The Soldier and the State Go Public

Civil-military relations haven't been this bad in decades.

Washington has found itself in a crisis over the proper relationship between senior civilian and military officials. This has played out in recent op-eds ("A War the Pentagon Doesn't Want") and articles ("Some U.S. Military Officers Not Happy With Syrian War Prep"), which have been countered by other op-eds ("No Military Consensus on Syria" and "U.S. War Decisions Rightfully Belong to Elected Civilian Leaders, Not the Military"). It's a tension that shows little sign of abating, regardless of how the Syria issue plays out: Underlying forces seem guaranteed to make it worse.

Every administration has its share of disputes with the Pentagon, but when it comes to where and how U.S. armed forces will be used, civil-military relations have not been this tense and precarious since the end of the Cold War. Military officers are increasingly willing to express their personal opinions about interventions, while civilian policymakers are increasingly willing to disregard professional military advice. Worse, a growing number of individuals from both "sides" seem unaware of the appropriate civilian and military roles and relationships, and their conflicts play out in public more prominently and immediately than ever before.

For example, senior civilian officials have strongly contested Gen. Martin Dempsey's doubts about intervening in the Syrian civil war. The New York Times reported last week that Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is "adamant that he not influence the public debate about whether to strike Syria," but Obama administration civilians and Capitol Hill staffers will tell you that the general has emphasized only the risks and costs associated with intervening. "They," meaning the military, "just don't want to do it" is a common refrain. Sen. John McCain has even characterized Dempsey's assessment as "beyond anything that any rational military thinker that I know would ever contemplate," and earlier this month he said: "I really don't pay a lot of attention to General Dempsey anymore. With me he just doesn't have any credibility."

The Pentagon has taken to selectively leaking its strong opposition to intervening to journalists and think tank analysts. (I have not met a senior officer who supports a direct military role in Syria.) Similarly, a certain State Department bureau that covers the territory including Syria, as well as those who work closely with Secretary John Kerry, will tell anyone who listens about their enthusiasm for no-fly zones or airstrikes.

These civil-military tensions have also been revealed in reviews of what military responses -- if any -- were available on the night of the terrorist attacks on the temporary mission facility and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya. In May, during one of many House hearings, Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission to Libya, was asked about the alleged order that prohibited four special operators from flying to Benghazi to try to rescue the besieged facilities. Hicks replied: "They were furious. I will quote Lt. Col. Gibson [commander of the site security team]. He said: ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military'." But if by "balls" Hicks meant a propensity to propose risky military operations, then State Department civilians have actually shown them quite often. (Gibson later testified to a House Armed Services subcommittee that, in fact, he "was not ordered to ‘stand down' by higher command authorities.")

Gen. Dempsey has testified several times that no U.S. military forces could have been deployed in time to make a difference. His predecessor, retired Adm. Michael Mullen, investigated potential military responses in his capacity as co-chair of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board and agreed with Dempsey. In testimony released last week, Mullen denounced the idea "that you can somehow [intervene] instantly when you really are completely surprised, that you could generate a force to have that kind of impact -- it's just not reasonable." He said a "time-distance physics problem ... would have prevented us from getting there."

Despite the military's repeated explanations, policymakers (primarily Republicans) have refused to accept that force could not have been deployed in Benghazi. In May, Rep. Jason Chaffetz said to Charlie Rose: "Why is it that the military could not get there until almost 24 hours after the attack? You can get on a Delta flight here at the Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. and fly there faster than our military was able to get there." In closed and open sessions, military commanders have described the distance, logistics, and force-protection challenges that prevented combat aircraft and special operations forces from deploying. Yet, even as late as last Thursday, House members expressed their disbelief that no military assets could have saved the day. As Rep. John Mica told Adm. Mullen: "I'm not the greatest military strategist, but Mr. [Darrell] Issa and I in January were at least at one post -- I know of at least three other posts, we could have launched an attack."

Duke University scholar (and FP contributor) Peter Feaver has described this civil-military tension as a principal-agent problem, where theoretically only civilian principals have the authority and only military agents have the expertise. Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, however, many civilian officials have helped to develop and implement U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations around the world. They now believe that they have a clearer and more realistic understanding of what military force can achieve. Subsequently, my impression is that civilians increasingly think they possess the expertise to assess operational plans and that professional military advice is merely another opinion to consider when evaluating use-of-force options. In effect, civilians have become both principal and agent.

