored big-budget infrastructure projects, while State wanted to focus on governance and market liberalization and USAID wanted to focus on institution- and capacity-building. None of these things produced stability.

Carreau argued that there needs to be delineation between situations where the U.S. is a belligerent and where it is a third-party intervener. Where the U.S. is a belligerent it needs to focus on pacification and the population, and when it is a third-party, its approach might be much less belligerent depending on the facts on the ground. Furthermore, there needs to be a government-wide doctrine on stability operations and something needs to be established along the lines of the Vietnam War-era Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program with an integrated civil-military command. Moving between phases of the joint operation (where phase III is military, phase IV is stabilization, phase V is a viable host government on the ground, etc.) depends on the particular details. If there are still 140,000 troops on the ground, operations are still in phase IV. Furthermore, interagency actors need to be trained and resourced to produce population- and culture-focused stabilization skills and be held accountable through a White House directive or Congressional action. 

Nadia Schadlow, a senior program officer in the International Security and Foreign Policy Program of the Smith Richardson Foundation and a member of the Defense Policy Board, suggested that the interagency process is an integral part of civil-military relations because command and control is “where the strategic issues that we talk about are actually hashed out on the ground.” History and expedience have made the military and civilian agencies resistant to developing core competencies at stabilization operations, a missing piece from our foreign policy toolkit. Stability and reconstruction operations cannot be divided into civil or military spheres, but often must be integrated and simultaneous in order to achieve the desired strategic effects. Unity of effort is not enough, however; unity of command and its resulting accountability are really needed. Schadlow referenced a 2006 study comparing schools built by CERP and USAID funds in Afghanistan, which found that the CERP funds were used more efficiently, strategically, and in a more accountable fashion because of Lt. Gen. David W. Barno’s unified command and control. Schadlow argued that commanders’ stability and reconstruction efforts would need to come from the military because most stability operations involve activities in contested areas and such operations are inherently a part of war. “The phenomenon of the military needing to manage the end-state of an intervention in a political way has always been a part of American history.” In more permissive environments command relationships might vary due to requirements for a different mix of skill sets.

A. Heather Coyne, senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace and an OIF military and civilian veteran, stated that neither her three-year deployment to Iraq nor her time in the Office of Management and Budget gave her much confidence that we are on the right track yet in either field capability or the overarching interagency management. Neither the government nor the international community has the capability to undertake stability operations, she said. The U.S. generally lacks the knowledge base to develop effective strategies and policies and the right skilled people in the field to implement them. The question is whether the military can prepare itself for such missions.

She also noted three problems with CERP funds: (1) they are not for sustainable development, (2) there is a lack of knowledge on budgeting and contracting in their use, and (3) they are generally employed with a “lack of integration with other projects to create a sense of building momentum.” What civil affairs can provide in the field is overestimated; too often the requisite skill sets and individuals are not available. The military should not have the lead role for governance, development, economic assistance, and state building, where partnerships with NGOs, IOs, and the private sector are essential. The military’s lead role can send the wrong message. However, civilian organizations possess no better capability or expertise for dealing with these issues. Furthermore, interagency coordination, which is optimized for advisory and information purposes, breaks down due to bureaucratic hurdles when it plays a directing role. “Interagency will always lose to a system that is created for agency decision-making,” expressed Coyne. Without a dedicated agency with doctrine, training, equipment, materials, organizational culture, institutional memory and relationships, “you’re not going to see anything but marginal improvements, or, more likely, continued failures.”

Operation Iraqi Freedom and Civil-Military Relations

Lt. Col. Frank G. Hoffman, USMCR (ret.), a non-resident senior fellow of the FPRI and a research fellow at the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities (CETO) in Quantico, Virginia, stated that the protracted war in Iraq “has uncovered profound cracks in some of the dysfunctional elements that are inherent to American civil-military relations.” The precarious nature of the nation’s civil-military relations contributed to poor policymaking and ineffective execution. Civilian control of the military is firmly grounded constitutionally, structurally, and historically, but civil-military relations—the interface between policy leaders and military officers—are more complex and less structured. “Ultimately, it’s about the interchange of viewpoints, and the production of effective strategies and decisions about the use of the military instrument.” A narrow focus on control leads to overlooking the overall purpose of the use of force and can denigrate the quality of the decision-making process, the outputs of which are what are really at issue. During recent conflicts the climate and context of the civil-military relationship has not been open to rigorous discourse. Needed inputs for military officers and others were “either ignored, muzzled, intimidated, or cut out of the process.”

