Category Archives: Civil-Military Relations

Misleading Numbers

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that ten Washington think tanks are preparing a joint letter calling on Congress and the President to cut DoD overhead spending so that training and readiness can be preserved along with the Department’s burgeoning cyber and special operations capabilities.

Military analysts at think tanks from the liberal Center for American Progress to the conservative American Enterprise Institute to the libertarian Cato Institute will sign the letter to be released Monday. (When analysts at these think tanks reach an accord, it might be time to start thinking about a zombie shelter because

Specifically, the analysts will recommend another round of base closures, reforming the military health care system (Tricare), and cutting the Pentagon’s sizeable civilian workforce. Of the three, cutting the Department’s civilian workforce will be the easiest to achieve. Congress has rejected the administration’s proposals to increase some Tricare fees and is showing zero interest in another base closure round. Military compensation would seem to be another area ripe for reform, but the personnel subcommittee markup rejected DoD’s proposed cap for the 2014 military pay raise. For now, everyone seems content to let the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission put forward some proposals that have little hope of becoming law.

That leaves civilians and contractors holding the short straw.

Time magazine’s Mark Thompson linked to a new Government Accountability Office report showing that DoD’s civilian workforce (civilian employees plus contractors) outnumbers active duty military personnel. In FY11, DoD reported 807,000 civilian full-time equivalents (FTEs) and an estimated 710,000 contractor FTEs. At 1.5 million, civilians outnumber the 1.4 million active duty military personnel.

You know who else outnumbers active duty military on the U.S. Government payroll? Military retirees and their survivors / dependents. 2.4 million retirees and their survivors receive $100 billion a year and 5.5 million receive Tricare benefits compared to 3.3 million active duty personnel and dependents.

Putting aside for the moment whether or not the civilian workforce is too large, focusing strictly on the numbers of civilians, contractors, and uniformed personnel is misleading because it overlooks a key fact.

There’s a very good explanation for the current civilian to military workforce ratio: Civilians and contractors cost less. A lot less. (See above.) We’ve grown the size of our civilian and contractor workforce precisely because we can’t afford to grow our active duty military at the same rate. In the last ten years, our military personnel costs have almost doubled without a corresponding increase in size.

Cutting the civilian workforce will achieve less savings than cuts to uniformed personnel. In perhaps typical Washington fashion, we’ve decided to go for the easy fix that won’t actually fix much.

I don’t have the right answer for the appropriate mix of uniformed and civilian workforce so this isn’t an argument prioritizing one or the other. It’s simply about acknowledging the costs of each, so that we can build the force we need at a price that’s right. The problem is that the Pentagon doesn’t have an answer either. According to a recent Reserve Forces Policy Board report (full disclosure: I work for the chairman), “the Department does not know, use, or track the fully burdened and life cycle costs” for active duty service members,” and according to the aforementioned GAO report, “DoD has yet to assess the appropriate mix of its military, civilian, and contractor personnel capabilities in its strategic workforce plan as required by law.”

Based on anecdotal observations from my professional network, many DoD civilians and contractors are military retirees,* which means they’re drawing a pension, receiving subsidized health care, and shopping at DoD commissaries. So it’s ironic that that by cutting the civilian workforce, we’re inevitably harming some of the very retirees we’re trying to protect by avoiding the tough reforms to the military compensation and retirement system.

* I’ve searched far and wide for survey data that confirms or denies this anecdotal hypothesis but have yet to find it.

Posted in Analysis, Civil-Military Relations, Military | Tagged | 5 Comments

Thoughts on Congressional Oversight of DoD

Rosa Brooks’ weekly column is up at Foreign Policy. She’s been writing mostly on civil-military relations but this week dives into runaway Pentagon spending. She echoes a lot of my own thoughts on the subject, particularly her last paragraph where she asks a lot of tough questions that I’m fairly certain nobody on Capitol Hill or in the Building is asking.

Congress, being the large, slow-moving target that it is, receives a broadside as a major culprit of wasteful DoD spending. Brooks writes:

When I was a newly minted Pentagon employee, one of the things that astounded me most was how hard it was to get Congress to stop funding stupid stuff. This should not have surprised me, since funding stupid stuff is one of Congress’ constitutional functions, but it surprised me nonetheless. I recall, for instance, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ so-called “heartburn letters” to congressional appropriators. Most of his complaints related not to proposed funding cuts, but to Congress’ insistence on giving DOD money for programs the military did not want or need, such as extra VH-71 helicopters or C-17 Globemaster IIIs.

