Civil-Military Relations in the New Administration

Janine Davidson

President, Metropolitan State University-Denver; Former Undersecretary, U.S. Navy; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans, U.S. Department of Defense (2009-2012); Former Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations 

Michèle A. Flournoy

Chief Executive Officer, Center for a New American Security; Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, U.S. Department of Defense (2009-2012)

John M. Paxton Jr.

Former Assistant Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps (2012-2016)

Thom Shanker

Assistant Washington Editor, New York Times


Experts discuss the role of civil-military relations in the development of military advice; evaluate early changes to the national security system under President Trump; and consider possible reforms to the presidential decision-making process.


SHANKER: Good evening, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Civil-Military Relations in the New Administration.”

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We can’t hear you.

SHANKER: All right.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We cannot hear you.

SHANKER: Let’s try this again, move it up a little bit. (Laughter.) Oh. Is that better? Can we do a little louder?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, it’s a little better.

SHANKER: A little better? All right, why don’t we—

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We want the (women up there ?).

SHANKER: Yes, exactly. (Laughter.) I don’t blame you. I’ll move it over to my tie. Don’t tell people I tied one on. How’s that? Any better? All right, terrific. I’ll also speak up a little bit.

Again, welcome to this evening’s Council on Foreign Relations event on “Civil-Military Relations in the New Administration.” As you heard, this evening’s event is on the record, which as a journalist is of course very pleasing. Please do silence your cellphones. That would be great.

The format, as always, we’ll have a guided discussion for half an hour, and then at 6:30 I’ll open it to all of you participants to ask questions. I know it’s a school night, so we will end promptly at 7:30. I used to joke that I run these sessions with Stalinist efficiency, but since the Times was labeled an “enemy of the people” that joke isn’t as funny as it used to be. (Laughter.)

I can’t imagine a more timely topic for a Council discussion. And even though journalists are supposed to keep a certain professional distance from officials, I also can’t imagine a panel with greater experience, insight or credibility to discuss it than the three that the Council has invited this evening.

Alphabetically, we have Janine Davidson, former undersecretary of the Navy and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans. Janine, thank you.

Michèle Flournoy, currently chief executive officer for the Center for a New American Security, and of course former undersecretary of defense for policy.

And also General Jay Paxton, retired, former assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.

I thought we might start this evening with a bit of a case-study exercise since we’re talking about civil-military relations. We have people from both sides. I’d like to ask each of you to reflect upon a personal real-life experience—not reality TV, but a real-life experience in which you were part of the grind between the civilians and the military, and share with us sort of what happened and what lessons you’ve learned from this experience. And, Michèle, I’d like to begin with you, please.


SHANKER: And we’re on the record. (Laughter.)

FLOURNOY: OK. (Laughter.) Thank you for the reminder. But first of all, great to see you all here for what I think is a really important topic.

And I’m going to mention a chapter that Jay and I lived through together when he was the—I think you were the J-3 at the time. But this was early in the Obama administration, and the president was undertaking a(n) Afghanistan strategy review. And the decision had been made to change out the commander in Afghanistan, to put Stan McChrystal in charge. And Secretary Gates at that point asked Stan McChrystal to undertake his own sort of quiet assessment of what would he need to succeed in Afghanistan—what capabilities and forces would he need to actually execute the new strategy. And the idea was that this assessment—commander’s assessment would be done, it would be brought through the normal chain of command through the chairman to the secretary and then over to the White House, and that would be a very important input in deciding on the resourcing of the strategy.

Well, as you know, what happened was that assessment leaked to the press before it ever even came to the White House—even to the secretary, let alone the White House. And as a result of that, that set into motion a whole set of decisions that were really grounded in this sense of trust has been breached. The White House, the president and his staff felt that they had been—you know, this leak was, you know, a betrayal; that they were being jammed, the decision-making space of the president was being narrowed, and issues were being debated in public before he even had a chance to consider the information and the recommendations in private. And so, as decisions about resourcing were made, there was this hyper focus on how do we take control and maintain control. So it led to things like the timeline for how long the surge would last, troop caps to count every single human being that was being deployed to the theater at all times, and so forth. So that seed of distrust based on that leak is something that I think really dogged the entire first term of the Obama administration in terms of the tone and tenor and substance of civ-mil relations.

Jay was on the receiving end of some of this, so you can probably speak to it from your perspective.

PAXTON: Well, thanks, Mrs. Secretary, and thanks, Thom. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate the opportunity.

And given that it’s on the record, I have to give the standard caveat here that I’m no longer wearing a uniform, so I’m not speaking for the chairman. I’m not speaking for the commandant.

But part of the reason I am here at the request of the three distinguished—the moderator and the two panelists here is because of the import of the subject, and the fact that you have to have a constant dialogue. And as Michèle just said a minute ago, it’s an iterative process, and that iterative process has to be based on candor and a degree of fluidity. Actually, as Winston Churchill said, you have to probe. You have to insert yourself on both the civilian side and the military side.

So, to the point that Secretary Flournoy brought up about the development of the strategy, it is at that point useless to point fingers about where the leak came from, because even in this town you’ll never know. The issue is there’s been a breach of trust, there’s a lack of confidence now, so then the issue becomes how do you reinsert, reengage, and how do you build that confidence? Because you have to work together. You have to come up with a strategy that will be timely and effective and functional. So how do you break down the walls of distrust and rebuild the team that you need to get going forward?

And it is indicative, also, that when you say civ-mil relations, it may start as pol-mil relations between the political leadership and the military leadership. But there’s a lot of other players in the dynamic, and you have to be aware of who they are and the times when you want to include them, and then the times when you will deliberately exclude them because you owe candor and advice, if not advocacy, in private rather than in public, so.

SHANKER: Before I get to Janine, but just on this one, what is your takeaway, if you were to do an after-action review? Again, not who was the leaker, but what should—what would you do next time differently?

