September 24, 2008 – The dominant media storyline about the Iraq war holds that the decisions about how to conduct it pitted ignorant civilians — especially the president and secretary of defense — against the uniformed military, whose wise and sober advice was cavalierly ignored. The Bush administration’s cardinal sin was interference in predominantly military affairs, starting with overruling the military on the size of the force that invaded Iraq in March 2003.
But it’s not just the media that peddles this story. As Bob Woodward illustrates in his new book, “The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008,” it also resonates among many senior uniformed military officers.
The plausibility of the narrative rests on two questionable principles. The first is that soldiers have the right to a voice in making policy regarding the use of the military instrument — that indeed they have the right to insist that their views be adopted. The second is that the judgment of soldiers is inherently superior to that of civilians when it comes to military affairs. Both of these principles are at odds with the American practice of civil-military relations, and with the historical record.
In our republic the uniformed military advises the civilian authorities, but has no right to insist that its views be adopted. Of course, uniformed officers have an obligation to stand up to civilian leaders if they think a policy is flawed. They must convey their concerns to civilian policy-makers forcefully and truthfully. But once a policy decision is made, soldiers are obligated to carry it out to the best of their ability, whether their advice is heeded or not.
Moreover, even when it comes to strictly military affairs, soldiers are not necessarily more prescient than civilian policy makers. This is confirmed by the historical record.
Historians have long recognized that Abraham Lincoln’s judgment concerning the conduct of the Civil War was vastly superior to that of Gen. George McClellan. They have recognized that Gen. George C. Marshall, the greatest soldier-statesman since George Washington, was wrong to oppose arms shipments to Great Britain in 1940, and wrong to argue for a cross-channel invasion during the early years of World War II, before the U.S. was ready.
Historians have pointed out that the U.S. operational approach that contributed to our defeat in Vietnam was the creature of the uniformed military. And they have observed that the original — unimaginative — military plan for Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War was rejected by the civilian leadership, which ordered a return to the drawing board. The revised plan was far more imaginative, and effective.
So it was with Iraq. The fact is that the approach favored by the uniformed leadership was failing. As the insurgency metastasized in 2005, the military had three viable alternatives: continue offensive operations along the lines of those in Anbar province after Fallujah; adopt a counterinsurgency approach; or emphasize the training of Iraqi troops in order to transition to Iraqi control of military operations. Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, and Gen. George W. Casey, commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq — supported by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers — chose the third option.
Transitioning to Iraqi control was a logical option for the long run. But it did little to solve the problem of the insurgency, which was generating sectarian violence. Based on the belief by many senior commanders, especially Gen. Abizaid, that U.S. troops were an “antibody” to Iraqi culture, the Americans consolidated their forces on large “forward operating bases,” maintaining a presence only by means of motorized patrols that were particularly vulnerable to attacks by improvised explosive devices. They also conceded large swaths of territory and population alike to the insurgents. Violence spiked.
In late 2006, President Bush, like President Lincoln in 1862, adopted a new approach to the war. He replaced the uniformed and civilian leaders who were adherents of the failed operational approach with others who shared his commitment to victory rather than “playing for a tie.” In Gen. David Petraeus, Mr. Bush found his Ulysses Grant, to execute an operational approach based on sound counterinsurgency doctrine. This new approach has brought the U.S. to the brink of victory.
Although the conventional narrative about the Iraq war is wrong, its persistence has contributed to the most serious crisis in civil-military relations since the Civil War. According to Mr. Woodward’s account, the uniformed military not only opposed the surge, insisting that their advice be followed; it then subsequently worked to undermine the president once he decided on another strategy.
In one respect, the actions taken by military opponents of the surge, e.g. “foot-dragging,” “slow-rolling” and selective leaking are, unfortunately, all-too-characteristic of U.S. civil-military relations during the last decade and a half. But the picture Mr. Woodward draws is far more troubling. Even after the policy had been laid down, the bulk of the senior U.S. military leadership — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, the rest of the Joint Chiefs, and Gen. Abizaid’s successor, Adm. William Fallon, actively worked against the implementation of the president’s policy.
If Mr. Woodward’s account is true, it means that not since Gen. McClellan attempted to sabotage Lincoln’s war policy in 1862 has the leadership of the U.S. military so blatantly attempted to undermine a president in the pursuit of his constitutional authority. It should be obvious that such active opposition to a president’s policy poses a threat to the health of the civil-military balance in a republic.
Mr. Owens is a professor at the Naval War College and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.