My own thoughts on Congressional oversight of DoD are evolving–this is a really complicated relationship about which much more could be written–and what follows isn’t necessarily a rebuttal or a defense of Congress, but rather some food for thought.

In the 1960s, the Army began issuing new M-16 rifles to soldiers headed to Vietnam. Unfortunately, it did so with some really crappy ammunition. According to Army records, and courtesy of the inimitable C.J. Chivers, 80 percent of 1,585 soldiers surveyed in 1967 claimed a stoppage while firing. Publicly, the Army claimed that nothing was wrong and that the M-16 was best rifle available. A Congressional subcommittee investigation forced the Army into making improvements to the weapon and ammunition.

In 1985, Barry Goldwater assumed the Chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Before the legislative session even began, Goldwater had decided to make defense reorganization his number one priority. The Pentagon fought reorganization tooth and nail for the next two years. Goldwater-Nichols, though not perfect, is widely regarded as one of the smarter pieces of defense legislation ever passed by Congress and it was done against strong objections from the Pentagon.

And my personal favorite was that time when George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, James Forrestal, Lauris Norstad, Clark Clifford, the Navy, and the Army TRIED TO GET RID OF MY BELOVED MARINE CORPS. Good times. Luckily, the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and later the Senate Armed Services Committee rejected their proposals to reorganize the War Department without providing the Marine Corps statutory authority.

I’m not trying to say Congress always gets oversight of the Department right, particularly when it comes to appropriations and acquisitions. Lord knows some things <;cough>; the F-35 alternate engine <;/cough>; can’t be defended. But just because the Pentagon says it doesn’t want or need something, doesn’t necessarily mean it knows what the hell it’s talking about. Sometimes, and I know this will come as a shock, large bureaucracies want what’s in the interest of… large bureaucracies.

*Thanks to Chris, Ryan, and Dan for helping me think through some of this.

Posted in Civil-Military Relations, Defense Acquisition, Military, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off

I Won’t Back Down

I have to admit, I’m a little nervous. When I write something, I fully expect people to disagree with me and to call me an idiot after reading my “analysis.” But I rarely expect to anger people. My latest article has the potential to really anger a lot of people. About 6 million of them.

I’ve got an op-ed at The National Interest on the need to reform Tricare, the military healthcare system.

The numbers, however, do not allow for continued inaction. Increasing health-care costs in DoD’s budget mean less money for bombs, bullets and training. Fielding a military but supplying it with obsolete equipment and minimal training is the definition of a hollow force. Sensible reforms, like the ones proposed in the administration’s FY2013 budget request, will not break faith with military retirees and their families. But Congress must acknowledge that Tricare is merely a policy, part of a larger military compensation package that seeks to recruit and retain the best men and women for military service. It was never intended to become an inalienable right.

Due to space constraints, I had to omit things that I fear might lead some readers to question my support for military retirees. I want to go on record with some things here.

  1. I do not believe Tricare should be abolished or that retirees should not have access to subsidized healthcare in some form.
  2. I do believe military retirees should contribute more than they currently do. They should expect to pay, on average, at least 25% of their healthcare costs as was intended by Congress when it established Tricare in 1996.
  3. Enlisted veterans should not pay as much as officers. Tricare enrollment fees should be tiered based on retirement pay.
  4. Working age retirees who earn over a certain amount each year (including retirement pay), say $150,000, should not be allowed to use Tricare. They should be forced to use their civilian employer’s healthcare plan. Once they stop working, they can join Tricare for Life.
  5. Reforms must grandfather some people into the current system.
  6. Tricare enrollment fees should be indexed to inflation for the general healthcare sector, which should go a long way toward stabilizing DoD’s costs.
  7. I do believe that we are dangerously close to viewing veterans as a privileged, entitled class of people. This I fear is corrosive to civil-military relations and widens the gap between those who serve and those who don’t. The challenge is fighting for and receiving the care veterans deserve without becoming entitled.

Andrew Bacevich used a great quote from FDR in a recent book review that I wanted to crib, but didn’t. After General MacArthur broke up the “Bonus Marchers” camp in Washington, DC, Roosevelt let it be known that “no person, because he wore a uniform, must therefore be placed in a special class of beneficiaries.”

Anyway, read the whole thing here.


Posted in Civil-Military Relations, Military | 11 Comments

Still in Saigon

GEN Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has released his Chairman’s reading list. So far, this one is receiving better reviews than the reading list he released during his short stint as Army Chief of Staff last summer, which received some harsh reviews. Just about every general officer publishes a reading list, formal or informal, but the Chairman’s reading list and those of the service chiefs generally get the most press.