PAXTON: Well, I think one of the first things here, Thom, is that the context is always important. And in 2009, when we were going through the assessment, when General McChrystal was coming up with it, Secretary Gates, the president obviously engaged in this, we have to remember that we had just barely concluded the one-year surge in Iraq. So there was this issue of sustainability, this issue of handoff and how well local nationals can take care of it, the issue of ISAF support and NATO support. So how you bring in all those disparate entities and incorporate them, or at least input that they provide, into the decision-making process is important. I don’t know whether that answered your question or not.

So one of the lessons learned in Afghanistan, for a while we went back to signing releases, nondisclosure releases. Very frustrating, but given that the leak happened and given that you don’t want another leak, that’s just another constant reminder—probably appropriately so, even if your pride is a little wounded or your prerogatives, you think, are impinged upon—it’s a reasonable thing to do just to remind everybody you won’t disclose. But we’re back into the business of how do you develop effective policy and how do you do that in private so that you don’t take, as Michèle said, the lead time and the trade space from leadership, from in this case Secretary Gates and President Obama. They needed that time to digest the input and to make a decision without having options or time stolen from them.

SHANKER: Thanks.


DAVIDSON: Sure. And I echo thank you, everyone, for being here, and for those of you in—that I see from the faces who helped on the report that we have out in the lobby.

So you both mentioned this sort of trust issue, and it was one of the things I noticed when I was deputy assistant secretary for plans. A lot of times when the military would try to give their—what they considered their best military advice—and I would watch this and I would see it, and then I would see the civilians often sort of be very distrustful of, like, what are they not telling us here, and how does this—what am I missing? And as I started probing a little bit more, especially once I left and came here and started working on this—on this project, I was trying to figure out, you know, how can we bridge this communication gap. And I uncovered something that I thought was pretty interesting.

I talked to a lot of the civilians, like very senior civilians that had worked in the—in the National Security Council and other places. And they would say, well, I mean, how much credibility do I have on this issue, or you know, whatever the issue is, when the military guys come and they give their advice, and they have all that bling on their uniforms, you know, and they’ve got, you know, 30 years of experience? I mean, and oh, by the way, they all know each other because they went to West Point together or the Naval Academy, and they live on the bases together, and their kids all go to the same schools. Like, how do you compete with that, right? And I thought, well, that’s a good point, right?

And then, surprisingly, I talked to a couple four-stars that had been working in this similar environment. And they would say, well, I mean, you go over to the White House and, I mean, they all have these Ivy League degrees, and they all know each other, and they’ve been working with the president for their whole lives, and their kids all go to the same schools, and you know, how—(laughter)—why should they listen to me when they all know each other? And I thought, oh my God, you know, it doesn’t matter how high up you get in your career, you still have this like deep insecurity. (Laughter.)

But it isn’t really an insecurity, I think, so much as it’s this cultural—it’s a cultural mismatch. And what I heard over and over again—and I think it’s very true—is this need to be able to build teamwork among these people that are going to be working together day in and day out, or at least, you know, week in and week out, having to come together, solving problems, trying to deliver advice and options for the president from lots of different perspectives, and how it can really break down if there isn’t trust, and how you have to start off by overcoming these sort of just basic sort of cultural barriers that I think you need to build a team—you need to build a team by trying to overcome those cultural barriers and trying to get to know each other as people, not just as like representatives of these other tribes.

SHANKER: Thanks.

I wanted to bring the discussion into current events because our topic is civ-mil in the Trump administration. So William Safire, the late, great Times columnist, used to say one data point is just that, two data points interesting, three you better notice. So here are the three data points: General Mattis, General Kelly, General McMaster. Great officers. It’s not about them as people. But what does it say to you when this president has chosen two retired four-stars and an active-duty three-star for three of the most significant power ministry jobs and his national security advisor? Michèle.

FLOURNOY: So—(laughter)—

PAXTON: I was waiting to see who he picked on. (Laughter.)

SHANKER: That’s courage right there. (Laughter.)

FLOURNOY: No, it’s—you know, with the individual cases, you can look at some—these three pretty extraordinary individuals and say, my goodness, you know, they have such expertise, such experience, such integrity, such—so many—so much to bring to the table; how wonderful it is that they’re given these leadership positions. But if you look at it from a systemic point of view, I think putting too many former not only military officers, but senior general officers into civilian positions can be—there’s some cause for concern in a democracy where we pride ourselves on civilian control, civilian direction, the military being apolitical. Now they are occupying political positions, working for a president with a political agenda, and so forth.

So I think it puts a huge burden on them—and you can almost see them going through this—to, A, really be a civilian in the role, even if they’re recently retired; empower the civilians who work for them to help them do the civilian oversight role. It’s a little problematic when you’ve got, you know, four layers between you and the bureaucracy who are—you know, where there’s nobody home right now because there haven’t been expeditious, you know, political appointments and confirmations.

You know, but I think it is—it is a—it is a challenge that they are going to have to manage. And I think in some ways it’s most difficult for H.R. McMaster because he’s been—he’s back, you know, in an active-duty status, in a uniform, but playing a role that’s really kind of the ball bearing between the political leadership of the White House and the national security apparatus.

SHANKER: Right. And so interesting, General McMaster was on the Hill yesterday for a confirmation hearing, not for the job—

FLOURNOY: But for his three-star, yeah.

SHANKER: —but as a general officer who’s changing positions.

So, Jay, what are your thoughts about the challenges and the risks of—

PAXTON: Yeah, so certainly challenges here, and challenges not only for the three distinguished generals in their positions but also for the team. As Michèle pointed out, everybody has to pick up their game and rise to a new position. So I do have the privilege and the honor of knowing all three of the individuals, two of them for extended periods of time, and you’re not going to find—and I can say this on the record—more qualified individuals, better leaders, more circumspect and thoughtful individuals. So I have a lot of confidence in the skills they bring to the table and what they want to do.

We are all victims of our experience. So when you have to rise up a little and open your aperture, it will be—it will be certainly a challenge for some of them. There’s not a doubt in my mind they are keenly aware of what that challenge is. And I think the corporate team writ large has to help them out. So, as Michèle said earlier, they’re operating at a distinct disadvantage in that there are two or three levels below them that are not filled yet. So when they turn to subordinates for advice, they may only be getting one or two filters as opposed to eight or nine filters, which they desperately need to provide best military advice, best corporate advice, best interagency advice, and to do the things that they need.

