Presidents and generals need to get along. But for much of our country’s history, the relationship at times has been rocky.
“It’s practically an American tradition” for civil-military relations at the elite level to suffer major tensions, Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks writes in Politico magazine.
Probably the best-known incident was the disagreement during the Korean War between President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, with Truman properly asserting presidential authority. Nearly a century earlier, President Abraham Lincoln voiced his exasperation with the reluctance of Gen. George McClellan to engage the Confederates in major action. “If Gen. McClellan isn’t going to use his army,” Lincoln said, “I’d like to borrow it for a time.”
Brooks worked at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2011, an appointee of President Barack Obama, and she interacted frequently with the White House. In her Politico article, she argues that relations between Obama and the military leadership often are strained and marked by wariness if not an outright lack of trust.
“Most of my sources said tensions between the White House and the military are running worryingly high,” writes Brooks, who interviewed a dozen serving and recently retired senior military leaders with high-level White House access.
White House personnel indicate they worry that the military improperly inflates its requests for troops and other resources when new operations are being considered. Military leaders indicate that the administration intrudes into Pentagon decision-making authority on matters large and small and shows little respect for military input on policy options.
Military leaders also indicated to Brooks that the White House often shows too little real-world understanding of military situations, as with the administration’s proposed bombing of Syria.
“That culture gap between the Pentagon and the White House frequently feels unbridgeable,” Brooks writes. “The military is hierarchical and structured; civilian organizations, even within the White House, are organized more loosely. To the military, ‘planning’ is a meticulously defined process designed to develop implementable blueprints for action, down to the smallest logistical details; to civilians, planning often just means talking about what might happen in the future.”
This administration is hardly the first White House to struggle with tensions with military leaders. But with the extraordinary budget challenges facing the Pentagon and the outbreak of war always a possibility from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula, the nation needs its civilian and military leadership to work constructively so that challenges are met.
It’s a timeless obligation, as true today as it was for Harry Truman or Abraham Lincoln.