These reading lists are easy to poke fun at and critique because no list is perfect. That said, they serve a useful purpose. Most of the books, especially those targeted to field grade and general officers, are intended to get the military reader thinking and learning about larger, strategic issues that govern the military profession or affect U.S. foreign policy. For instance, both of Dempsey’s reading lists had Robert Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power and Samuel Huntington’s The Soldier and the State. On the other hand, the generals have a tendency to include some weird stuff, like books about starfish and spiders.

Last summer, I re-read E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed. The GOP primary season was nearing its pinnacle of farce and I thought to myself that this book ought to be required reading for anyone who sought the office of President because anyone who wants to be Commander-in-Chief needs to bone up on the consequences of their decisions to send American boys and girls to war. While the military does an exceptional job of publishing reading lists to help officers and staff non-commissioned officers better understand civilians, the reverse is, sadly, not true.

In that spirit, here is a reading list that, if the G&L collective was President or National Security Advisor, it would require each civilian political appointee working in State, Defense, or the NSC to read. Like GEN Dempsey’s list, this one is not exhaustive and I’m sure there are some things we missed or omitted. This will be a list-in-progress and we’ll be adding/subtracting titles. So, feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

America, F Yeah!

Democracy in America
Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy
For the Common Defense
9/11 Commission Report
The New American Militarism
Arsenal of Democracy
Buying National Security

The dogs of war, they’ll carry you away (or: How smart people make bad decisions)

The Guns of August
The Best and the Brightest
Rubicon Theory of War

On combat (or: Carrying shit and killing people is not pleasant)

The Face of Battle
With the Old Breed
If I Die in a Combat Zone
A Rumor of War
Achilles in Vietnam
No True Glory
On Killing

Big(ish) Think

On War (Books I-III, VIII)
Twenty Years' Crisis
Arms and Influence
War and Politics
Perception and Misperception in International Politics
War and Change in World Politics
Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy
Shield of Achilles

Posted in Analysis, Civil-Military Relations, Military, War | 3 Comments

Coups and the politics of security assistance

During the recent coup in Mali, the United States received some unfortunate news: Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, the nominal leader of the rebellious faction of the country’s military, was trained in the United States under the auspices of the Department of State’s International Military Education and Training program. While military aid to the country – aimed primarily at countering al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – has been suspended, the presence of an American-trained officer in an American-supported military at the forefront of a coup d’etat is a troubling sign for a U.S. foreign policy which would rather pride itself on democratic 21st century statecraft rather than what seems like 20th century skullduggery.

As anachronistic and self-contradictory as the idea of a 21st century coup d’etat may seem to modern observers (although let’s not forget Honduras), it remains as an extreme expression of political engagement that lies beneath the surface even in nominally democratic, transparent societies. Moreover, understanding this political dynamic is crucial in an age when the United States increasingly seeks to leverage and enhance the combat power of its foreign partners.

The Abnormal Situation

Armed forces and security services are, in theory and often in practice, instruments of power. But they are also nodes of power all their own. Their actions can make or break political transitions. Like all bureaucracies, they exert a degree of independent influence and compete for resources and power within a larger political system. However, because they are armed and highly cohesive, they have a unique capability to coercively implement and resist political change. Indeed, militaries are fundamentally political institutions because they are organizations charged with carrying out the ugly side of political behavior.

In a rational-legalistic state, military power exists in the shadow of legislative and deliberative machinery that guides its loyal military force. But militaries often exist to neutralize political conflict within the domestic sphere and enforce the basic rules of the game that make civic engagement possible. Even René Schneider, the 1970 Chilean Army Commander-in-Chief remembered for his resistance to military interference in Chilean politics, recognized that the apolitical role of the military was a political decision in favor of the status quo thus ensuring a normal political process. But Schneider added a caveat: “the only limitation is in the case that the State stopped acting within their own legality. In that case the armed forces have a higher loyalty to the people and are free to decide an abnormal situation beyond the framework of the law.”

In Honduras, for example, the Constitution contained no impeachment process and explicitly stated that the military was responsible for the alternation of the presidency. In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was critical to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, yet crafted a constitutional order in which the military retains an implicit veto on any changes to the parameters of Egypt’s burgeoning democratic political system. In both cases, the militaries in question had received large degrees of U.S. support.