SHANKER: But on the levels of gaps, it’s interesting because at State and DHS it may be that way, but for Secretary Mattis there is a full-time military bureaucracy that has stayed on. So he actually has a—you know, he has the Joint Staff to call upon, but not so much the civilian policy staff.

PAXTON: And I would defer certainly to Michèle and Janine here, having been on the other side of the table there. But I’m sure General Mattis is keenly aware that if he constantly turns to the service chiefs or constantly turns to the chairman, he is not only depriving himself but also not providing best advice because of the distinguished civilian leaders who could be OSD policy Southeast Asia, OSD policy Russia, OMB and the budget, and all the other skillsets and filters that he needs there.

So, to your earlier question, though, Thom, none of these appointments are without precedent, because General Powell and General Scowcroft have previously been national security advisor, General Marshall previously been SecDef. But the fact that you have three of them now with homeland—Defense, Homeland Security at all at the same time, I’m sure that gives concern to people.

SHANKER: At least two of them are from the Corps, right? That makes you feel a little—a little better. (Laughter.)

PAXTON: I sleep soundly. I sleep soundly. (Laughter.)

FLOURNOY: And if you count the deputy secretary, that makes three, so.


DAVIDSON: Right, right.

FLOURNOY: And the chairman, and we could go on. (Laughs.)

DAVIDSON: Something going on there, right.

Well, I mean, I agree. I’m sort of philosophically opposed to putting retired four-stars into some of these positions for all the reasons that Michèle and Jay articulated. I do think you want diverse perspectives, and there’s a reason why we have civilian control over the military.

On a day-to-day basis—I mean, that said, I agree that all three of these generals are fantastic. And so, you know, maybe they’re the exception that proves the rule, or if you’re going to break the rules I’d put them at the top of the list. But let’s be clear about the fact that we’re breaking the rules, right?

A couple tactical things that they are probably going to have challenges with. And I agree; until Secretary—I keep wanting to say General Mattis—until Secretary Mattis gets his civilian staff up and running and gets comfortable with that, you know, tendency to potentially turn towards the Joint Staff. Remember, the Joint Staff works for the chairman. And under, you know, our laws, we have, you know, separation there. They’re supposed to provide independent military advice from the secretary of defense, and that—we sort of value that for a reason.

For H.R., I think, you know, one of the—there are at least two really important roles I think the national security advisor can and should play, and one is as a sort of confidential advisor, you know, to the—to the president. And another is this coordinating role that I think is really, really critical and really hard to do. Not everybody has done it well. But those two things are sort of related because your convening authority across the agencies to bring all the right people together in order to gin up the options in order to, you know, develop good advice for the president is sometimes contingent on, you know, the degree to which people think that you have the president’s ear. And so he’s going to have to play both of those roles, and he doesn’t come from, you know, the president’s—he comes from the military side.

SHANKER: I mean, I’d like to follow up on that because every president should get the national security advisor that he wants. It’s unclear from Trump’s public statements what kind of advisor he wants. So would you recommend that General McMaster be the Trump whisperer? Should he be just a coordinator? As an active-duty general officer, how does he carry policy news into the system, especially to four-stars who still outrank him?

FLOURNOY: You know I think that the first role of the national security advisor—yes, you have to be an advisor to the president on an individual basis, but I think the far more important role is running a disciplined process that ensures that the views of your Cabinet members are brought to bear in the formulation of options and decisions for the president. So these things relate. I mean, absent that process, which really wasn’t present under Trump’s first—you know, under General Flynn, and he was not there very long to establish it, but you know, absent a process like that, it makes it more difficult for Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis and Secretary Kelly and others to really offer their best advice and counsel, and their expertise and experience, to the president as he’s making decisions. So I think the most important thing that the national security advisor can do is to make sure a president has the benefit of the diversity of a range of views, including dissent where it exists, and frame, you know, and assess options that are—that are offered up.

That has not taken shape. It’s hasn’t jelled yet. I’m told that in some areas, given what’s happening in North Korea for example, it’s starting—that process is starting to jell. But it’s really important so that the Cabinet members can not only be executers of policy, but really help the president make better—make good decisions.

SHANKER: Jay, do you have thoughts on that?

PAXTON: No, I strongly echo what Secretary Flournoy said, that you do have to get breadth of opinions. Ad that’s General McMaster’s key role, is to make sure everybody has a seat at the table, everybody has a voice and a recommendation in the equation.

And, as we talked about earlier, one of the things is, so, who is the message deliverer? And that’s something that the new administration will have to flesh out, you know. Who actually has the president’s ear? Several people have unfettered access. And I don’t know—I’m not privy to that—there are several different models. It will certainly depend on what the president wants, and then also how some of the key individuals will vie for that seat at the table and say, look, I think this is in my job jar; I think that you have chartered me to do this, and consequently I believe I should do this. And for some of them, if they don’t have that ear or they don’t have that seat, it’ll still be the willingness to kind of speak truth to power.

SHANKER: Well, but with all of your years of experience in this, what advice do you have for those who are now serving the new president? There are so many examples, whether it was Shinseki on Iraq troop numbers, where he got crosswise with Rumsfeld, the example that the two of you talked about, the Afghan strategy. How should a military officer give his or her best, unvarnished advice to the civilians? And how should the civilians receive things that they may not want to hear, but have to hear? How can that dialogue be made more effective and successful?

PAXTON: So I’ll take the first part just because of the way you teed it up, and then defer to you two.

So, again, early on in this administration, but certainly General Dunford, General Neller, Admiral Richardson, General Goldfein, the players, they are acutely aware of their roles and responsibilities—their Title 10 responsibilities, their joint responsibilities—and are schooled enough and experienced enough that they can formulate whether it’s operational recommendations, policy recommendations, other things. And they know how to develop those messages and be prepared to take them to the secretary of defense or across the river to the president.

