Logo

Dangerous Delegation: Military Intervention & the U.S. Public, with Kori Schake

February 11, 2018

U.S. military members at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, October 2014. CREDIT: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Harry Brexel

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello. I'm Nikolas Gvosdev. I am the senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in charge of the United States Global Engagement program, and with me today is Dr. Kori Schake, the newly appointed deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a longstanding scholar, observer, and practitioner in the American national security system.

We are going to discuss in this podcast questions related to American civil-military relations and how that plays out in public attitudes and support for American global engagement. Welcome.

KORI SCHAKE: It is such a pleasure to be with you, my friend.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It is wonderful to have you. I would like to start—I know that you in 2016 co-authored a book with the current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military, and it was an insightful, fresh look at the question of civil-military relations, and particularly the question of how the military is viewed by society and how the military itself views its relationship to society.

So I thought I would start by asking you, do we have a serious divide that is emerging between the civilian and military sectors of American society?

KORI SCHAKE: No, I don't think so. Friction at the high policy level is nowhere near the historic highs it has been at other times in American history. At the general population to military level, I don't think there is friction.

I think there is concern by many, me included, that the American public is deferential to a degree that might not be healthy for civil-military relations. The civilian population is deferential to a degree, but I am only half-kidding when I say that I think Mike Flynn is one of the best things that happened to civil-military relations in a really long time. The American public could see that even people who excel in a military environment are often reckless, unintelligent, and not good for the body politic in other areas. And we ought to take them down off of their pedestals and treat them like what they are, which is our fellow Americans who have a particular kind of expertise that many of the rest of us do not.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Building on that question of expertise, is there a sense that when you talk about the deference, that when it comes to questions of intervention abroad or use of military force that the civilian political leaders and the general public more broadly are simply willing to delegate and say, "You know what to do. Go out and do it, and we won't concern ourselves with these questions"? Or do you think that the American—certainly politicians—but also the American body politic is remaining sufficiently engaged in questions of war and peace?

KORI SCHAKE: I do not think the American public is sufficiently engaged in questions of war and peace, and I am so glad that you asked it that way because what Jim and I found in this survey data that was collected for our book Warriors and Citizens—I should mention that we did one of the largest surveys of American public attitudes about the military that had been done since the "triangle" study that Dick Kohn and Peter Feaver and others did in 1998. We did a big survey of American public attitudes because what we found was that it seemed to us, especially in civil-military relations, people tended to generalize from their personal experience. Of course, as you know, the plural of anecdote is not data, and so we wanted to have some actual data on what large-scale trends and attitudes are like.

One of the things that comes through really clearly is that the American public knows almost nothing about our military or what they do, and that cannot be healthy in a civilian society, in a free society, and in a democratic society. But what has tended to happen—50 years into an all-volunteer force—is that the American public increasingly outsources its judgment on these things to the military. So as long as the military thinks the war is going well, the public is not going to put any pressure on the political leadership to do anything different.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Do political leaders then defer overly to military judgment as a result of that, especially if there is no perceived blowback from the public?

KORI SCHAKE: That is a really important question and one that the terrific people that we recruited to write chapters for our book Warriors and Citizens disagreed really strongly on. Rosa Brooks and Peter Feaver and Lindsay Cohn—and who else?—many of the academic contributors were really worried about that.

Jim and I, in our policy experience, could not think of examples of where that was the case. In fact, what we thought we saw was President Obama fired several senior military folks, including Jim Mattis, with no public cost at all, and that presidents complain about being boxed in by the military; President Obama certainly felt that way during the Afghanistan review in 2008 and in 2010 and 2011 on Iran policy, and there are indications that President Trump felt that way during this administration's Afghanistan review as well.

So the White House is wary of the military either expecting deference or being able to trap a president into providing it, but I cannot think of instances in which it actually played out that way. Can you?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: No, I can't. It reminds me of something we have also seen in the intelligence world, which is that policymakers like to say, "Well, I'd like to do something, but the intelligence doesn't support it," or when there is a problem or a failure, "My intentions were good, but I was failed by the intelligence community." It seems in a way that what you are also suggesting is that the military can be used by political leaders either to justify things they do not want to do or that they can use the military as the cloak or as the justification for why they are doing something but then not take responsibility.

KORI SCHAKE: Absolutely.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: To build on that, what I was struck by watching President Trump's announcement on Afghanistan was the sense that he was agreeing to this limited surge of forces, but that he was also quite prepared to hang the responsibility for failure—he will take the credit if it goes well, but if there is a failure, it will be the fault of the Pentagon for having given him bad advice.

KORI SCHAKE: Yes. I think that is exactly right, and that is a difference between President Trump and prior presidents. There is a saying in the military that "you can delegate authority, but you can't delegate responsibility," and previous presidents of our lifetime have also felt that.

President Trump clearly does not. When someone in the military gets killed during an operation and the president gets challenged on the policy, he will say, "The generals told me they wanted to do this." So the good news is that President Trump is willing to give our military more autonomy in its operations than President Obama did, for example, but the downside is that he is also not wiling to give them political cover, even when it may be appropriate because what they are doing is consistent with the president's selected policy.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Do we have any sense yet of a year or so into the administration of how this resonates with the public? Does the public accept that as well, that if things go well, it is a credit to the president, and if things do not, then it is the military's fault or the intelligence community's fault? Is there any sense that you have since writing the book, has there been a shift in public opinion, or is it just simply too early to tell?

KORI SCHAKE: It is a fantastic question that I really wish I knew the answer to, but I don't, and I have not seen any data on the subject, so maybe listeners know better than I do. If you do, please post it on Twitter and flag it for me because I would love to know the answer to that.

