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The Soldier and the State Go Public

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
September 26, 2013


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."

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