There is not always unanimity of opinion within the service chiefs. So the chairman will strive—normally does—having watched several chairmen personally, they’ll strive to get unanimity of opinion. They will feel duty-bound. They say, look, I’d like to be able to cross the river and say it is a sense of the chiefs. But if they can’t do that, then they’re duty-bound to say, look, it is a broad consensus, but I want to let you know—and I won’t speak for him or her—but, you know, this service in particular does not agree with this, they have a difference of opinion. But General Dunford I know is quite comfortable doing that, quite experienced doing that.

And so now the issue will be, as he does that, it will now be to Secretary Mattis. How will they carve out that working relationship? And then how will they take that across to the new national security advisor and to the president? And then what’s the—between the Deputies Committee and the Principals Committee meetings, what’s the fora for doing that?

SHANKER: And from the civilian side, Michèle?

FLOURNOY: Yeah. Well, it’s—I mean, I actually think the design of the system and actually the law—if you read the Goldwater-Nichols legislation, it’s very clear on how this is supposed to work at the kind of strategic and interagency level. The secretary of the chairman, and their subordinates, you know, they have separate seats in the National Security Council. And it’s wonderful when they come to the table and agree and are a united front, because that can be very powerful in, you know, advising the president. But if there is a difference of views, the chairman is clearly not only the principal military advisory to the secretary, but also the principal military advisor to the president, which gives the chairman the right to voice dissent directly to the White House or the president, you know, if he feels that’s appropriate and necessary.

But, you know, whereas we train our military officers on this system, when you bring civilians into the system they may or may not fully understand how this works. I used to—those of you who used to work for me, you know, you were assigned go home first day, read Goldwater-Nichols. (Laughs.) Understand how it’s supposed to work, and then we’ll talk about how we’re going to make it work in practice. But there are a lot of civilians who come into jobs in the office the secretary of defense, and they think: I’m a civilian. I’ve got civilian control. No, there’s a chain of command that you work for the secretary, you are advising the secretary, the secretary has a chain—you know, similar in the NSC. You know, I work for the president; I must have civilian control. I must be able to, you know, determine when the chair—you know, some dissent is allowed to come over or not. No.

You know, so I think there’s a lot of work that we can do to educate the civilians who go into these positions to really understand how the system works. When we follow those rules, it actually works pretty well. What gets confused—when it gets confused is when there’s problems. And I just will say, you know, presidents get the National Security Council processes they want and deserve. (Laughter.) And I have seen, you know, chaotic ones. And when suggestions were—not necessarily recently, but in my first tour in government. You know, and presidents—you know, they may like it just fine that way. They may like having rival power centers that they can play off each other and turn to for different things or compete. They may not want the ordered, discipline process that we enshrine in law, or that we all write about in academic texts.

SHANKER: Right. Secretary Gates once confided in me. He said, quote, “At the end of the day, we’re all just action officers for the president.”

FLOURNOY: Right. (Laughs.)

SHANKER: So, Janine, your thoughts?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that—you said the word dialogue, right? What I see a lot is as military officers we’re often taught, you know, this is your best military advice. We have the word “best” in there so that it’s this unitary thing. And that can often create problems. I think we’ve kind of moved beyond that a little bit, but I’m just going to give you this one perfect thing, and this is what I think is my best military advice. And I have talked to some four-stars who are like, you know, and if he doesn’t like it then, you know, that’s my advice, right? And I think it works better when there’s a dialogue, when you’re ready to have multiple options available depending on what your end state is. It’s not a perfect world. We don’t necessarily know. You know, we could do—you could do it this and maybe this would happen or, you know, have this dialogue. So that’s my advice to the military on how to sort of present advice or present their part of the dialogue.

Meanwhile, the civilians, I totally agree, need to—they don’t always come with this level of knowledge. And some of the jargon and some of the things that come across in that packaged military advice is often very foreign to them. And so, you know, not only should we sort of get schooled on a decent process and learn how it works, but also asking probing questions, right? Well, OK, tell me a story. How is this going to unfold? OK, this is your advice, but then what will happen? And then what will be required of me? I mean, to really be able to have a coherent sense of how a thing is going to play out I think is a responsibility of the civilians to pull from the military, as well as it is for the military to be able to speak in language and in stories that are understandable to non-military officers.


FLOURNOY: And you almost need to train translators on both sides. I often—sometimes I felt like a translator. Sometimes I felt like a ball bearing, you know. But, you know, I remember, you know, the response to the earthquake and the crisis in Haiti. You know, the pier had been wiped out. There was no port. And, you know, we were putting together a plan.

We were going to get—I think it was three and a half days to load, move, rebuild the port, and deploy a brigade into Haiti. I mean, and I remember an unnamed NSC official banging the table. Three days? How can—you know, how can you take three days? This is unforgiveable. This is—and—(laughs)—everybody from the Department of Defense was like, you don’t understand. This is lightspeed in military logistics. (Laughter.) There’s no other military in the world that could do what we’re about to do with this speed and precision.

But you can’t blame—I mean, how is this person to know, right? It just seemed—all they knew is that people were going to be dying for three days and they wanted it to be faster. But there’s—you need translators. You need to mutually, you know, educate one another to try to close some of those gaps.

SHANKER: Mmm hmm. I have one last question before I invite the members to join in the conversation. We had a—in just recent days had a rather compelling example of civilian-military dialogue, something that President Trump said. I’m going to ask you not to judge the president, but judge its impact on the dialogue itself. It was after the special operations raid in Yemen, in which a member of the Navy SEAL team lost his life. Lots of debate about whether the operation was planned well, whether it was executed well, the value at the end of the day. And in an interview, the president said, well, in effect, this is what the generals wanted. It’s really—you know, it was their deal. Which, as a journalist, struck me as a little bit different from the historic the buck stops here comment. So again, I’m not going to ask you to judge the president. But talk about the impact of that kind of comment on the civ-mil dialogue may have?