Hoffman noted that problems in civil-military relations are embedded in several myths. One myth is that there has been a clear, inherent division of labor between the military and civilians since Vietnam: civilians set political objectives and then get out of the way. This overlooks what Eliot Cohen has called the “unequal dialogue,” where civilian leaders probe the military and the military asks the same about the ends and means of policy.[4] “Separating policy from strategy and operations is simply an extremely poor alternative to the intense and admittedly uncomfortable interaction of policy desires and military realities that needs to occur inside the White House and inside the Pentagon.”

Repairing the “rent fabric” of contemporary U.S. civil-military relations will require a sustained and comprehensive effort. One key element will be to address professional military education from pre-commissioning through the war college levels. Civil-military relations are too silent a theme throughout the military educational system. Among the services, for instance, only the Army and Marine Corps have civil-military relations books on their professional reading lists. Another element that is needed is an explicit code for the military profession. The code would define the fundamentals of the professional officer “dedicated to this republic’s values and institutions,” distinguish between the professional military and the National Guard and reserves, denote the rights, privileges, and obligations of retired senior officers, define the expectations for loyalty, obedience, and dissent in clear terms, and clarify for both branches of government the necessity for the institutional integrity of the armed forces of the United States above reproach. Once established, it needs to be taught to the military and civilians alike and enforced. “We all realize that civilians have a right to be wrong in our system, but we devote too little study to minimizing the frequency of its occurrence.” A national commission on the American military ethic, said Hoffman, should also be established to define and complete the ethical codification, with bipartisan political, civilian, and military representation.

In conclusion, Hoffman stated, “Unless serious efforts are made to rectify the components that constitute the entire relationship between the nation and its uniformed servants, expectations for improved performance are low, and my expectation for greater volatility between institutions of government is high.” Our leaders failed us in the planning and conduct of the conflict in Iraq, and while this may not comprise a “dereliction of duty,” it is a failure nonetheless. “If we continue to ignore the difficulty inherent to the uneasy dialogue that supports the ultimate decision about going to war, and we fail to educate future leaders about the duty and professional obligation inherent to that decision, we are going to continue to pay a high price,” argued Hoffman.

Peter D. Feaver, the Alexander F. Hehmeyer Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University, Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS), and former special advisor on the National Security Council Staff, generally agreed with Hoffman that Iraq has had a corrosive impact on American civil-military relations. Mistakes were made on both sides of the civil-military line, and one cannot assume that the military would have done a better job had it been given more authority over decision-making and implementation—the “naive delegation thesis.” All sides of the debate over Iraq find this argument useful and invoke it (e.g., we should have listened to General Shinseki or General Petraeus, etc.) when it serves their purposes. The issue for Feaver is how one adjudicates between competing military advice when things are going badly in a war zone and there is partisan fighting taking place at home. Many of these issues are inherently political judgments that are not necessarily shaped by experience. He argued that more information, especially providing more information to the president, is probably the best solution. He also was concerned how we can preserve a marketplace of ideas in a wartime environment. Feaver sees the need for vigorous debates over the wisdom of policies. There has been too little accountability and oversight of the national debate on Iraq, but he noted that lack of press coverage does not mean that there is little internal debate within the administration. This is particularly damaging, however, for civil-military relations because bureaucracies get so much information from the press and thus the lack of coverage on decision-making then feeds back into misunderstanding.

