Does the mil­i­tary need a mi­cro­man­ager?

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Micah Zenko

Th­ese con­cerns have risen to more promi­nent media cov­er­age in­ter­mit­tently over the past quar­ter-cen­tury.

Two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend — out­go­ing com­man­der of the U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State — was asked about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rel­a­tively de­cen­tral­ized mil­i­tary de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Townsend replied, “I will say that the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion has pushed de­ci­sion-mak­ing down into the mil­i­tary chain of com­mand. And I don’t know of a com­man­der in our armed forces that doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate that. A key re­sult of that is that we don’t get sec­ondguessed a lot . . . we don’t get 20 ques­tions with ev­ery ac­tion that hap­pens on the bat­tle­field and ev­ery ac­tion that we take.”

Townsend’s ob­ser­va­tion was no­table in two re­spects. First, an ac­tive­duty gen­eral of­fi­cer rarely de­nounces the com­mand style of a for­mer com­man­der-in-chief so ex­plic­itly. Sec­ond, it epit­o­mized the wide­spread sen­ti­ment ex­pressed by uni­formed of­fi­cials since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as­sumed of­fice: the days of White House mi­cro­man­age­ment of the mil­i­tary are over. The im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that ex­ces­sive civil­ian in­ter­fer­ence (which some might la­bel “over­sight”) is harm­ful to morale and, ul­ti­mately, com­bat ef­fec­tive­ness.

Th­ese con­cerns have risen to more promi­nent media cov­er­age in­ter­mit­tently over the past quar­ter-cen­tury, with the in­ten­sity of that fo­cus depend­ing on the per­son­al­i­ties of civil­ian leader (think Madeleine Al­bright, Don­ald Rums­feld, or Su­san Rice) and the rel­a­tive suc­cess of U.S. mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions. Nev­er­the­less, they rep­re­sent the in­evitable ten­sion of the prin­ci­pal-agent re­la­tion­ship be­tween civil­ian ex­ec­u­tives who mon­i­tor the mil­i­tary agents that serve the coun­try, as Peter Feaver de­tailed in his bril­liant book, Armed Ser­vants: Agency, Over­sight, and Civil-Mil­i­tary Re­la­tions.

But the fact that th­ese is­sues are ubiq­ui­tous doesn’t mean they don’t merit at­ten­tion. Given the un­prece­dented global reach and lethal­ity of the U.S. mil­i­tary, do­mes­tic de­bates about mi­cro­man­age­ment are hugely con­se­quen­tial to in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions. So when you hear the term “mi­cro­man­age­ment” used pe­jo­ra­tively in a mil­i­tary con­text, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Fun­da­men­tally, civil­ian in­ter­fer­ence or over­sight - from White House or Pen­tagon of­fi­cials - of the armed forces is not bi­nary, but rather ex­ists to vary­ing de­grees along a spec­trum, from Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son’s boast dur­ing the Viet­nam War that “They can’t even bomb an out­house with­out my ap­proval,” to Trump’s more re­cent ad­mis­sion that he had bestowed upon the mil­i­tary “to­tal au­thor­ity.” Most pres­i­dents fall some­where in be­tween - sys­tem­at­i­cally car­ing about a hand­ful of things the mil­i­tary does day-to-day, but then giv­ing well-in­formed clar­i­fy­ing guid­ance at im­por­tant de­ci­sion-mak­ing points.

In ad­di­tion, civil­ian in­ter­fer­ence is of­ten re­mem­bered se­lec­tively, which makes it seem in hind­sight more per­va­sive than might have been true. I have in­ter­viewed hun­dreds of of­fi­cials who were in­volved plan­ning or con­duct­ing mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, or in use- of-force de­bates. Ev­ery of­fi­cer had many vivid anec­dotes of ham-fisted civil­ian in­ter­fer­ence. From the Marine colonel in Euro­pean Com­mand who was di­rected by Don­ald Rums­feld’s of­fice to im­me­di­ately cease plan­ning any mil­i­tary con­tin­gency op­tions for Dar­fur in 2004, or the Army lieu­tenant colonel in Africa Com­mand who was di­rected by his uni­formed boss to “plus-up” his team’s anal­y­sis of Boko Haram - days after First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted a pic­ture of her hold­ing up a “#BringBack­OurGirls” sign in 2014.

In the later in­stance, the ma­jor re­called that this re­quired a ma­jor shift of pre­cious surveil- lance drone or­bits, as well as his an­a­lysts’ fi­nite time. He added that the White House had not ac­tu­ally re­quested ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion about the girls kid­napped by Boko Haram, but that his boss had an­tic­i­pated that they would at some point. In­deed, the im­pres­sion (or re­al­ity) of ex­ces­sive civil­ian in­ter­fer­ence can pre­emp­tively lead a mil­i­tary com­mand to change their be­hav­ior with­out ex­plicit or­ders to do so.