PAXTON: Certainly something different than we have heard before. There is the distinction always between who bears moral accountability and personal responsibility and then who has professional responsibility, and who made the recommendations. There’s never, I don’t think, a doubt in any soldier, sailor, airman, Marine’s mind that if you made the recommendation, you own it. You’re going to stand by it. You think that is best military advice given risk, given circumstances, and you’re prepared to explain why you did it, or if it went south why you did what you did.

I think one of the takeaways from this particular example, Thom, is that in an era when there is a move potentially—and I’ll let perhaps Michèle talk to this later—about delegating and pushing down, there is now a stark reminder that, OK, again, no one is a refugee from accountability. So if you made the recommendation, it’s quite well that not only do you accept the responsibility, but you’re going to be publicly said, well, that’s the recommendation they made. And you have to live with that.

FLOURNOY: And I think—I think it was a real low point. And I think that what—when you’re asking people to go into harm’s way and take substantial risks to protect and advance American interests, and if they come to understand that when it goes well you’ll take the credit and when, you know, unfortunate things happen or mistakes are made you’re going to throw them under the bus, I think that can have a very corrosive effect certainly on morale, if not sort of willingness to take risk over time. It’s not a healthy dynamic. And I think—you know, I think one of the hardest burdens for any new president to come to own and bear is the fact that you do send people into harm’s way, and you may be responsible for someone losing their life or limb or what have you. And that’s got to weigh heavily.

I was also told that when the president went to Dover, he was extremely affected by it. And so it’s the two sides of the coin. I mean, I think it’s difficult for any president, but I think it has very corrosive effects when a president doesn’t stand by the forces that he sent into harm’s way.

SHANKER: As commander in chief. Janine.

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, I absolutely agree. Maybe the only thing I could add is maybe this will be a sort of a learning moment, a pivot moment. I think for the military, you know, this gets to the communication thing that we’ve been sort of hitting on. And it’s this—the word risk. So when you present you plan and you say it has this much risk, and you have a stoplight chart, you know, whatever shades or orange and red, you know, what does that really mean? You know, it means this. It means people are putting their lives on the line, and that’s risk. It means it might actually not work, and that’s risk. And I think as part of the dialogue, being very clear about that on both sides so that both sides actually understand what they’re both getting into I think is really important. And maybe that’ll be a lesson.

SHANKER: Mmm hmm. Thank you.

So I invite members to join the discussion. Remember, this is on the record tonight. I ask you to wait for the microphone, please identify yourself. And with so many questions, please keep it brief. Yes, please.

Q: Thank you. Priscilla Clapp. I’m with the U.S. Institute of Peace and I’m a retired Foreign Service officer.

I served in six administrations. And I, you know, on both political and career positions. And I understand the processes that you’re discussing, and the value of the processes and coordination. But what do you do? I never had this experience in government. What do you do when an administration comes in and the people around the president are determined to destroy the system and have—a lot of the things that are happening, seem to be happening deliberately to confuse the way decisions are being presented and made now. And I’m very worried about that. Maybe it’s not possible to destroy the system. Maybe the system’s strong enough to resist that and eventually overcome it. But I’m very worried.

FLOURNOY: Yeah, I do think that this new administration has a particularly acute case of what I’ve seen in milder forms before, which is coming in and assuming that the permanent staff, the—you know, the civil servants, the Foreign Service, even military officers who were present in a previous administration—are—you know, they worked for the other guy so therefore they must not be loyal. They’re the problem. You know, government is too big and bureaucratic and on and on. And so they may come with a very hostile—at least unfriendly if not now openly hostile view towards the—you know, the permanent employees of the government.

There will come a time when they realize that they can’t actually execute their policies without some capacity from exactly those folks. I don’t know when that time will come, but at some point you have to realize, you do actually need people who know how to execute. I think this likely be brought to a head when—no, I’m going to say when not if—when there is a crisis. And suddenly, you’ve got all these unoccupied positions and you need expertise and people who know what to do and how to get it done.

I worked on a book as part of the UVA Miller Center. We surveyed every president since Eisenhower first year national security. Every single American administration has had a major national security crisis that either greatly distracted the team in an unanticipated way, or even derailed an administration for a while. So I don’t wish that on any of us, or on any administration. But the odds are they will have their crisis. And at that point, they will, I think, discover that they actually need the government to be able to function.

DAVIDSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s—I think that’s right. It worries me too. I’m watching this. I’m talking to my friends who are still in. And I’m hoping that they stay, if they can. But I think that it’s sort of reflective of something else that’s going on in the country, and that is this narrative out there about government in general, this sort of—what I think is a very toxic narrative—that government can’t do anything, that it’s bloated, that all of these career people are underworked and overpaid. And, you know, it’s—you hear it over and over and we’ve heard it for decades now. And it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And then you get a group in that has an acute case of what Michèle just described. And it’s like, well, we don’t need these people anyway, because there’s too many of them.

So that’s problematic, because it’s a reflection of a greater ignorance about, you know, the role of government and the purpose of bureaucracy. So that’s problematic. But I do also—I was thinking the same thing, other administrations have come in—and this happens in the White House, as an example. You know, this—how did this National Security Council get so huge? And you slash it. And then fast forward four years later, and it’s right back where it was before, because they can’t get anything done without having experts in there to get things done. So that’s my cautious optimism that, you know, the system can correct itself. But I do think that it pushes against something deeper in our collective conversation in America right now about government, and that it—and that can be very toxic and self-fulfilling.

SHANKER: There was a hand up in the third row here, sir. Wait for the microphone, please. Yes, please.

Q: I confess my age, but I was working on the Reagan team—

SHANKER: Could you tell us who you are please, sir?

Q: Sorry. Edward Luttwak. Edward Luttwak.

I was working on the Reagan team when we informed the State Department people who came to meet us that the president was against coexistence. Hence, the president didn’t want to work after the September ministerials, did not want the summit meeting. Then it was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. We informed the president and the Joint Chiefs that the president was against massive retaliation. Indeed, he was against nuclear weapons. So, in a way, the two axioms were overturned. And yet, as you remember, somehow we survived. Just putting this as a point of reference. (Laughter.)