The Articulation of Loathsome Interests

In Mali, U.S. support created more capable elements of the Malian military, but it was unable to alter the broader patronage system within Mali itself. Despite U.S. efforts, Toure’s considerations for his patronage network overall supported diverting resources away from the military. As Alex Thurston and other analysts have noted, this has had deleterious consequences for the military’s response to the Tuareg rebellion and the overall conditions of mid-ranking officers and soldiers in the field. The political cooption of high-ranking officers by the regime is an important strategy for regime stability, but if it occurs without buying off the parts of the military who ultimately provide the men on the scene with guns, it is an invitation for a junior officer coup, bringing about men with the notional ability to enforce their rule but limited capacity to enact it substantively. Political complexity does not imply nor require sophistication on the part of all the players involved, but when a shock to the system occurs, the modus vivendi that made loathsome interests mutually compatible can rapidly disappear.

Foreign support and the leverage it brings is inherently bounded in its capabilities to effect systemic political change. Arming and training a foreign military force might improve its capabilities on the battlefield and its organizational cohesion, but it only complicates and does not neutralize or affect  its status as a political actor. Rather than buying an effective civil-military system, foreign support tends to exacerbate existing political cleavages within the security sector rather than transcend them. As political scientists Jeffrey Herbst and William Reno have noted, African politics in particular provide strong case studies of how the traditional links between military and state strength can be perverted or severed. Militaries are only useful tools for state formation to the extent they require mass mobilization, resource extraction, and provide genuinely public goods. If they can gain their resources through domestic extortion, foreign institutional or political support, or otherwise avoid an inclusive economic relationship with local territory, they may not function as engines of stabilization.

For example, the Organization for African Unity’s commitment to de jure sovereignty has significantly reduced African regimes’ fears of external conquest, while vast flows of military and non-military foreign aid have reduced incentives to mobilize resources from the construction of strong extractive state institutions. Indeed, combined with pressure to encourage competitive politics, the development of strong state institutions is a particularly risky prospect, and many weak states have moved to develop “shadow states” and prevent the creation of institutions that might use their effective provision of public goods to challenge the authority of present regimes.

In other words, the strengthening of military institutions can undermine the deliberate strategies of weakening or decentralization of violent power. An under-resourced military reduces the potential that a military will  compete with the government as an independent power base and makes officers more dependent on a centralized patronage network. In some cases, enhancing military capabilities can gravely disrupt a regime’s intentional constraints on power. How foreign powers can effectively provide military aid  while simultaneously strengthening state institutions remains an open question. In pure proxy warfare, the goal of strengthening state institutions, encouraging political competition, and enabling the conditions for the provision of public goods are all basically irrelevant or secondary considerations. The goal was to check the power of rival forces, period. Now, however, the goal is to build state institutions, albeit from afar and with a limited footprint.

Defense Cooperation and Unintended Consequences

On the other hand, there are beneficial aspects of engaging with military forces without quashing their prior political roles within or outside of the state, provided expectations are properly limited. In countries with weak or volatile governing institutions, forging relationships with militaries and security services can provide a more enduring avenue of influence with greater longevity and institutional retention than other elements of the regime can provide. But relationships with foreign militaries must be built with awareness of their political incentives.

As the United States enlists foreign states in the suppression of terrorism and subversion, it must recognize the political dimension of those states’ militaries. In post-withdrawal Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki has already been able to manipulate the security institutions the U.S. left behind to create a highly personalized, coup-proofed force operating at his disposal. Meanwhile, in Yemen, U.S. trained counterterrorism forces have frequently been used in service of defending Saleh and his successor regime. American leverage is temporary, but the political institutions and capabilities that this supposedly leveraging cooperation creates will long outlast the U.S. policymakers’ and public’s attention spans.

The U.S. must acknowledge that foreign security forces do not necessarily represent popular or elite sovereignty, but rather constitute political actors in their own right. In many cases, their machinations carry weight in economic, political, and civil arenas U.S. citizens might not recognize as subject to military influence. Building a military is not simply a technocratic endeavor which teleologically results in a capable, apolitical force, but an intervention in a complex political process and the empowerment of political actors. Coups, as the extreme case of an enduring form of political-military behavior in domestic politics, should not be dismissed as anachronisms or relics from a bygone era. Instead, they are reminders that as the U.S. seeks to stand up partners, measured considerations of U.S. priorities and appreciation for the convoluted nature of deep politics remains as important as ever.

