Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Micromanagement or Abdication: The Twin Perils of Civil-Military Relations

Reading Micah Zenko's piece "Does the Military Need a Micromanager?" on the same day as my first class of Civil-Military Relations was great timing.  Got me thinking about what we discussed this morning.  What is micromanagement?  As Zenko suggests, tis anytime someone told an officer not to do something or to do something they didn't want to do.  Zenko goes onto discuss how responsibility for deciding how much force to use has moved from the White House and the Pentagon (the Office of the SecDef) to the combatant commanders and even further down the chain of command and the oopsy doopsy (h/t to Jon Lovett) that is more civilian casualties in American strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.  Funny how more delegation might lead to greater use of force with nasty consequences. 

It is not that the military folks are cruel or heartless or careless, but they are perhaps less likely to take the political consequences into consideration despite the fact that they all say they read Clausewitz and his dictum that war is politics by other means.  But it got me thinking about the two distinct choices that shape how much weight/restraint/control that influences stuff on the ground: how much discretion is granted to the folks on the ground or control kept back at HQ & how much oversight there is.  The Dave and Steve book/article focused on the former question, and our new project with Phil Lagasse focuses on the latter.  These tend to get conflated (Feaver does so just a bit in his terrific book). 

This handy 2x2 is a work in progress but suggests four possibilities (as all good social science does):

While micromanagement can mean many things, it seems to be most intense when someone can't make decisions, and every action is closely watched.  On the other hand, when the agents have a heap of discretion and no one is paying much attention, isn't that abdication of control?  Seems like that is where the US is headed these days since Congress is not doing as much oversight as it should of military operations and the SecDef does not seem to be watching too closely.  I think I tend to prefer the combo of high oversight and much discretion/autonomy to centralized command and relatively less oversight.... much to think about here. 

This is mostly to illustrate the basic problem today and why I have little sympathy for military officers who complain about micromanagement of the military.  Civilian control is a thing, you see, and pretty foundational to democracy.  If the military would hold itself accountable, perhaps external oversight might not be quite so necessary, but how has the military held itself accountable for the failures of few wars?  Did Tommy Franks or Ricardo Sanchez or Stan McChrystal pay a price from within the military?  No, maybe, and no. 

So, yeah, I indicated to my class that the US has a significant civ-mil crisis because it is in the abdication box.  I hope I am wrong, but I don't think so.  What say you?

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