SHANKER: Thank you very much. Yes, Kim.

Q: Kim Dozier with The Daily Beast and the Council.

So the weekend is approaching. And we all know what that’s been like since this presidency began. (Laughter.)

FLOURNOY: Get your twitters ready.

Q: And I’m speaking to people in the national security community who are telling me that they live in dread of Friday, instead of looking forward to it. So what effect do you think these Twitter-storms, especially the Saturday morning ones, are having on national security? And if you were still in positions in government, what would you do to combat it?

SHANKER: Just a quick aside, around our office when we say thank God it’s Friday, just two more work days to Monday. (Laughter.)

PAXTON: And I’ll let the other two speak. On the military side, I believe there’s probably a certain element of tone-deafness, because there are enough crises in the world between North Korean nukes and whether you call it ISIS, ISIL, AQAP, there’s enough going on there that they’re trying to monitor that risk, monitor that degree of certainty, and have options on the table, let alone try to figure out who the National Security Council members and apparatus is to get that into the president that 120 or 140 word tweet, whatever it is. That shows you how much I pay attention to it, OK? (Laughter.) However many characters are in there, there’s probably a degree of tone-deafness to it.

FLOURNOY: Yeah. I think the whiplash is most felt by the media and by the government folks who have to, you know, explain things to you all and interact and make sense of all this. But like Jay, I sense that because it is such a challenging environment right now, and there’s so much going on that’s truly strategic—of strategic import for the United States, my sense is that the national security kind of professional cadre is staying pretty focused on what’s going on in the world. Some of the, you know, weekend activities may occasionally raise a question of do we have a new strategy or do we have new guidance? And people will seek clarity. But I think—I don’t sense that—I think the whiplash is a lot worse for people like you, Kim, than it is for people inside the departments at this point.

DAVIDSON: What I wonder—I would turn it back to the journalists in the room, because, you know, after so many weekends—and it hasn’t been that many. It seems like a lot. Hasn’t been that many—(laughter)—where there’s a Twitter-storm of some sort and then there’s a rolling back, right? So it happens then it rolls back. So do people get inured to it over time or do we continue to spin up every single time? I mean, my sense is it’ll tamp down. It could or it should. But I think that’s partly up to the media. But I agree, you know, below those turbulent waves is sort of calm waters underneath where people are just doing their job and waiting for the retraction on Monday or Tuesday.

SHANKER: Well, perhaps media and Trump can be the topic of the next conference. (Laughter.)

DAVIDSON: Way to deflect.

SHANKER: Sir in the second row, you had your hand up, please. Yes. There’s a microphone here.

Q: Thank you. Walt Cutler, another former Foreign Service officer.

We heard a lot about the three very, very excellent generals and so on. But we’re not hearing much, are we, about the secretary of state or, for that matter, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And I’m just wondering, is this reflecting a trend or a reality? Or does this concern you, that the State Department seems to be a little bit slow getting out of the starting gate?

DAVIDSON: Well, it does seem like the State Department is getting a little slow to come out of the starting gate. You know, when that strata of people depart and leave and aren’t—those positions aren’t filled—and in the State Department, all those people were career-types, who know how to make all the trains run. So now the trains are running a little slower. And I think that’s part of it. And I think, also, the State Department’s always been smaller and slower than the military. And the military, because they have these, you know, charismatic—General Mattis and H.R. McMaster on the other side—but I think gets a lot more press. And they have a lot more—even when they don’t have their politicals in place, they still have a huge organization, all the military, all the uniformed military, and the Joint Staff. They can still function. They can still get out. And they can still be staffed. And so that’s kind of what I’m seeing. I don’t know when these positions will get refilled or moved up, but I hear there’s a lot of stasis over there at this point.

 FLOURNOY: I also think it’s an open question what role does this president want the secretary of state to play, because normally—in administrations I’ve been part of and seen up close, you know, if you have a foreign prime minister visiting, a president visiting, the secretary of state is in the Oval Office in the meeting. The secretary of state is a key part of, you know, that visit. And so, you know, is this new conception more just secretary of state as an emissary to go out with, you know, certain policy and talking points when—you know, when helpful to the president? Or is this a secretary that’s actually going to have—carry a substantial—a substantial part of the diplomatic load and the foreign policy load, both shaping policy and executing it, and really being part of the inner circle? We haven’t seen that yet. And I think it’s an open question for how that role is going to settle.

SHANKER: Anybody further back? Yes, in the second to the last row. Thank you.

Q: Thanks. My name is Nick Shifrin. I’m with PBS “NewsHour.” I’m also a term member.

And I want to go back to Afghanistan. I was the ABC News correspondent living in Kabul, one of the many people who were leaked General—the plan to change the number of troops, McChrystal’s suggestions. And also the notion that was coming out of the people who were leaking those plans, frankly, was that they wanted to put pressure on the president because they did not trust President Obama with this decision. And I want to ask about the trust from the military’s perspective. Is it that the military as a body, as a whole, can be adjusted to trust the president based on the president’s actions? Or is there a kind of in-built distrust, perhaps, of a Democratic president and a trust of a Republican president? It just seems to me that that trust was based on—sorry, the lack of trust in Kabul of President Obama was based on just not trusting the president inherently with the decision. And I just wonder if there’s a notion whether the military—the general officers or the rank and file—will trust the president based on actions or not, and if that can be adjusted at all.

PAXTON: All right. So it’s pretty clear who’s jumping on this hand grenade. (Laughter.)

FLOURNOY: Although, if you get in trouble, I’ll help you. I have an idea. (Laughs.)

PAXTON: A very—a very pointed and good question. I don’t want to, as I said, go back to where the leak initiated from and why it initiated—but—or originated, rather. But I do want to take head on your comment about trust, about bipartisan or party trust, and about trust of elected officials. And I truly believe, based on wearing a uniform for 42 years, that there not only has to be but is—is—an inherent trust in the process and the players. And the issue is, is there the proper venue for a leader to make those recommendations.