Yet, in ev­ery con­ver­sa­tion I have had with civil­ian and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, I can­not re­call a mil­i­tary of­fi­cer - at any level - hav­ing re­ceived guid­ance or di­rec­tion that was help­ful in de­vel­op­ing plans or in ful­fill­ing a mis­sion. The re­called ex­am­ples of in­ter­fer­ence are al­ways detri­men­tal, waste­ful, or, at best, point­less. The fact of the mat­ter is that many se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who do not re­ceive the au­ton­omy, lat­i­tude, or fund­ing to do what they want to do - within the time­frame that they want to do it - claim they are be­ing “mi­cro­man­aged.” But it’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that this im­pres­sion is both sub­jec­tive and se­lec­tive. One per­son’s in­tru­sive mi­cro­man­age­ment is an­other’s proper at­ten­tion to de­tail.

The chal­lenge of eval­u­at­ing civil­ian in­ter­fer­ence of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions is res­o­nant in Amer­ica’s con­tem­po­rary wars as well. In late May, Sec­re­tary of De­fense James Mat­tis made an ex­tra­or­di­nary claim re­gard­ing the del­e­ga­tion of au­thor­i­ties un­der Pres­i­dent Trump: “There is no re­lax­ation of our at­ten­tion to pro­tect the in­no­cent. We do ev­ery­thing we can to pro­tect the civil­ians,

“I will say that the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion has pushed de­ci­sion-mak­ing down into the mil­i­tary chain of com­mand. And I don’t know of a com­man­der in our armed forces that doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate that. A key re­sult of that is that we don’t get sec­ond-guessed a lot . . . we don’t get 20ques­tions with ev­ery ac­tion that hap­pens on the bat­tle­field and ev­ery ac­tion that we take.”

— Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend

When themil­i­tary is re­spon­si­ble for the in­evitable strate­gic mis­cal­cu­la­tions, ac­ci­dents, or per­sonal em­bar­rass­ments, civil­ian mon­i­tor­ing will quickly be­come far more pro­nounced, and the Trump White House will be ac­cused of mi­cro­man­age­ment.

and ac­tu­ally low­er­ing - del­e­gat­ing the au­thor­ity to the lower level al­lows us to do this bet­ter.”

We now have suf­fi­cient data to eval­u­ate whether Mat­tis’ claim is cor­rect. Civil­ian fa­tal­i­ties from coali­tion airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have grown re­mark­ably, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by Central Com­mand and the non-profit in­ves­tiga­tive out­fit Air­wars. In Afghanistan, civil­ian fa­tal­i­ties from U.S. airstrikes in­creased al­most 70 per­cent in the first half of 2017 com­pared to the first half of 2016, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. And be­yond the data from th­ese wars, none of the many airpower stud­ies that have ever been pub­lished has con­cluded that del­e­gat­ing strike au­thor­i­ties to lower lev­els re­duces harm to civil­ians. I have asked sev­eral Air Force ex­perts and his­to­ri­ans if they are aware of such a study that might be clas­si­fied or not avail­able for pub­lic re­lease, but no­body has heard of such a thing.

The demon­stra­ble rise in civil­ian deaths from U.S. airstrikes is most likely the re­sult of sev­eral fac­tors, as dis­cussed in pre­vi­ous-pieces I’ve writ­ten. But the ba­sic point is that Mat­tis’s judg­ment has proven in­cor­rect. That should be no sur­prise. Ev­ery­thing we know from or­ga­ni­za­tional stud­ies sug­gests that man­agers and staffers im­mersed in day-to­day repet­i­tive tasks (like mil­i­tary cam­paigns) eschew com­pet­ing val­ues­based pri­or­i­ties - par­tic­u­larly when se­nior lead­ers di­rect them to ac­cel­er­ate their ef­forts and nar­row their mis­sion, as has been true with the war against the Is­lamic State un­der Mat­tis’s watch.

That the sec­re­tary of de­fense’s claim has gone un­chal­lenged is not sur­pris­ing, but it is il­lus­tra­tive of the dilemma of mil­i­tary com­man­ders who de­sire greater au­ton­omy. While en­trusted with a freer hand to se­lect en­emy tar­gets and au­tho­rize strikes, they must be held ac­count­able for their rel­a­tively au­ton­o­mous de­ci­sion-mak­ing pow­ers. With the en­dur­ing con­gres­sional dis­in­ter­est in over­see­ing the con­duct of the armed forces, and lim­ited media scru­tiny of the mil­i­tary, the freer hand en­joyed by com­man­ders to­day is now broadly ac­cepted as cor­rect and proper. But, when the mil­i­tary is re­spon­si­ble for the in­evitable strate­gic mis­cal­cu­la­tions, ac­ci­dents, or per­sonal em­bar­rass­ments, civil­ian mon­i­tor­ing will quickly be­come far more pro­nounced, and the Trump White House will be ac­cused of mi­cro­man­age­ment.

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