Meanwhile, military officials who might have once refrained from discussing sensitive issues are now more willing to share their opinions. After surviving multiple deployments to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, where inadequate political guidance and flawed military strategies hindered U.S. policies, they feel obliged to speak their minds. They also track proposals for using force -- via op-eds and blogs -- at a much greater level of detail than they did a decade ago. One Marine colonel explained to me recently: "We [meaning the military] need to know what they [meaning civilians] are getting us into next time." Furthermore, throughout the professional military education system, officers are taught to think critically and divergently, and to candidly express their opinions through their chain of command.

Inevitably, and unfortunately, a greater volume of private military opinions is anonymously spilling into the public sphere. While officers have a constitutional right to express their personal views, they also have a professional obligation to avoid weighing in on political matters. Many officers who are quoted in news articles and blogs likely have no access to current intelligence assessments or operational plans that are under discussion in National Security Council meetings. Yet these officers start from a default conviction that civilian officials have dangerous and unrealistic expectations of what military power can achieve.

This civil-military split is further promoted by the insatiable demand for news. An increasing number of journalists stalk the tunnels under Capitol Hill, where policymakers are happy to expound on sensitive foreign policy issues. Similarly, as a result of embedded reporting from the wars of the past dozen years, journalists have deeper relationships with now-senior military officials than they did in the past, and they can find a "senior Pentagon official" to condemn White House policy.

The split will likely be deepened by the worsening partisanship in Washington. The impression one gets is that the party out of power no longer perceives the military as a neutral institution, but rather as the uniformed face of the White House it serves. Democrats demonized the military and its operations during the Bush administration -- remember the "General Betray Us" Moveon.org ads from 2007? Now, it is Democrats who embrace President Obama's drone strikes and interventions, while Republicans harshly question the expertise and motivations of uniformed officials. The military is supposed to be above partisanship, but Washington might not allow it to be.

What is most dispiriting about the apparent deterioration of civil-military relations is that it is hard to see what would improve the situation. There has been a great deal of analysis of the need for the four armed services to operate more jointly ("getting purple") and for the military and civilian agencies to coordinate preventive and stability operations (through a "whole of government approach"). However, there is little thinking about how senior civilian and military officials should cooperate in the iterative military planning process between the Pentagon and the White House. It is possible disagreements are being left at the Situation Room door, but this is unlikely, since history shows that intense civil-military disputes emerge in public when they have not been resolved in private. And what is in the public domain should disturb any principled civilian or military official. 

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National Security

Responsibility to Protect?

Why none of the plans for intervening in Syria actually tries to save civilians.

During his opening statement before last week's House Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria, ranking member Rep. Adam Smith described the "civil war in which Assad has killed somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand of his own civilians." Versions of Smith's misleading characterization are repeated often by policymakers. As Sen. John McCain has often proclaimed, and repeated last week, "The fact is Bashar Assad has massacred 100,000 people."

That the security forces under Assad's authority have perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the use of chemical weapons, is beyond doubt. And as the head of state, he has effective control over his subordinate forces and must be held accountable before the International Criminal Court or a post-conflict special tribunal for Syria. However, most of the reported deaths in Syria have not been committed by those forces under his command.

The most widely quoted source for civil war deaths has been produced by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which consists of a handful of Syrian activists compiling information in a war zone and presenting the best estimates possible. Despite their potential for bias and the methodological challenges of tracking the Syria war, SOHR estimates are consistent with the latest United Nations numbers. In the past 10 days, both the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, and the high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, estimated that "more than 100,000" Syrians have lost their lives in the ongoing civil war.

This is how SOHR breaks down the Syrian deaths:

This grim account is not the Syrian civil war that U.S. policymakers and pundits reference when proposing and debating military intervention options. You will not hear senators assert that Syrian rebels have "massacred" over 45,000 Syrian regime or paramilitary forces. When Assad responded to the largely peaceful demonstrations in 2011 with brutality and extrajudicial detentions, Syrian rebels took up arms against the state. Their primary objectives are to capture and control additional territory and resources and, ultimately, to assure that Assad is removed from power, whether through diplomacy or warfare.