Posted in Civil-Military Relations | 1 Comment

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate…

Gunpowder and Lead is privileged to occasionally host accomplished guest bloggers with expertise in realms far outside of our own.  This post was written by the very talented, ‘Andrea’ aka @AgentAbleTango.  Apart from having a Masters in International Relations and Bachelors in Russian, Andrea has a background in Intelligence, Information Assurance and Language Training.  She also one of those people that speaks more languages than the rest of us can name.  –Sky

A recent article in the Kabul Press by Matthew Nasuti highlighted an interesting, and inconvenient, fact about wartime spending in Afghanistan – the US pays “annual salaries of up to $237,000” (not including bonuses or cost of living expenses) to its contracted Pashto translators.  The salary highlights the importance of a critical skill and also gives insight into a greater challenge that has plagued the US Department of Defense for decades.  There are not enough capable linguists in the military with the necessary language abilities required to perform essential engagement in Afghanistan, so these tasks fall to contractors at great cost.  More broadly, Americans struggle with a foreign language skills deficit when compared with other nations and this has hampered our abilities to successfully navigate conflict and forge peace.  The lack of diverse and in-depth language and cultural knowledge threatens our long-term national security and places us at a disadvantage in global society.

The answer to the foreign language challenges that now face the DoD can be found at the source of their own military language program.  The US instituted their first language school in San Francisco in order to train personnel to translate intercepted Japanese communications. Because the need was so great for the intelligence these communications could provide and since Japanese was not widely spoken in the US, the military turned to Nisei, or Second-Generation, Japanese Americans to assist in the undertaking. The Nisei served the US military both as translators and instructors for other troops. Although many among them had faced internment personally or had family who were interned during wartime, they served with honor and great distinction, providing pivotal skills and information that assisted in American success during the war.  Additionally, there were other native speaking communities that proved vital to success in WWII – native Navajo speakers developed a code that was not based on traditional known encryption methods but rather on a language that was exclusively practiced and regionally known to those in the American Southwest – making it practically unbreakable to any foreign forces.

Not only is there historic precedent to the employment of native speakers in addition to traditionally trained linguists, but there are a number of present day examples of how native speakers contribute greatly to the mission.  The USAF recently selected Senior Airman Michael Abrash as their Language Professional of the Year.

Although Abrash earned this linguistic honor, he joined the Air Force in a completely different role: a jet engine mechanic. Being a naturalized U.S. citizen since 2000, Abrash was not aware that his proficiency in Russian could help his career.

Abrash self-identified his language skills to the Air Force, even though he was not using them on a daily basis at work. He continued to maintain his language capability at the required level and thus was available to fill an important Air Force personnel gap.

“There was a shortage of Russian enabled linguists seven months ago to fill a slot in Kyrgyzstan,” Abrash said. “So the Air Force sent a mechanic who happens to know Russian.”

The choice of SrA Abrash, a jet engine mechanic, not only highlights the value of language excellence in our service today but also underscores a shifting landscape in the armed forces – increasingly significant contributions in language skills come from those not formally serving as linguists. Need more evidence?  Another example came courtesy of the US Navy who engaged in a recent daring at-sea rescue of Iranian sailors from pirates.  These incredible stories highlight an essential population within the armed forces – foreign or US citizens who posses critical language skills.

Additionally, the cost and time it takes to train native speakers in missions associated with critical languages is compliant with a Department of Defense strategy aiming to achieving low-cost, rapid, adaptability to unpredictable global events.  In recent years, the US has found itself forced to turn to contract linguists to fill the gaps. While contracting local citizens in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to success on the battlefield and helped ensure US forces security, safety, and vital insight into the conflict, it also placed those who assisted in this undertaking at risk. Iraqi interpreters who assisted US forces during OIF are still facing death threats, even after the troop withdrawal.

Cognizant of these and other challenges posed by the complexities of language planning in an increasingly mutable security environment, the DoD has adapted new programs and approaches. In implementing some of these changes, they have reiterated value of the native speakers, returned to their roots in recruiting among foreign born and first generation citizens, and they have underscored the importance of rapid development of language programs in partnership across the native and nonnative speaking spectrum.

In 2003, the Army launched a pilot program specifically to recruit personnel already fluent in one of several languages or regional dialects indigenous to the Middle East and Central Asia.  The success of this program led to the creation of a unique MOS; Interpreter / Translator 09L.  These linguists now fill a role much like the one previously filled by contract linguists who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given that this MOS now exists, it seems imperative that we openly engage those personnel who partnered with us in OIF and OEF and offer them priority enlistment in the program. Not only would their skills benefit the US Army interests, but they would also assist them and their families in the naturalization process. (Note: Service in the US military is not, and should not, be a requirement to provide to these personnel the protection and assistance that the US has pledged to them. This suggestion is simply a desire to expedite and streamline the processing of these personnel through a system that has become complicated and fraught with delays and red tape.) More info on this program is currently available on the US Iraqi Embassy’s website.