So—and this is where there’s—the theory and the practice have to get closer, because as I said earlier, it must be a case of advice in private. It must be a case that there’s fierce advocacy in private. And there must be a case of allowing elected leaders to have headspace and timing, as we say when we’re adjusting weapons—that they have sufficient information to make an intelligent decision, sufficient time to have a dialogue about I agree, I disagree, I don’t understand, tell me more, as Janine said, if not this, what happens next. And there has to be sufficient confidence in the military leaders that as they make these recommendations to the secretary of defense, to the National Security Council, to the president, they’re going to get multiple bites at the apple, if you will, if they disagree.

And at the end of the day, it is the people of America, through their elected officials, who own the process and the product. And at some point, the military will salute and say, aye-aye. And it’s no different than the lieutenant and the captain. You know, the lieutenant is fiercely adamant that we got to go to the right and do an envelopment because going up the middle will be a slog and bloodshed. And then the captain says, you don’t understand, we have to get there fast. I don’t have the time to go to the right. I know it’s going to take more ammo and cost more lives, but we’re going up the middle. If the lieutenant feels strongly, he comes back and argues. But when the captain says we’re going up the middle, the lieutenant then owns the solution. He has to help the captain make sure going up the middle into the jaws is going to work.

And at some point—and I’ll just use this theoretically not actually—whether it’s General McChrystal, whether it’s Admiral Mullen, whether it’s Secretary Gates, at that particular time they’re going to get a bite at the apple. But then their job is to make sure when President Obama says we’re going to do this, they say aye-aye, sir. We’re going to make this work. So you can—we can go back and dissect when the leak happened, why it happened, who’s trying to shape the environment. I am a believer that the leaks, wherever they originated, were not good and counterproductive, OK? So I want to be on the record for that. They’re not good and they’re counterproductive, because you have to have faith in the system and faith in the players and enough confidence that you’re going to—if you disagree, you’re going to have an opportunity to disagree privately strongly.

SHANKER: Michèle?

FLOURNOY: No, I would just add, the thing that really baffled me about the leaks—I would agree, they were extremely counterproductive—two things. One is, they happened under Secretary Gates in the sense that—what I mean by that is, this is the same secretary who had come in when we were losing the Iraq War. And whether you were for or against the war, he helped turn it—you know, turn it around, got—against all kinds of political opposition created a surge that enabled us to get to a different place in that conflict. Why people wouldn’t trust in him, given what he demonstrated already in office, his ability to try to ensure the proper resourcing of the Afghan strategy is a mystery to me.

And second, and this is very common with leaks, is people are making decisions, you know, looking through a soda straw. They do not contemplate all of the second and third and four-order effects. And I think that many of those effects dogged the campaign from that point forward, and were very, very challenging. So I think, you know, those are the things that really, wherever they came from, really, really baffled me and just added to my sense of how unfortunate they were. I think we had—we had a very—a chance to be in a very different place, had that not occurred.

SHANKER: Yes, second row here.

Q: Charlie Stevenson, SAIS.

I’ve long argued that the Congress is an alternate source of civilian control over the military. And I wonder what advice, what dos and don’ts you would offer to this administration’s senior civilian and military leaders as to how to deal with the Congress?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. Congress is definitely a key player.

FLOURNOY: Most recent experience.

DAVIDSON: Yes. Well, I mean, I think—I mean, it’s like being—you know, if you’re a service secretary or chief of naval operations or a secretary of defense, you’re, like, the CEO of a giant corporation and your board of directors is, like, 535 people, right? So it’s not easy. But I mean that one thing is for sure that I’ve learned—and I’m sure you all have your own ideas—not engaging doesn’t make things better. Like, they have insatiable desire for lots and lots and lots of information, lots of dialogue. If you can get them on side, you know, if they can—if they feel like they’re in from the beginning on—you know, whether it’s a budget issue or a strategy issue—then they’re going to be your greatest advocate. But it is not—it’s not an easy process, when there’s one of you, there’s a zillion of them. Who’s the most interested and how can you have that dialogue? So, I mean, it’s incredibly difficult, but I think it can pay off, because I agree with you. I mean, people in Congress would say that they are a key part of civilian control. So everybody controls the military.

FLOURNOY: I mean, for the executive branch I think, you know, treating Congress as—at least as a set of stakeholders, at best as a set of partners, cultivating them as partners, treating them with respect, remembering that they control the power of the purse, which is pretty darn—(laughs)—powerful in this---in this town. So I think, you know, you have to have a stomach for retail relationship-building with the key members of Congress that oversee your agency, portfolio, whatever it is. Because if you ignore them, you do that at your peril. And if you engage them and bring them inside the tent and help them be partners in developing solutions, you can get a lot done.

PAXTON: I would only add two things. Number one is, it is incumbent on the individual, whether it’s military or civilian, to have a degree of consistency. You can’t say one thing to Congress and another thing to the president of the NSC. Your message has to be consistent. And then the second one is, there is always an issue of timing, where just as we sometimes are accused with the media, you can say something to Congress that is premature and circumvents the trade space that the president needs to make that decision. So you have to be consistent, you have to be mindful of the right time. You can have good intentions with bad timing.

FLOURNOY: And the challenge is when you get confirmed as a military officer, you promise to the Congress that you’re going to give them your best, you know, military advice when asked. And so sometimes they ask before you’ve had a chance to talk to the president. (Laughs.)

PAXTON: Every time you’re nominated you sign the paper and you raise your right hand. So it’s crystal clear that there are two chains there and two obligations. And sometimes you’re caught in that dynamic. So you’re always consistent, but then you have to watch the timing too.

SHANKER: But what do you do? Because this is sort of the Shinseki example. He was asked by Senator Levin his thoughts about Iraq troop numbers. And he had given his best advice to Rumsfeld, but he was asked publicly and he can’t tell the chairman of SASC I’m not going to ask you.

FLOURNOY: He did absolutely right.

PAXTON: Absolutely. And he did it for the record, because he had already answered.

SHANKER: And he suffered.