Richard H. Kohn, professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill and Executive Secretary of TISS, posited that we will not know the full extent of civil-military problems until we know the result in Iraq. But he had doubts about the likelihood of success there. Unlike Hoffman, he doubted that civilian control could be divorced from civil-military relations. The difficulty with implementing the “uneasy dialogue” model, he said, is operationalizing it and avoiding overly politicizing the military in the process. He is most discouraged by the emerging belief among some military and civilian leaders that “the military knows more, it is better educated, it is privileged by its service, and particularly by experience in combat to know and speak on policy with an authority that the civilians cannot muster.” He believes that the military should only engage in political discussions privately, within the executive branch. Going public with disagreements will cause military leaders to be chosen on the basis of loyalty to future administrations, and that will continue to feed into the lack of trust deleterious to civil-military relations that has existed for the last fifty years. The solution is not just study and education, but a renewal of military professionalism and recognition by both civilians and the military that conflict is inherent and needs to be worked through. “There has to be some effort of open candor and dialogue, and maybe that requires a renewed understanding that you save your disagreements in public for your memoirs, and some renewed understanding on the part of the politicians that you step up to your responsibility and be accountable for your authority, and you don’t hide behind the military; you don’t start pointing fingers when things go badly.” 

The Military Profession and Dissent

Col. Don M. Snider, USA (ret.), a professor of political science at the U.S. Military Academy, put forward a framework for how to think about the military profession. He advocated not using the term “professionalism” but rather speaking of a “profession.” “Professionalism,” he argued, “is in the mind of the beholder, and in those conversations we speak right by each other all the time, without ever getting to the specifics that will allow us to be either developmental or policy-relevant.” He focused on interactions within the land combat, maritime, aerospace, and emerging joint military professions, each of which is defined by its own expert knowledge. Professions certify their professionals; society decides whether a profession is a profession, i.e., not a bureaucracy or business under a set of market forces. A profession also gets a sense of identity from its autonomy. The military professions are not pure professions, but rather hierarchical bureaucracies that want to be professions. The colonels and generals determine whether the military profession is a profession or bureaucracy; “nobody else has the power or the authority to make the organizational culture one in which professionals can survive.”

The challenge to the military is whether the profession is dominating the bureaucracy or vice versa. “The quintessential practice of a profession… is a repetitive exercise of discretionary judgment.” Absent an environment that embraces this, military professionals become bureaucrats. But all professions have jurisdictions where they practice. The expert knowledge of the military professions can be split into four baskets: military-technical (how to fight wars), moral-ethical (how to fight wars rightly), political-cultural (how to operate in other cultures), and human (how to develop human talent). If the profession does not know the boundaries of its expert knowledge, it cannot predict the kinds of expert knowledge its client will need in the future. That causes the kinds of problems for the profession seen in Iraq in 2003, where the profession lacked expert knowledge on conducting counterinsurgency operations. A profession must forecast such needs and anticipate the need for expert knowledge.

Snider proceeded to discuss professional military dissent. Drawing upon the work of Lenny Wong and Douglas Lovelace of the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, he noted that there were eight ways military leaders may dissent, depending on the resistance to their expertise from civilian leaders and the gravity of the threat to national security.[5] Resignation is the most extreme form of dissent. The relationship between the military profession and the society that it protects is deeply moral, and therefore professionals considering dissent must use a moral calculus and not just a policy calculus. This moral relationship has three components: (1) with the client (to protect the client and provide expert knowledge), (2) interpersonal trust relationships at the civil-military nexus, and (3) the military-to-military relationship, particularly with juniors. But dissent should only take place when there are grave concerns over issues and when the relevance of the exact point of disagreement over which the professional is preparing to dissent is grounded in the expert knowledge of the profession. The degree of sacrifice and the nature of the timing of the act of dissent are also important, and are especially significant to junior leaders.

Snider believes that any officer, active or retired, who uses a moral calculus on the costs of dissent can register their concerns publicly. Resignation should only be considered about 0.1 percent of the time, but taking it off the table entirely sends the message to the military profession that they are a bureaucracy with no moral space for their expert knowledge. The professional military ethic, in his estimation, needs “very little evolution” to endorse such dissent. “In fact, when I look back at the ‘revolt of the generals’,[6] my take is that I am struck with how little it accomplished in the short-term. I am struck, in the mid-term, with how far we have moved beyond it,” he said. Concluding his comments he stated, “I see no reason for any [additional] limits on dissent, professional dissent, that is arrived at by this type of moral calculus.”

Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, USMC (ret.), currently managing partner at Torch Hill Investment Partners and Director of Operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff before retiring in 2002, thought that Snider’s matrix was a good benchmark. He didn’t believe that civilian control is at stake. He asserted that officers should render the best advice that they can on an issue and then obey the decision-makers’ “direction to the very limits of your professional ability.” But he objected to the notion that retired officers, unlike active officers (who he said should never speak out in public other than in front of Congress), had somehow given up their right to speak out on issues, particularly those relating to the use of force, in certain “extraordinary” circumstances—“99 percent of the time, it is generally inappropriate.” Retired officers who align themselves with political parties also trouble him. He remains conflicted over the matter of his own speaking out, and stressed that he only did so because of the tragedies affecting those sent into harm’s way without the military’s full input to policymakers. He does not regret writing his April 2006 Time article, “Why Iraq Was a Mistake,” even though he has paid a price for it, and noted that this conference was his first time speaking publicly since the article appeared. He also said that the current civilian leadership was much more open to listening to advice than the previous Pentagon team.

Peter Hegseth, Executive Director of Vets for Freedom, a National Guard infantry officer and an OIF veteran, noted that for junior officers the key issue on judging dissent is its timing. “I think when you make a decision about whether or not to speak up says a lot about… your moral character.” He stated that a lapse in time between service and dissent could stir questions about the courage of such dissenters among their former subordinates. As long as the dissent, or open discussions of what service members saw, is seen as genuine, checked by public scrutiny, and within legal bounds, then he felt that it would improve public conversations. “But before going public, I also think there is a responsibility to do everything within the organization, before advocating, to ensure that you have sent [your] after-action reviews up your chain of command, that you have talked to the people you can talk to within your purview to make the necessary changes before deciding, ‘All right, now it’s time for me to speak out,’ or, ‘It’s time for me to talk about how things are not going the right way.”


FPRI president Harvey Sicherman summarized five themes that he took away from the conference. First, civil-military relations are inevitably the consequence of the frictions built into our government. The military can easily get caught up in that friction, particularly between the executive and the Congress. Second, in recent history this friction has been harmful. Relations that were poor before Iraq are now much worse. Third, frictions have been exacerbated because “we lack the capabilities, both military and civilian, to conduct the kind of conflict that we have found ourselves conducting in Iraq.” Fourth, to mend this rift, we must explore different aspects of the civil-military relationship—“not only control, but the views of society, its participation, and finally, of course, the professional aspect of the military.” Fifth, the military profession involves both expert knowledge and discretionary judgment. Ultimately, “a mismanaged relationship between civilians and the military puts in jeopardy not simply the profession of the statesman, but ultimately the profession of the military, itself.”


  1.  See /enotes/200711.skelton.civilmilitaryrelations.html for the complete text. [back]
  2.  Charles C. Moskos, John Allen Williams, and David R. Segal, eds., The Postmodern Military: Armed Forces after the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). [back]
  3.  CERP provides operational commanders with short-term funds to respond to urgent humanitarian and reconstruction projects within their areas of responsibility. See Mark S. Martins, “The Commander’s Emergency Response Program,” Joint Force Quarterly (issue 37, 2nd quarter 2005). [back]
  4.  Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (New York: Free Press, 2002). [back]
  5.  Leonard Wong and Douglas Lovelace, “Knowing When to Salute,” Strategic Studies Institute Op-Ed, U.S. Army War College, 9 July 2007. [back]
  6.  The so-called “revolt of the generals” of 2006 refers to dissenting public comments made by six retired general officers. See, for instance, Michael Duffy, “The Revolt of the Generals,” Time, April 16, 2006. Available at:,9171,1184048-1,00.html. [back]