It seems to me a really important question given how closely President Trump is attempting to tie himself personally to the military—military parades in Washington, lots of veterans in the senior ranks of his administration. Interestingly, he has not gone to see American troops deployed in war zones, but he is clearly trying to associate himself with public respect and admiration and affection for the American military.

What we did see in the data for Warriors and Citizens, which were surveys conducted for us by YouGov, was an increasing desire on the part of politicians to use the military for political purposes; one of the flags that were in the data from the 1998 triangle study and that appeared to be quite accentuated in the data that we collected in 2015, where political leaders want to use the military for political purposes but also view the military increasingly as political actors.

That is something the military itself is quite worried about because on both sides of the partisan divide in the United States there is enormous support in the public to have senior military people serve in high-ranking positions, as H. R. McMaster is doing as the national security advisor, a lieutenant general on active duty. And there is also widespread support for veterans making political statements of the kind Mike Flynn did at the Republican National Convention and John Allen did at the Democratic National Convention.

The public really favors the military doing those things, but there are indications it respects the military less when they do. The comparison that Peter Feaver has made that seems to me accurate is that the public is beginning to view the military the way they view the Supreme Court, which is that it is a partisan institution which I favor when they are doing what coincides with my political beliefs, and that would, of course, be incredibly bad for civil-military relations.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Exactly, because then it is not seen as a national institution that transcends party lines.

KORI SCHAKE: Exactly. And I do think President Trump, because of the way he engages with the military, is putting the military at risk of being seen as a partisan Republican Party apparatchik, and that is bad for the institution. Moreover, the potential solution to it is to have the next Democratic president conduct the exact same behavior in order to show that the military can be just as politicized by the liberal side of the line. That is also bad for civil-military relations.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Because then you start ending up with what we used to have in, say, the first decades of the republic, which are the political generals.

KORI SCHAKE: Absolutely.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: You are a Whig general or you are a Federalist general or you are a Democrat-Republican general and the like, and that does not bode well.

Let me ask you one other topic to cover, and that is whether or not you see based on the data, based on your experiences particularly in government, you had mentioned before that we are now on many decades of the all-volunteer force, so we have people who self-select to come into the military, no longer a conscript force. Is part of that self-selection into the military and then when people are serving and then when they retire, is there any sense that they develop a sense of themselves as a constituency for American engagement and presence in the world? Or does the data suggest that the military more or less falls along the same lines as the general civilian population in terms of support for engagement in some areas, neo-isolationism in others?

Is there a sense that the military—and also because of the military having been deployed in various parts of the world, whether or not in the major conflicts, but also with so many of the engagement activities that the military does around the world as just simply part of security cooperation, is there a sense that the military has a sense of America's role as a global power which can counteract some of the more populist, isolationist narratives that we have seen emerging?

KORI SCHAKE: I am delighted to tell you that the veterans' community and the active-duty military community is every bit as divided and contentious on these issues as the civilian body politic. There is a running joke in the veterans' community on Twitter, a satire [account], @IAmTheWarax, who claims "to speak for all veterans." All of us who tune in carefully to Duffel Blog and to serious military analysis follow The Warax and laugh about it because so many people try to bolster their personal political beliefs or their personal beliefs about America's role in the world by appealing to what veterans believe or to what "the military" believes.

I think one of the really beautiful things that we are seeing right now with veterans so prominent in a very contentious administration and with the active-duty military maneuvering to try to stay out of politicized roles is that folks on active duty, a lot of them think we are making progress in Afghanistan and we should stay until we have achieved our objectives, and a lot of others of them are saying: "We haven't accomplished anything in 17 years. What in the world are we still doing there? It's not worth the sacrifice."

That is as it should be. The experience of a lance corporal in Afghanistan is not the same experience as a colonel running a terrorist intelligence cell, which is different—they do not all have the same experience, and they do not have the same life experience that has shaped their judgments in different ways, and that is as it should be. We should not want a military that speaks with one voice, and we should not want a veterans' community that speaks with one voice, because if they do, given how deferential American society is to its military, that actually would genuinely be a danger to the republic.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: The emergence of an officer corps as we have seen in European history, which does not always bode well for the future.

KORI SCHAKE: Absolutely. And in the 1998 study that Dick Kohn, Peter Feaver—I am not sure if Jim Golby was part of that one—the triangle study group who did it, one of the things they were worried about was that the American military in the late 1990s, and particularly the officer corps, seemed to be growing more conservative, more socially conservative, more religiously conservative, than the rest of American society, and seemed to be growing quite judgmental of their civilian superiors. They were really worried about that trend, which blessedly has not been borne out over time.

The best commentary on civil-military relations in America that I have ever heard came from the great Eliot Cohen during the 2000 presidential election campaign. Eliot said that it is really important for George W. Bush to be elected president so that the American military can learn to hate Republicans again.

In fact, the data on American military attitudes shows that that is true, and that it is actually fundamentally healthy for the military to be slightly suspicious of their elected civilian superiors, to understand that their devotion is to the Constitution and not to the elected political leader, and to understand that politicians are trying to use you for political purposes and you ought to try to keep your distance. I think that is the healthiest way to think about civil-military relations in the United States.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you. That is a wonderful way to wrap up our conversation. Thank you for taking us through these issues as we in this project begin to examine the question of narratives of American global engagement and how they resonate with the American population, in this case the role of our military and their relationship with their civilian political superiors and the society around them as a whole.

Thank you very much for what you have given us here today.

KORI SCHAKE: You are so welcome, and I am so looking forward to being a consumer of what you guys produce. I think it's really important that you are undertaking this research, and I look forward to being a beneficiary of it.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less