PAXTON: Right. Well, but, understand. And we’re all big boys and big girls. You be consistent and then you tell the truth. And the chips will fall.

SHANKER: All right. Thank you. There’s a question in the corner. This is probably the last one of the night, so make it doozy.

Q: I’ll make it very quick. I’m Guy Swan. I’m with the Association of the U.S. Army. And like Jay, a career officer.

Something that’s haunted the career military for a long time, and we saw the dynamic during the campaign, the role of military officers, senior officers, in the campaign. What does that do for the trust between civilian and military leaders? And maybe for Janine and Michèle it’s a bigger question. But it’s debated constantly for those of us in uniform.

FLOURNOY: Actually—I’m sorry, go ahead.

PAXTON: I’m going to defer to her, but for that reason she gets the best word and the last word.

FLOURNOY: No, no, no.

PAXTON: But because you looked at me, and because I need to be on the record on this one, OK? So I’ve known John Allen and Mike Flynn for many, many years. They are both patriots. They’re both stellar leaders, OK? I am of the camp of General Joe Dunford, General Martin Dempsey, and General Mike Mullen. You don’t go there. If you take off the uniform—if you’re going to advocate for a candidate, then you ought to be running for office or you ought to be the candidate. I am here today at some peril. I’m here because I believe in the process and because I want to have this conversation. But I cannot divorce myself—whether it’s on the CFR clip or not—I’m still a general. I’m going to be.

So I believe in civil-military relations. I believe in the primacy of the civilian. I thought it was—and this is just me on the record—I thought it was wrong for Admiral Crowe to come out and say. Because of that, I thought it was wrong for two successive elections to trot out 25 or 50 flag and general officers. And despite their valor in combat and their great friendship, I disagreed with Mike Flynn and John Allen coming out, because they did so before the election. And I know they thought long and hard about it. And I don’t think any less of them. I just—it’s just something that I would not have done. And I think regardless of their good intentions, it is harmful to the fabric of civil-military relations.

FLOURNOY: No, I would agree. I think a pillar of civil-military relations in a democracy like ours is the apolitical nature of the United States military. When they swear an oath, they don’t swear to the president. They swear an oath to the Constitution and to protect the United States of America. I think, unfortunately, you know, once you’re a general officer, your first name is always “General” even after you’ve retired. And that goes for you too, Guy. (Laughs.) And that’s what the American people see. Whether you’re retired or not, they see a general in a political—making, you know, sort of political and partisan statements.

I was in the—you know, the minority that lost the argument, because I have tried to say we shouldn’t be recruiting—we shouldn’t have this arms race of recruiting how many general officers can we recruit in each campaign to stand up on the stage. I even tried to get early on in the process representatives from both sides of the aisle to actually write a—you know, to sort of declare a ceasefire, to say we are going to pledge not to put military officers, particularly general officers, in this position during the campaign. Obviously that lovely little naïve idea got nowhere. (Laughter.) But I do think it is corrosive at some level, and confusing to the American people, and not a healthy phenomenon.

DAVIDSON: So I totally agree. And I’m sad you lost that arms race, because I think it’s exploitative as well to these admirals and generals, who they may not necessarily value their opinion as much as just they want their sign on.

But let me dig one layer deeper, why I—why I agree that it’s not a good thing for generals and admirals, especially three- and four-stars. Their name is always going to be general, their name is always going to be admiral, and in the eyes of the America people they have sort of an outsized influence. You know, when Jay speaks, despite how brilliant Michèle and I may be, you know, there are certain things that what he says people are going to be like, wow, 42 years of military experience. Like, I’m going to listen to that.

But deeper than that, it’s about the military itself, right? Because you’ve got sailors, Marines, airmen, soldiers. And they’re watching. And when their mentors, their former commanders, and they see them up on the stage and they’re supporting a certain candidate, that’s going to ripple down through the corps, right? And then that candidate loses? What does that do for the support of the president that then comes in? And I think that can be very corrosive, just on a tangible, day-to-day operational.

SHANKER: Well, that is a perfect thought to let echo across the evening. I thank all of you for joining us here. I thank the Council for organizing this terrific event. And most of all, our panel of experts for sharing their time and wisdom. Thank you. (Applause.)

PAXTON: Thanks, Thom. (Applause.)


"...I think [their leadership positions put] a huge burden on [Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster] really be a civilian in this role, even if they're recently retired, [and to] empower the civilians who work for them to help them do the civilian oversight role."
- Janine Davidson
"...I'm sure General Mattis is keenly aware that if he constantly turns to the service chiefs or constantly turns to the chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], he is not only depriving himself but also not providing best advice because of the distinguished civilian leaders who could be [undersecretary of defense for] policy Southeast Asia, USD policy Russia...and all the other skill sets and filters that he needs there."
- John M. Paxton Jr.
"...The first role of the national security advisor -- yes, you have to be an advisor to the president on an individual basis, but I think the far more important role is running a disciplined process that ensures that the views of your Cabinet members are brought to bear in the formulation of options and decisions for the president."
- Michèle A. Flournoy
More on This Topic

HBO History Makers with Thad W. Allen

Retired Admiral Thad W. Allen discusses major events, such as Hurricane Katrina, that shaped his experience as admiral of the United States Coast Guard.

Lessons Learned: General MacArthur's Dismissal

CFR's James M. Lindsay remembers President Harry Truman's announcement on April 11, 1951, that he had dismissed General Douglas MacArthur as commanding general of U.S. forces in Korea, and discusses the principle of civilian control of the military.

As Fleet Size Grows, Navy Aims to Boost Energy Efficiency

Secretary of the Navy Raymond Mabus offers his thoughts on the service's current challenges and future trajectory in a conversation with R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity.

Terms of Use: I understand that I may access this audio and/or video file solely for my personal use. Any other use of the file and its content, including display, distribution, reproduction, or alteration in any form for any purpose, whether commercial, non commercial, educational, or promotional, is expressly prohibited without the written permission of the copyright owner, the Council on Foreign Relations. For more information, write