Thursday, May 21, 2009

Managing Mico-Management

Ricks, in his blog, cites a book and an author, who assert that SecDefs Rumsfeld and Gates are basically the same type of micro-manager with different personalities. That is kind of like saying that Hannibal Lecter and I both like to eat, but that our tastes are somewhat different. I think it is more than just "style" as Gates actually seems to be focused on today's realities while Rumsfeld was using the various missions to prove his ideological points (we don't need a large army, etc.).

But this raises a bigger question that I have been grappling with the past few years and the literature on civil-military relations has been facing since its birth: what is the proper role for civilians in the making of military policy? The classic phrase is that war is too important to be left to the generals, and the history of warfare is replete with civilians getting into the military's business successfully (see Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command) and catastrophically (Rumsfeld). I had always believed that Cohen had the right argument, until I found out that Cohen worked with the Bush Administration.

In Canada, for the past several years at least, it seems like there is actually very little civilian oversight or interference--that the Chief of the Defense Staff makes the decisions of how the military operates. Indeed, the old Huntingtonian distinction is of professional militaries that don't tell the civilians what to do but instead have autonomy to decide the how of military operations seems to be exemplified by Canada. And it seems to have worked out pretty well--that the Canadian Forces on the ground have more discretion, and this has led to a greater impact and probably better outcomes on the ground. As a result, the Auerswald and Saideman project focusing on the extent of delegation from the home capital to the commander in the field has had a bias--I think we implicitly assert that more discretion is better.

So, I believed that civilian intervention was good before, but how about now? Why do I seem to favor Gates the micro-manager and not Rumsfeld the micro-manager? First, delegation requires oversight--one cannot simply give authority to underlings and then ignore what they do. So, the fact that there is almost no civilian oversight in Canada, in my humble opinion, is problematic even if delegating a lot of discretion is the correct course of action. One's agents are going to perform best if they are held accountable. And that probably gets to the big difference between Gates and Rumsfeld--not of "personal style" but of accountability. Rumsfeld pushed his views on others, but then often tuned out. Gates seems to be trying to hold the military accountable.

Second, one fo the key phrases I heard over and over with the Canadian military is that the chain of command in Ottawa for the past several years sees its role as "setting the conditions so that the commander on the ground can be successful." This seems to be what Gates is trying to do in the various stories
  • investing in base infrastructure so that the few guys who can "drive" the UAVs in a distant theater don't waste time commuting to banks and such, but spend their time most effectively.
  • insisting on more helos being sent to Afghanistan to improve the ability of the guys on the ground to operate.
This stands in stark contrast to Rumsfeld's micro-management:
So, this blog has helped me realize that the keys are: whatever the level of delegation, oversight is key; and that micro-management is neither good nor bad. It depends on the aims of the effort--to prove a point a la Rumsfeld or to "enable" success. In democracies, civilians should be running the show. They should listen to the experts (including the military) as they make their decisions, and they need to pay attention to the implementation of the decisions since war is politics by other means--and that how wars are fought will have significant political implications.

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