Sunday, April 1, 2018

The SecDef and US Civil-Military Relations

One of the things that drove me crazy during the first part of the Obama Administration was the complaint that he mismanaged American civil-military relations--the relationship between the government and the US armed forces.  Why did it drive me crazy?  Because Robert Gates tended to get little blame even though the most important job a Secretary of Defense has is managing this relationship.  While the President is the commander-in-chief, the Secretary of Defense is the one whose day job involves civilian control of the military.

What does that mean?  It means conveying not just the commands but the intent and the preferences of the President to the military AND to be the principal adviser on defense matters, along with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the President. The Office of the Secretary of Defense is the primary overseer of the US military (Congress is a key overseer, but, again, not their focus), meeting with the military, especially the Joint Staff and those at the various combatant commands, every day to develop, implement and monitor policy. In doing so, OSD and its boss, the SecDef, deal with the friction that comes with having two distinct worlds collide every single day.

Why talk about this today?  Because this story seems to be more on Mattis than on Trump: that the Joint Chiefs were not briefed about the new transgender policy.  Sure, when Trump tweeted out last summer, that is on Trump.  But this policy stance?   The waffle or denial of responsibility in this article is that the Chiefs had reps on the panel advising Mattis, so they knew what might be in the memo.  Really?  No, not good enough.  No senior official likes to be surprised--providing situational awareness is something that one does to those immediately above you and, yes, to those below you who are key actors.

Mattis should have alerted the Chiefs, even if he was just giving advice and not giving Trump a clear policy to ratify (not sure which is the case) precisely because we have had a year of watching Trump, and Mattis should know by now.

I tended to overestimate Robert Gates since his predecessor was so very crappy (the tyranny of low expectations at work).  That changed when I realized he had failed to keep the military in line when they implemented Obama's surge--the Marines went to the wrong place if one wants to do population-centric warfare: Kandahar, not Helmand.  I read Gates's bio, and found it very frustrating as he blamed Obama much of the time and took responsibility for the state of civ-mil in only a page or two.

Well, I have been skeptical of Mattis since he was appointed because:
 (a) I don't think it is appropriate to have very recently retired generals serve as SecDef--they aren't civvie enough for me.  A lifetime in uniform creates a military mindset.  A few years out of uniform doesn't change that much.  So, Mattis still says things that are inappropriate for a SecDef "I am not kept awake at night by what others do, I keep others awake at night," he refused to engage the media the way past SecDefs have--which might be good at avoiding trouble with Trump but is bad for civilian control of the military.
(b) the whole cult of personality around this "warrior-monk" made me nervous.  It is either that or the aforementioned tyranny of low expectations that has allowed Mattis to go largely uncriticized.

So, yeah, Mattis is the only adult, he's the only restraint, he does seem opposed to a  new Korean war.  Woot! But he is also doing some damage to the norms governing civilian control of the military.  It may be worth it if he manages to steer Trump away from new wars BUT it is still a price we are paying now and will pay in the future. 

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