Civil-Military Relations: Our Dangerous, Growing Divide

In recent months a civil-military divide has emerged in the United States over the war in Iraq. Unlike much of the Iraq debate between Democrats and Republicans, it is over the present and the future rather than the past. Increasingly, civilians worry that the war is being lost, or at least not won. But the military appears as confident as ever of ultimate victory. This difference of opinion does not amount to a crisis in national resolve, and it will not radically affect our Iraq policy in the short term. But it is insidious and dangerous nonetheless. To the extent possible, the gap should be closed.

In fact, objective realities in Iraq suggest that the military is too optimistic—but also that the public and the strategic community are becoming too fatalistic. Neither of these outlooks should be left unchecked. To the extent that military planners see Iraq through a rosy prism, they may not favor making policy changes when they should. And if we somehow lose in Iraq, the military may collectively blame the national media and the American body politic for a defeat that occurred on the streets of Iraq. On the other hand, if the public becomes too negative about the war, calls for a premature departure could grow louder and louder—and have a real policy effect, if not through George Bush directly then through Congress.

The military’s enthusiasm about the course of the war may be natural among those four-star officers in leadership positions, for it has largely become their war. Their careers have become so intertwined with the campaign in Iraq that truly independent analysis may be difficult. But it is striking that most lower-ranking officers seem to share the irrepressible optimism of their superiors. In talking with at least 50 officers this year, I have met no more than a handful expressing any real doubt about the basic course of the war.

Contrast that with the rest of the country. The polls are clear; the American public is deeply worried and increasingly pessimistic. The numbers are not (yet) abysmal; 30 to 40 percent still seem bullish on trends in Iraq. But even among those who strongly support the Bush administration, doubts are emerging. Among defense and Middle East analysts, my own informal survey suggests at least as negative an overall outlook, with decidedly more pessimism than optimism. Even among centrists who supported the war or saw the case for it, optimism is now hard to find. Many expect things to get worse, even much worse, in the coming months and years.

Members of both camps have plenty of evidence to support their view. But the risk is that each group is starting to selectively ignore information that does not fit with its increasingly firm conceptions about how things are going.

For example, military leaders (and many Bush administration officials) point to some good news on the economic front: growing gross domestic product, bustle on the streets, creation of small businesses, adequate availability of most household fuels, gradually improving national infrastructure for water and sewage, more children in school, more Internet usage, and lots more telephone service. They also note the gradual improvement in Iraqi security forces, with 30,000 or more now capable of largely independent operations. And they rightly observe the remarkable progress made in drafting the Iraqi constitution. A can-do military officer aware of such information, and also tactically succeeding day in and day out in finding and killing insurgents, is likely to see a trajectory toward victory.

But is that really what is happening? Growing GDP is good for those with access to the twin golden rivers flowing through Iraq—not the Tigris and Euphrates, but oil revenue and foreign aid. The rest of the economy is, on the whole, weak. Unemployment remains in the 30 to 40 percent range, and the psychologically most critical type of infrastructure—electricity—has barely improved since Saddam Hussein fell. Iraqi security forces are getting better, but they are also losing more than 200 men a month to the insurgency. Civilian casualties in Iraq from the war are as high as ever; combine that with the region’s highest crime rates, and Iraq has clearly become a much more violent society since Hussein fell. Tactically, the resistance appears to be outmaneuvering the best military in the world in its use of improvised explosive devices. And politically, every move forward toward greater Sunni Arab participation in the political process seems to be accompanied by at least one step back.

In the short term, of course, this civil-military divide matters only so much. The Bush administration has great political leeway in how it prosecutes the Iraq war. Officers in the field are not so stubborn as to resist smart changes in policy when the need becomes obvious. And on the other side of things, even those members of Congress and the public who think we are stuck in stalemate generally oppose radical alternatives to present policy.

But the dangers of a growing divide are real. In a year we will have a new Congress, and if the public has become fatalistic about Iraq by then, Congress may assert itself in demanding rapid moves toward complete withdrawal—be they prudent or not. By contrast, if military officers see the good news more than the bad, they may feel increasingly cut off from the rest of the country. They may fail to understand why their recruiting efforts are not always appreciated by parents. They may be too reluctant to change tactics away from overly muscular combat operations that have accorded insufficient emphasis to protecting the Iraqi population. They may not feel enough urgency about advocating changes in policy that are needed there—like much better protection for Iraqi security forces, which remain badly under-armored, and a jobs program to directly target the high unemployment rate.

Penetrating and respectful civil-military debates are difficult to conduct, especially in a time of war. But we need one now.