In his 2003 book, Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations, Peter Feaver says that “in a democracy, civilians have the right to be wrong. Civilian political leaders have the right to ask for things in the national security realm that are ultimately not conducive to good national security.” That pithy phrase, “the right to be wrong,” is often repeated. Repetition, however, does not confer meaning or validity.
A close look at this asserted right finds that the actual right is quite different. The actual right that certain civilian political leaders have is a right to be the final decision authority. Further, like all rights, the right to final decision authority comes with a corresponding obligation to use that right responsibly.
Of course, in exercising the right to final decision, the select—and very small—category of leaders who have this right may be mistaken. The possibility of error does not derive from the right but rather from an acknowledgment that human beings and the processes they use are fallible.
Understanding the actual right and its associated obligation makes clear the kind of civil-military relationship that should exist between senior military and civilian leaders in making decisions about the use of American force.
Right of Final Decision
Clarity in identifying who can claim this right is not a trivial matter. The president and the secretary of defense can use constitutional and legal grounds to claim this right. The Constitution identifies the president as the commander in chief. By statute, the secretary of defense has the authority, direction and control over the Department of Defense; is the principal assistant to the president in all matters related to the department; and is in the chain of command. Thus, the secretary exercises command and control over all U.S. military forces for both operational and administrative purposes.
Under certain circumstances, the principals of the National Security Council, when speaking on behalf of the president, may legitimately use the president’s right to final decision authority. The legislative branch also may have constitutional grounds to claim this right, but in a different way than that of the executive branch. No single member of Congress—unless events trigger the statutory presidential succession—would be able to claim the right, because none has the authority to issue orders.
Congress as a body, however, has authorities related to raising and funding military forces and operations, as well as declaring war and authorizing the use of military forces. These authorities are extensive, important and related to the war-waging responsibilities of identifying war aims, strategies, policies and military campaigns.
In 1975, for example, Congress had not authorized the funding to allow American military support to the South Vietnamese in their fight against North Vietnam’s latest invasion. In this sense, whether one agrees with that decision, it manifests Congress’ version of the right to final decision.
Beyond this small circle, anyone else claiming the right to final decision becomes problematic. The validity of subordinates and staff of principals making a claim would be situational. On one hand, some principals communicate through their subordinates and staff as a matter of efficiency. On the other hand, staffs, and sometimes even senior deputies, are notorious for saying they speak for a principal in cases when they do not. A common behavior in large bureaucracies like those of the federal government is for staff or deputies to wield power as if they had it. Such behavior is a bureaucratic means to extend one’s influence and power, but it is not a legitimate claim to the right of final decision.
The president, the main claimant to the right to final decision, exercises this right as part of a decision cycle consisting of three major components: the lead-up to a decision, which encompasses all relevant parts of the government; the decision itself, made by the president; and the execution and evaluation of the decision, again, involving all relevant government entities.
The cycle is important, for it demonstrates that the right to final decision is not a license to decide arbitrarily, cavalierly or irresponsibly. The cycle exists to assist the president by increasing the probability that a presidential decision is the best it can be—all things considered and given the constraints and exigencies of any given situation.
Those involved in assisting the president toward a decision, especially the principals of the National Security Council and any other civilian or military leaders who might be involved, hold two important responsibilities.
First, they have a substantive responsibility—that is, they are responsible for the fidelity of the information they present to the president. There are no “information police” in these discussions. Those present are responsible to themselves, to each other, to the president and to the American people to ensure that the information presented is accurate and the product of sound research and staff work.
Second, they have a procedural responsibility—that is, they are responsible for the integrity of the process used to present information to and develop options for the president. They must ensure full discussion and analysis of potential options. Cutting out or muting any principal’s voice, taking shortcuts in the process that reduce full discussion, or “rigging the process” to bias a particular perspective lead to the probability of a poorly made decision.