Saving civilians' lives, as opposed to those of regime security forces or members of the armed opposition, requires recognizing exactly how non-combatants are being killed. On this, the 11 reports and updates published by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic have proven to be the most reliable resource. After re-reading these gripping and detailed findings this weekend, I found that a half-dozen means of regime-directed lethality against civilians appear consistently:

  • Heavy machine gun, tank, and artillery attacks -- with occasional surface-to-surface missile strikes -- against areas predominantly populated by civilians.
  • Sniper fire against civilians and those medical personnel attempting to rescue them.
  • Unlawful killing of civilians during large-scale counterinsurgency raids into cities with ground forces.
  • Arbitrary mass arrests within civilian neighborhoods and at military checkpoints, which end in extrajudicial executions.
  • Aerial bombardment by helicopter gunships and combat jets against cities, including with especially indiscriminate weapons like cluster munitions and thermobaric bombs.
  • Ground raids into hospitals and temporary facilities operated by medical personnel and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which result in extrajudicial killings.

The U.N. mission report released on Monday investigated allegations of chemical weapons use in the Ghouta area of Damascus on August 21 and determined that they were used "against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale," with "clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent were used." This impartial finding directly implicates the Assad regime, though as journalist Liz Sly recently noted, less than 1 percent of all Syrian deaths have been by chemical weapons.

Fully comprehending these six primary means of regime-directed lethality against Syrian non-combatants -- as well as the recent large-scale use of chemical weapons -- should inform various demands in the United States for military intervention. But in the last two-and-a-half years, virtually no proposal for using force to protect civilians in Syria has taken into account how non-combatants are actually killed and injured.

This omission is not by accident. There are well-known and time-tested defensive countermeasures that the U.S. military could implement in Syria tomorrow to protect civilians there. You can find the tactics, techniques, and procedures for countering and defeating every way that Syrian civilians are being killed in the U.S. military's joint publications and the U.S. Army's field manuals. If you want these broken down into excruciating detail, the Pentagon also produces a 1,300-page universal joint task list. And for a more readable description of how military planners think about developing contingency operations to save lives, you can read the handbook produced by the Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) Project. (Disclosure: I was a research associate for the MARO Project for nine months in its early stages.)

For example, mitigating or suppressing sniper fire requires well-trained infantry troops to detect, seize, search, and clear each floor the gunman is suspected of occupying. Counter-sniper tactics also include deploying your own snipers to painstakingly determine the patterns and location of an adversary sniper. As an Army field manual instructs: "The sniper must place himself in the position of the enemy and ask, ‘How would I accomplish this mission?'." Once found, the sniper is targeted by another sniper. (The 2001 Jude Law film Enemy at the Gates was supposedly a realistic representation of such tactics, as used by German and Russian snipers during the siege of Stalingrad.)

If you want to disrupt mobile artillery shelling, you need advanced counter-battery radars synched with counter-battery fire, or else lots of manned or unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets circling overhead to identify the fire source in real time (which Syrian rebels do not possess). Or, you can always "send in the infantry," assuming they are trained in the basic fire and movement tactics required to locate and attack self-propelled artillery.

The reason these specific countermeasures are never proposed is that they entail a level of cost, commitment, and risk that neither pundits nor policymakers are willing to accept, including the unmentionable "boots on the ground." Rather, intervention proposals focus on using stand-off weapons against largely static "regime targets" in an effort to coerce Assad to change his behavior, or enforcing (or just announcing) a no-fly-zone, which would be largely irrelevant. As President Obama stated in June: "The fact of the matter is for example, 90 percent of the deaths that have taken place haven't been because of air strikes by the Syrian air force."

The types of interventions that proponents have endorsed for Syria are often based on deep misunderstandings of how U.S. force was used on behalf of humanitarian missions in the past, and have almost nothing to do with how Syrian non-combatants are actually being killed. As someone who has been researching and writing for a decade about how military force can be used to save lives, I find the unwillingness to confront the realities of the conflict in Syria puzzling and disheartening. Either saving Syrian non-combatants from a violent death is so important to the United States and the international community that it necessitates an effective military response, or it isn't. Intervention proposals that consciously ignore or downplay the amount and type of force needed to protect civilians are just wishful thinking.

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