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R2P, Military Intervention, and Civil-Military Balance

February 4, 2012

This morning’s UNSC vote on Syria kicked up a new round of sometimes contentious discussions in the ongoing debate on what a US intervention in Syria would or should look like and, more basically, whether the US should get involved in the Syrian crisis at all.

In the midst of some of this conversation on Twitter, Peter J. Munson fliply asked when all the R2P proponents would be heading down to a military recruiting office, which set off a flurry of responses calling him out (rightly) for the problematic civil-military implications inherent in any statement implying that only those who are serving/have served should have a right to commit our forces to a military intervention. I agree with his critics that this idea is dead wrong.

However, Mr. Munson is justified and absolutely correct in calling out policymakers and supporters of R2P, and military action in general, for failures to consider the second and third order effects or the inevitably-spiraling financial and, most importantly, human costs of any military action.

In the midst of the Twitter debates, Munson fired off one tweet that I think encapsulates both what bothered me about his arguments and what I sympathized with:

Also problematic that so few policy elites have military experience but are so willing to turn to force

I would say that it is not by definition problematic that policy elites don’t have military experience, but it is certainly problematic when they are quick to turn to force.

I don’t think Mr. Munson was really trying to say that only military and veterans should be allowed to shape defense policy, but I think it’s important to address the idea seriously, because civilian control of the military is an important element in the survival of a democracy. The idea that only those with military experience should be allowed to make defense policy/weigh in on the country’s use of military force is a dangerous one. It’s taking the point to extremes, but that way lies military dictatorship.

However, the other crucial thing to remember is that the civil-military relationship goes both ways. There are serious and important responsibilities on both sides.  Civilian policymakers are not holding up their end of the bargain if they do not very seriously consider the costs and consequences – the intended consequences and as many potential unintended ones as can be conceived – before committing our military to any actions or interventions. And Mr. Munson is quite justified in getting upset about this side of things.

An intervention in Syria, no matter how limited it is in intention, could spiral very, very rapidly out of control, spreading conflict across the region and making good of all the glib buzz phrases people have come up with since 9/11.

In sum, I absolutely believe that in an ideal, linear, and rose colored world, we have a responsibility to stop the horrific loss of life in Syria.  However, in the real world, the dimensions of what is required to conduct even the “limited” intervention suggested by R2P fans is far greater than what they imagine.

As I see it and as I have said before, the single most important responsibility our civilian government holds toward our military is not to risk or spend their lives lightly, without good reason, without dedicated efforts at alternative solutions, and without serious forethought. I think that in recent years, our policymakers have been notably lax in upholding this duty, and it’s no mystery to me why I have heard Mr. Munson and a number of others who have served questioning whether pundits and policymakers who have not can really understand the costs and risks of committing to the use of force.

I am sympathetic to expressions that policymakers do not consider all of the potential consequences, but I do not believe assertions that they cannot. I think that the privileges and the responsibilities of the civil-military relationship are too often taken for granted, but that if policymakers take the time and care to consider them, to listen to the input of their advisers military and civilian, and to think strategically (e.g., to conceive the desired end, then consider the various means at their disposal to reach that end, along with each means’ costs and benefits), then there is no reason a civilian government dominated by those who have never worn a uniform cannot effectively and responsibly wield the power to employ the use of force as an option.

Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think the fact that we can all participate in these debates in the public sphere is at least some reason to hope that our criticisms and questions can influence the larger discourse and help to hold our policymakers accountable in both their exercise of their rights and their fulfillment of their responsibilities.