The development of the 09L MOS is significant, but it remains a specialty unique to the Army.  The Marines, Navy, and Air Force have a depth of language talent outside the ranks of their respective linguist cadre but those skilled personnel generally must self identify as fluent or the military will never know of their capabilities.  Looking back at the Air Force’s Language Professional of the Year we see that “Abrash was not aware that his proficiency in Russian could help his career”.  It is possible that Chief Petty Officer Jagdeep Sidhu, the gas turbine electrician whose language skills were critical in the rescue of the Iranian fisherman, also did not consider how vital his fluency in Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi are in the execution of his duties.  It is imperative that we do a better job in ensuring these personnel are aware of how critical foreign language fluency is and inform them of their possible eligibility for a Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus (FLPB).

Additionally, the military would do well to track and coordinate assignments for personnel who are proficient in one or more foreign languages. This would best serve the needs of the mission and the language community. Native speakers could cooperatively train and maintain language fluency with non-native trained linguists in their divisions, squadrons, or fleets. This broad overview of more than 70 years of defense policy with respect to language training and management does not pay homage to all of the achievements, or address many of the shortcomings in strategy but hopefully it will provide some perspective into the long and complex relationship that the military has had with regards to language and cultural development within its ranks.

Posted in Academia, Civil-Military Relations, Middle East, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Shadow wars and shoddy policy

As the government begins the painful process of paring down the bloated defense establishment, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and its best known component, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), is likely to continue its rise in prominence – and in deployments. As with many of the transitions in U.S. defense policies, this has not come without controversy.

The rise of JSOC in the War on Terror has been due in large part to the military difficulties and political costs stemming from the use of large conventional formations. However, the rapid expansion of covert operations as conventional ground forces reduce their presence in budgets and battlefields alike, its activities in areas not officially declared war zones, and its seeming lack of Congressional accountability, have all raised significant consternation from foreign policy and defense commentators.

Marc Ambinder recently highlighted many of these concerns in his excellent recent work with D.B. Grady, The Command, and reiterated them in an interview with Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room. JSOC’s processes of review are internal to the organization, and Congress has little bearing on JSOC’s actions. Already commentators suspicious of American military power or foreign policy have decried the rise of JSOC for eroding Congressional checks on war-making power or for enabling America to embark on a path of perpetual conflict.

Inexplicably, some American commentators worry over the decline of Congressional authority over war-making power. However, this fear is both somewhat ahistorical and very optimistic in its assessment of Congress today. Congressional authority for war does not require a formal declaration of war, nor is the approval of Congress necessary for a state of war to exist. Congressional authority is merely required to initiate a state of war that was not already brought about by hostile action. So long as Congress continues to fund and approve the war, the war is essentially retroactively legalized by Congressional action.

Regardless of how legal JSOC’s activities are abroad though, relying on Congress to hold JSOC accountable assumes that Congress actually cares to do so. There is an unexamined belief about the pacific inclinations of legislative bodies that absolutely does not reflect modern realities. As should be obvious, the current Congress is not interested in restraining the war powers of the executive, nor is it interested in undermining JSOC.

And really, since when has Congress been a reliable dovish influence on American military power? Since never – Congress has been supported wide-ranging, undeclared wars since the beginning of American history. In the Quasi-War with France , Congress approved and funded an undeclared war across the world’s oceans against France – a geopolitically risky activity considering the relative power of France to the young United States. This war was not merely limited to commerce – it also involved naval landings against France’s ally Spain (specifically its colony in what is now the Dominican Republic), despite the United States not being at war with Spain .

Congress  has displayed no qualms about declaring offensive wars either – the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War, both officially declared wars, were also two of the most nakedly territorially aggrandizing wars in U.S. history. Members of Congress have even tried to push the executive into wars it did not desire, or forced it to take hawkish positions that it might have preferred to avoid. In American relations with China, for example, Congress has generally been the more belligerent of the branches, while the presidency has generally sought to preserve the diplomatic entente Nixon forged. Even before the existence of the People’s Republic of China, a strong China lobby enabled funding of the Republic of China’s war-making effort against Japan. During the Cold War that lobby continued to militate for action to defend the Republican Chinese government in Taiwan. Eisenhower and the military did not want to become engaged in a war to defend Taiwan during the Quemoy and Matsu crisis, which they thought would require using nuclear weapons against the Chinese mainland and compromise America’s other diplomatic prerogatives. Yet many of the so-called isolationists in Congress vigorously pushed the President towards a more confrontational stance. Even today, it is still Congress where the most ardent defenders of Taiwan push for legislation that may antagonize China – not the executive.

