R2P, Military Intervention, and Civil-Military Balance
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.