The stakes are high in such lead-up discussions, especially wartime decisions that always result in using the lives of citizens in uniform and always risk damage to American interests. Regardless of how difficult or contentious lead-up discussions may become, however, all voices are necessary for the right to final decision to be exercised responsibly.
Waging war is inherently a political-military activity. It requires participation of appropriate civilian government agencies—such as the departments of State, Treasury and Commerce and the intelligence community, as well as the military. All are necessary and none automatically take priority, for the president must decide “all things considered.”
After a presidential decision, all participants—especially those who lead one of the executive branch departments—must execute the president’s decision as if it were theirs. If a principal disagrees with the president’s decision so strongly that they cannot execute it, that principal owes it to themselves as well as the president at least a direct (and likely a quite contentious, potentially position-ending) conversation, perhaps even a resignation.
The principals have a post-execution obligation as well. After giving the presidential decision sufficient time to play out, if any of the principals sees a gap between what the president intended to achieve and the realities that are unfolding, that principal must suggest modifications to the original decision that might close that gap. Adaptation is especially important in wartime, for war is dynamic and unfolds in unexpected ways—on the battlefield and in capitals. The efficacy of any decision, therefore, is limited.
Again, in this execution-adaptation part of the decision cycle, the perspectives and voices of all principals are important to ensure timely adaptation.
Understanding the decision cycle properly demonstrates that the right to final decision—like all other rights—has a corresponding obligation. In this case, the obligation is to use that right responsibly—especially in wartime, where lives are at stake: lives of the innocent, of the citizens in uniform and of the nation itself.
Furthermore, the principals involved in this cycle are involved in helping ensure that the right to final decision is used responsibly. All must voice their perspectives in both the lead-up and the execution-adaptation phases so the president hears everything they need to hear—whether they want to or not. The necessity of all voices and perspectives shows that, in addition to principals sharing substantive and procedural responsibilities to the president and the American people, they also share moral responsibility for use of the lives risked, damaged and ended in executing the final decision.
In the end, even though the final decision is the president’s alone, none of the principals can claim a Pontius Pilate moment and wash their hands of a decision they helped shape and execute—especially if that principal did not raise their voice during the process.
Even after the most rigorous decision-making process using the highest quality of information and the highest level of procedural integrity, the president may choose unwisely. Such is the reality of human beings and the institutional processes they use. The probability of mistakes in wartime decisions increases, given the dynamic nature of war and that the enemy is intentionally trying to mislead decision-makers. That makes hearing all perspectives before and during the execution-adaptation phase of the decision cycle even more important.
During this decision cycle, any of the military or civilian principals may conclude they cannot support a decision the president has made. In this case, the principal has three choices: persuade the president to change their decision, obey and execute as if the decision were theirs, or resign. Leaking information, sniping anonymously from the sidelines, slow-rolling execution or any other form of bureaucratic obstructive behavior is wrong. Insistence on one’s perspective is equally wrong, for the president alone makes the “all things considered” decision.
Resignation, always a last resort and never done in petulance, is a way to respect the president’s right to final decision while also respecting that principals remain responsible for their own conscience. Deciding whether to resign is never easy, and it shouldn’t be. The stakes are high, the issues complex and ambiguous, and roles, values and principles overlap. No principal, however, even those in uniform, becomes a moral automaton once they occupy a senior leadership position. No person accepting a senior position—whether civilian or military—exchanges their conscience for the position.
Even in war, Americans expect the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Guardians who fight on their behalf to remain moral agents. They expect the same of their senior political and military leaders.
A “right to be wrong” does not exist. Rather, the phrase is shorthand for the right to final decision and associated obligation to use that right responsibly. Thus, it entails a style of decision-making Americans expect from their elected and appointed leaders.
If the U.S. had a king or were an autocracy, perhaps one could argue an arbitrary “right to be wrong.” But America has a president who must operate within a democratic system characterized by shared power and multiple checks and balances.
Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.