  1. February 4, 2012 10:50 pm

    Your criticisms are well taken, but whenever a rhetorical jab like mine today goes out, the people who have chosen a path to become security policy elites without ever having done anything but grace the halls of Ivy League institutions are extremely quick to get their hackles up. They need to have thicker skin and stop throwing down the civil-military relations card. I’m absolutely not questioning the civilian control of the military, however I am questioning people like Slaughter and Cook who prominently champion simplistic policies that they will have no hand in sorting out. My post only begins to scratch the surface of the flaws in their thinking. And let’s remember, I was not speaking out against people who are currently public servants making public policy. I was speaking out against academics pushing ideas in the private sphere. So this isn’t really about civil-military relations, which is about the relationship between the military and their elected and appointed civilian superiors, but it is about academics overly sensitive about their lack of credentials using a strawman to try to make me out to be out of line. If I had said that X administration official has no business making policy because he/she hasn’t served, that is certainly foul. If I say that X private citizens with a significant podium should put their money where their simplistic policy preferences are rhetorically, that is at least gray area if not simply a disagreement of citizens with no bearing on the civil-military relationship whatsoever.

    More broadly, my point is that this is all a very abstract problem to many of these pundits, which is why their proposed solutions are so very bad. I truly feel that their offerings would be better if they had spent some time doing. Really, I don’t feel that one must have served to have a voice, but I do think that some form of doing is called for: military service, NGO, foreign service, contract work on a PRT somewhere, going into international business, getting out and having to work in the real world in general rather than simply theorizing about it. These people lack reality to temper their concepts and their idealism, which is why liberal interventionism is so in vogue. If they had any idea of the messy reality of the world, the imperfect instrument that is force, and the very tortured logic of the military bureaucracy that wields it, they would be more circumspect.

  2. February 6, 2012 12:56 pm

    A blog about tweets!

  3. T.A. Schnack permalink
    February 6, 2012 5:17 pm

    Consider Rangel’s argument:

    Rangel introduces bill to reinstate draft
    Rumsfeld says he sees no need for military draft
    January 8, 2003

    WASHINGTON (CNN) –Rep. Charles Rangel introduced a bill in Congress Tuesday to reinstate the military draft, saying fighting forces should more closely reflect the economic makeup of the nation.

    The New York Democrat told reporters his goal is two-fold: to jolt Americans into realizing the import of a possible unilateral strike against Iraq, which he opposes, and “to make it clear that if there were a war, there would be more equitable representation of people making sacrifices.”

    “I truly believe that those who make the decision and those who support the United States going into war would feel more readily the pain that’s involved, the sacrifice that’s involved, if they thought that the fighting force would include the affluent and those who historically have avoided this great responsibility,” Rangel said.

    “Those who love this country have a patriotic obligation to defend this country,” Rangel said. “For those who say the poor fight better, I say give the rich a chance.”

    According to Rangel’s office, minorities comprise more than 30 percent of the nation’s military.

    Under his bill, the draft would apply to men and women ages 18 to 26; exemptions would be granted to allow people to graduate from high school, but college students would have to serve.

    Anyone who didn’t qualify for military service because of impairments would be asked to perform community service.

    The lawmaker has said his measure could make members of Congress more reluctant to authorize military action. The Korean War veteran has accused President Bush and some fellow lawmakers of being too eager to go to war.

    Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters Tuesday he sees no need for a draft. He said the military is managing to attract enough skilled recruits without one.

    “We’re not going to re-implement a draft. There is no need for it at all,” Rumsfeld said. “The disadvantages of using compulsion to bring into the armed forces the men and women needed are notable.”

    Draft controversy
    The nation had a draft in place between 1948 and 1973. It grew to become the center of controversy during the Vietnam War, 1964-1975, an undeclared war that was the most unpopular conflict America has fought.

    Anger over the war led many young men to flee to Canada and elsewhere to avoid the draft, and violent protests were rampant. When the draft ended, the United States set up an all-volunteer military.

    Since 1980, the Selective Service has required men 18 to 26 to register to give the government a pool of men it could draw from in case troops were needed in an emergency.

    As of October 31, 14.1 million men would be eligible for a draft, said Selective Service spokesman Pat Schuback. Twenty-year-olds would be called up first, followed by others — year by year. In the age group 20 to 26, 11 million would be eligible.

    The average number of men registered per year during the Vietnam War era was 18.4 million. That covers the period from July 1, 1964, through June 1973.

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