Regardless, the ugly truth about JSOC is that Congress will not hold it accountable not because it cannot, but because Congress has absolutely no incentive to do so. There is no reward to Congress in trying to hold JSOC accountable or reduce the role of special operations forces in U.S. policy. Congress has demonstrated its support for a wide-ranging war on terror through the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the subsequent National Defense Authorization Acts. Congress, not the executive, will not initiate massive cuts SOCOM even as other branches receive potentially deep reductions in funding.

JSOC, or at least the elements that the American public identifies with JSOC, are extremely popular. Are Americans worried about secret assassination campaigns? No – a significant majority of Americans support the use of drones in targeted killings, and most even support the use of drones against American members of terrorist organizations abroad.  And really, Americans identify JSOC with elite operators, not killer robots. Nobody doesn’t love a Navy SEAL, right? Congress, on the other hand, is less popular than the Internal Revenue Service. Act of Valor, starring active U.S. special operations forces, is set to be a blockbuster. Nobody would watch a movie billing active Congressmen as its main characters unless it was a remake of Home Alone with the legislators as the thieves. JSOC has produced some of the most public and stunning successes in the War on Terror – even if a few Members want to increase Congressional oversight, there is no political incentive for the majority to rein in JSOC.  Voters won’t reward Congress for meddling in JSOC’s business.

The desire to fight terrorism, combined with a dissatisfaction with the expensive and bloody military campaigns that began as a consequence, have enabled JSOC and the drone program to continue with so little accountability. JSOC has been tasked with leading the way in the new iteration of the Global War on Terror, and every request it sends for increased operating capabilities is a reflection of its attempt to enact popular policies that ideally lead to smaller footprints and more contained violence. Indeed, the wide-ranging Operational Preparation of the Environment actions JSOC undertakes are to avoid becoming embroiled in the larger, more serious conflicts that non-JSOC military-led counterterrorism campaigns might require. The desire not to be sent in blind or become embroiled in another Iraq or Afghanistan is one of the crucial factors behind JSOC’s global strategic moves.

Indeed, rather than militating for more war, a serious concern might be that JSOC would frustrate or resist the executive’s desires for another “big war.” General McChrystal, for example, has made critical remarks about the Iraq war’s effect on the overall war on terror and also negatively assessed American preparation and assessment of the environment in Afghanistan. If anything, JSOC could become an obstacle to wider military action. A powerful and more influential JSOC would be better able to resist executive desires for expanding U.S. military presence in some theaters beyond their preferred levels. This would be a civil-military problem in its own right, but it is not automatically safe to assume that JSOC wants to use its status to militate for high-tempo combat campaigns everywhere. Because JSOC is not a massed force, it indeed cannot take on the burden of conducting all-out wars.

Some commentators are concerned that an increased reliance on an elite force for waging covert or small wars necessarily means the US will lose its ability to conduct large, nation-building type wars. If that ability is lost, however, it’s not because of SOCOM – it’s because the military and policy establishment has largely rejected this approach to warfare. It is certainly true that SOCOM cannot do everything, but general purpose forces do not exist to make the costs of bad policies more politically bearable. Massive investments in nation-building capabilities and a large land-based force have led to the exhaustion of those forces – and have challenged the government’s ability to finance their operations. If SOCOM is expanding in operations, it is because the policies advocated by Boot and many others were tried on the battlefield and were found wanting.

The truth is that the biggest problems with SOCOM generally, JSOC in particular, and American foreign policy lie in exactly that – American foreign policy. Take, for example, Jeremy Scahill’s excellent new piece on Yemen, which describes a litany of failed counterterrorism efforts resulting in massive blowback in the country. Scahill essentially describes an incoherent strategy that used, but was not driven by, the tools at hand. American policymakers sought to kill terrorists until those aiding and abetting them decided instead to throw their lot in with an admittedly noxious government that we nevertheless chose to support because we depended on Saleh’s people for a permissive environment and targeting intelligence. Yet much of that intelligence was faulty or deliberately manipulated by the regime itself to support its own political needs. As a result, the capabilities the U.S. built up have been expended to defend the regime’s existence – not to fulfill U.S. counterterrorism priorities.

