In an Oct. 19 Washington Post online article about President Donald Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Syria, author Missy Ryan paraphrases and quotes a prominent political scientist as saying, “While elected officials ‘have a right to be wrong,’ the military’s role is to execute orders.” Such a formulation changes the civil-military relationship to one based on servitude, not service. It is both wrong and dangerous.
No one has a right to be wrong with respect to the use of another’s life. The president of the United States and, in some circumstances, the secretary of defense—not all elected officials—have final decision authority, constitutionally and legally. With that authority, however, comes a corresponding obligation to use it responsibly. The right is not absolute.
“Responsible use” limits the right of final authority. Certainly, those with that final authority can be wrong or mistaken. Everyone is human, regardless of the position of authority they may hold. And when one is responsibly using one’s authority, others can understand mistakes made. But when mistakes and errors are made as a result of irresponsible use of final decision authority, then moral blame—even if not illegality—is the appropriate approbation.
No American in or out of uniform questions the principle of civil control of the military. Such control is clear and unambiguous. But claiming that the role of the military is simply to execute any decision is flatly wrong. “Responsible use” is much more complex and is shared among a set of civil and military leaders.
Samuel Huntington, in his 1957 book The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, captures the nuance of the civil-military relationship in a democracy. He acknowledges that the American political community must ensure civil control over its military. Such control prevents the military from obtaining too much influence in the political life of the country. The American political community wants—or should want—a military that is apolitical, one that serves whichever party has been elected. Huntington calls this the “social imperative.” He adds that Americans must also insist upon a strong and capable military, one that can actually succeed in combat and do its part in achieving the strategic aims of the nation. Effective use matters. No American wants to see the lives of its soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines used poorly or, worse, wasted. Huntington labelled this the “functional imperative.” Both imperatives matter. Both are necessary; neither is sufficient.
The social and functional imperatives act as two poles. If a particular civil-military relationship leans too far to the social imperative pole—as does a relationship based upon the “right to be wrong”—military functionality is put at risk. Too far in the other direction—as does a relationship based upon the false belief that once a policy decision is made, civil leaders should not interfere with military execution—risks loss of civil control. Our democracy is not well served when decisions and actions are guided by either of these extreme positions.
Americans expect more of their political leaders than arbitrary diktats, and more of their military leaders than arbitrary decisions faithfully executed. Lives are at stake: the lives of American citizens who wear our uniform and fight on our behalf, the lives of innocents who always get caught up in battle, and possibly, the life of our nation itself.
Before making a decision, “responsible use” requires that those involved in the process collect, analyze and present information as well as identify feasible options to the president or secretary of defense, who have final decision authority. Only then can a proper, rather than arbitrary, decision be made. Following the decision, “responsible use” requires both execution and adaptation. Using and risking the lives of others in war, in operations below the threshold of war, or in a mixed situation is dynamic and constantly changing, requiring political and military leaders to adapt as realities unfold on the ground.
If the president is to use final decision authority responsibly, senior civil and military leaders must be included in both the lead-up to as well as the execution and adaptation from a decision. The perspectives that a final decision authority needs are commonly the chairman of the Joint Chiefs; one or more of the geographic combatant commanders and perhaps other military specialists; the secretaries of defense, commerce, interior, state and treasury and the director of national intelligence; and others as called for by the specifics of the situation. The final decision authority needs to hear all of them, including the disagreements among them. He or she cannot properly claim “responsible use” of the authority granted by the Constitution and the law until all voices are heard and evaluated. Rare will be the case that any one of these voices is completely right, but each has something important to contribute to discovering a decision that is “most likely to be right enough.”
Whatever sort of guarantee the final decision authority may have in making a decision, or executing one—if “guarantee” can even be used in this context—emerges from a process that ensures the president hears all relevant voices and is presented with all relevant information and options—however difficult such voices, information and options may be. The integrity of the process and the fidelity of the information presented in that process increase the probability that the final decision authority will be used well. A process that is cut short, eliminating or subverting relevant voices and preventing relevant information to rise to the final decision authority’s awareness, decreases the likelihood that the final decision authority is used responsibly. History is replete with examples of bad decisions made too quickly and with too little input.
One need only read H.R. McMaster’s 1997 book Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam to see that the process used by President Johnson’s administration during the Vietnam War provides the perfect example of a process that lacked integrity and information that lacked fidelity: Some of those involved cut out senior military and political leaders whose voices were not welcomed, hid information from one another (as well as from the American public), and prevented options from being fully discussed. Or read Michael Mazarr’s Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy for a more contemporary example: the decision to invade Iraq. Mazarr demonstrates that this decision was often fueled by righteous conviction, chaotic processes, competing egos, rival agencies and questionable information. The result in each case? Final decision authority not responsibly used, lives wasted and the nation not well served.
All the senior political and military leaders involved in helping the president use his final decision authority responsibly are obligated to both the president and the American people to do their part in helping make decisions the best possible, given constraints reality imposes upon any particular situation. They are further co-responsible for the execution of and adapting from the decisions the president makes.
Responsible use of final decision authority provides a much better yardstick to use in identifying a proper civil-military relationship than does “the right to be wrong.” “Responsible use” places the civil-military relationship in its proper place: the mean between the extremes of a “right to be wrong” and “one side decides, the other executes.” It demands that the set of American political and military leaders who help the president or secretary of defense make strategic decisions do so together, while remaining conscious of both of Huntington’s imperatives.