As President Donald Trump relies more and more on military institutions and recently retired officers for the formulation and conduct for his foreign policy, many are asking what the effects might be on U.S. politics and policymaking.
Q1: Why the past complaints about micromanagement? What problems does increased military autonomy over operations solve?
A1: Most White Houses eventually get frustrated with what academics call the principal-agent problem, where the principal (in this case the president) loses a great deal of control over his policies in the process of trusting others to execute them per his intention. Military operations suffer from an especially acute case of politicians’ execution anxiety because when military missions fail, the political and diplomatic consequences can be severe. Additionally, operating outside declared war zones imposes a far greater number of legal, political, and diplomatic constraints on military activities because U.S. forces are operating on the sovereign territory of a country with which we are not at war. This fact necessitates a whole-of-government engagement with partner states, particularly through our diplomatic representatives in the region. Comprehensive engagement coordinated through the National Security Council (NSC) can facilitate operations and prevent setbacks from becoming crises. The government of Yemen’s prohibition against U.S. operations for a time after the January special forces raid demonstrated how operational goals can affect and be affected by bilateral sensitivities. Pakistan’s likely reaction to the unilateral Osama bin Laden raid—and the country’s support for counterterrorism operations thereafter—was an important consideration in that decisionmaking process that implied wider strategic questions well within the president’s purview.
Yet the NSC’s coordination role often devolves to tactical-level scrutiny. Especially in an era when small events can be broadcast on global platforms in very short time frames, tactics can have major diplomatic and political impacts, driving a fascination among some senior directors with troop movements and rules of engagement. This “3,000-mile screwdriver” is almost always too slow to react to real-time changes in the operating environment and rarely expert enough to provide actionable guidance to military personnel. Autonomy over operations under conditions of clear strategic guidance maximizes military effectiveness. The challenge is to preserve the White House’s strategic coordination prerogative yet allow the experts in the application of military capabilities to do their jobs.
Q2: What is an appropriate level of White House scrutiny of proposed military action?
A2: In general, delegation models tend to protect civil-military relations and preserve space for strategic leadership from the White House. But the details and personalities involved matter. Delegating execution of policy does not mean delegating oversight and awareness. The NSC is well within its purview to question Department of Defense (DoD) and regional commanders (via the Joint Staff) frequently about operational plans and activities. The secretary and the president should also communicate frequently about the activities the department is pursuing. In all such communications, White House personnel and the president himself should keep in mind the ultimate objectives the administration is seeking to accomplish. Instead of questioning the movement of individual assets or seeking to approve specific concepts of operations, exchanges should remain focused on strategic goals, the shape and size of the operational footprint, estimates of casualties and financial costs, and the impact on DoD’s ability to meet other global challenges given the shift in personnel and assets. This level of details gives civilian leaders enough information to understand the likely impacts of military operations on political and diplomatic relationships and ensure that operations will not undermine immediate or related strategic goals.
For special and covert operations, risking “micromanagement” may be necessary to perform a full review of the likely diplomatic impacts in the event of mission failure and/or revelation. More generally, the political and operational consequences when things in the field go awry can be mitigated when the White House and senior DoD and State Department officials are apprised of ongoing military activities. Diplomatic crises can be avoided or shortened and national resources brought to bear expediently when political and military leadership are on the same page.
Q3: What would too much military autonomy look like?
A3: The danger is that military operations become divorced from overall foreign policy, making both civilian leaders and the military vulnerable to runaway events. Operational and tactical-level contexts can have incentive structures that are separate from national purposes, and political leaders can lose control of military campaigns if they aren’t proactively evaluating the first-order diplomatic and political purposes of applying force.
The events in Somalia in 1993 are instructive here. Other priorities overwhelmed a new White House allowing a preexisting and peripheral military mission to proceed under its own momentum. With no high-level strategic and political adaptation to developments on the ground, the military did what it could to provide adequate forces and support the United Nations, including deploying a Ranger battalion and Delta Forces. The UN focus on hunting down a Somali warlord led to the fateful Blackhawk Down incident, an event that cost the lives of 18 U.S. service members and dogged the White House’s approach to military affairs for years. Members of Congress and the public wondered what the U.S. purpose in Somalia had been and how important that purpose was. As tragic as the incident was for the families of the dead and for long-term Somali stability, it was still in a part of the world that was not central to U.S. security and economic interests. The lessons of Somalia should apply to any political appointee in a position to connect strategy to military operations and should encourage contemporary policymakers not to ignore DoD’s operational choices.
Q4: Do Secretary James Mattis, Secretary John Kelly, and General H.R. McMaster’s military experience also boost the military’s ability to take autonomous action?
A4: Although the prevalence of recently retired and active-duty general officers in the current national security leadership chain raises concerns about the long-term draw of politics on the military services, the individuals holding cabinet-level positions do not boost formal military authority in the national chain of command. Secretary Mattis is a part of the civilian chain of command, and Secretary Kelly presides over a civilian agency as a civilian leader. General McMaster is on active-duty status but is not the in the chain of command between the White House and DoD and commands no forces himself; he would need Senate confirmation to move to a command position. A greater concern beyond the legal scope of these three officers’ authority is the degree to which the national security system and the public become comfortable with foreign affairs being increasingly developed according to military considerations and by those from the military community. To the degree that a separation between policymakers without a military background and those from the military community develops, which side takes precedence in driving foreign policy going forward could be meaningful for civilian democratic control over the military instrument and over foreign policy itself.
Alice Hunt Friend is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).