What might policymakers have done to prevent this? As in Pakistan, one uncomfortable answer is that building up a large human intelligence network independent of a potentially uncooperative host government, perhaps even using stay-behind networks of assets posing as civilian contractors, businessmen, or other ostensible non-combatants  or maybe arming militias answering primarily to the U.S. rather than the Yemeni government, could have provided more accurate intelligence and avoided the consequences inherent in supporting Saleh’s regime. Incidentally, such a task would have been the responsibility of JSOC and the CIA. The failures of Yemen are failures of policy, not of JSOC or drones.

One might even further note that a counterterrorism campaign in Yemen that relied on apprehending rather than killing  terrorists would have required JSOC’s capabilities to be used more aggressively in Yemen, or else let captured suspects rot in Saleh’s brutal prisons. A campaign of capturing terrorists and rendering them to the U.S. would have required far more direct action assets, forward operating locations, and airbases for local air support. Capturing Awlaki, for example, probably would have involved hundreds of soldiers, pilots, and support personnel deploy to Yemen, and likely would have resulted in either his death or those of American operators. Even less lethal counterterrorism campaigns could well entail the continuing expansion of JSOC or CIA covert forces.

No kind of capability is a magic bullet, and no combination of capabilities is a magic bullet either. SOCOM is an instrument of policy, and policy is, even in JSOC, still made by politicians and policymakers, not military officers. If they become proconsuls, it will be because of willful abdication by their civilian superiors, not praetorian machinations by those in uniform. Disentangling instruments from policies is a vital task if the United States is to correct course on the War on Terror. While not all tools are appropriate for all policies, pursuing a bad policy is going to result in undesirable outcomes. Accountability is worthless if those supposed to be designing policy cannot develop realistic standards or are not interested in developing any standards at all for anyone to be held accountable to.

Posted in Civil-Military Relations, Military | 1 Comment

Just because someone’s willing to die for their country doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to protect them.

Joshua Foust and Zack Beauchamp had an argument on Twitter this morning about the morality of drones, one that has already inspired this Atlantic piece by Foust (which is worth a read on the moral implications not just of drones specifically, but of our nation’s global counterterrorism initiative as a whole). I saw the debate a little after it happened, a lengthy back-and-forth between the two of them, with occasional comments from others I follow, plus a few retweets by Foust or Beauchamp of comments from people I don’t. I thought both had moments of clear, serious argumentation, as well as the occasional minor cheat, but overall the conversation was interesting and brought up a number of issues with broader applications, beyond the realm of drones (a number of which were addressed at greater length by Foust in the Atlantic piece).

There was one claim that cropped up around the edges of the argument–especially in some of the outside comments on the debate–that niggled at me: specifically, the idea that because individuals accept inherent dangers when joining the military, up to and including the potential loss of their own lives in the course of duty, then decision-makers are not under obligation to avoid exposing them to risk.

This is wrong. It is at the heart of the civil-military bargain that precisely because these men and women commit to service and bear the risks it entails, the rest of society–represented by our policymakers–has an obligation to take those risks seriously. The primary thing society owes to service members is not to put their lives in danger lightly, to respect their willingness to put themselves at risk and not take advantage of it foolishly or for no clear end. To say that because they agree to the risks, we don’t need to factor in the degree to which our political, strategic, or operational choices will put them in harm’s way, is unacceptable. There will be risk, and in war it is inevitable that many members of the military will be put in harm’s way, but why, and when, and to what degree must be considered by the decision-makers among the many factors that determine what wars we choose to wage, and how we choose to wage them.

UPDATE: The internet being known as Petulant Skeptic made the very solid point that there are a number of other examples of professions/situations where enormous sacrifice might be asked of people, but their lives are not risked without serious consideration. With his permission, I will quote him directly:

Police aren’t asked to individually rush into drug dens. First rule of search and rescue is that you don’t put the rescuers at risk. Firefighters don’t rush into buildings they know will collapse.

Point being that when people accept great risk to themselves, they can commonly have an expectation that this willingness to sacrifice will not be exploited without all available precautions and forethought.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: In response to this post, James Joyner posted a link to his truly excellent piece in the American Conservative that covers similar territory to this in much greater depth. I wish I had thought to include a link to it in this in the first place, because it is one of the best things I’ve read on civil-military relations.

Posted in Civil-Military Relations, Military, War | Tagged | 2 Comments