Weathering the Storm: Civil-Military Tension During Presidential Transitions


Tension between senior civilian and military leaders and their staffs is built into the fabric of the American way of war. Strain appears to be on an uptick recently, helped along by absurd claims that the military “won’t refuse” illegal orders from Donald Trump if he is elected president. But there is more going on here than rhetoric on the campaign trail calling into question America’s professional military ethos.

In 2008, Richard Kohn summed up the range of U.S. civil military relations as follows:

When the relationship works — when there is candor, argument, and mutual respect — the result aligns national interest and political purpose with military strategy, operations, and tactics. … When the relationship does not work — when the two sides don’t confer, don’t listen, don’t compromise — the decisions and policies that follow serve neither the national interest nor conform to the bitter realities of war.

The United States has never grappled with the degree of civil-military dysfunction that many other nations have faced. The threat of a military coup has never been significant, and the professionalization of the U.S. military that followed the Vietnam War has secured for the nation a period of enduring public respect for its armed forces. Yet civil-military friction is intrinsic in the compromise between the nation’s republican nature, which insists on civilian control and military subordination, and the existence of a standing federal military force.

This friction invariably increases toward the end of a presidential term, when power dynamics most favor the military. Political appointees are collectively at their weakest because they are assumed to be on the way out. This affects not only key civilian decision-makers but also their staffs, whether the staffs are themselves political or not. Military leaders, in contrast, are typically at the height of their bureaucratic strength. Many senior military officers are looking pointedly past the existing civilian leadership, focusing instead on how they can shape the impressions and choices of the next team. Moreover, embodying the can-do spirit that can at times be their Achilles Heel, military leaders may view themselves as the only continuity in a sea of national security chaos inherent to administration transitions. During the 2008 electoral season, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen made a series of public statements indicating just that. To many, these statements seemed appropriate for a leader vested with responsibility for a nation at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, however, inferred that the “we’ve got this” tone conveyed concern that the U.S. system of civilian control — to include its senior civil servants — might need propping up from time to time by an activist military.

Cyclical, end-of-term frictions are exacerbated this year because of the intense focus on reviewing the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. Seemingly innocuous defense reform debates can mask deeper civil-military discontent as well as political discord. I am a strong supporter of defense reform that succeeds in improving national security outcomes, but it must do so grounded firmly in our principles of civilian control and independent military advice. Goldwater-Nichols has served the nation well by advancing these principles. The nature of some current key debates — notably those about the relative roles of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff, the value of service secretariats versus service chiefs’ staffs, and the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — are fundamentally civil-military questions. Coming as they are at the height of a national election season, these debates need to be particularly carefully couched and deliberated to remain true to the principles of civilian control and best military advice and to avoid a blatantly partisan cast.

As a former senior civil servant and political appointee who weathered several administration transitions, I offer four observations on how to ease unproductive civil-military friction at the end of an administration’s term.

First, existing civilian leaders need to make clear that they are in charge until the day they depart. I witnessed one secretary of defense do this extremely vocally and firmly, calling on the carpet those who sought to “wait him out,” both civilian and military. That kind of leadership is needed at all levels.

Second, all parties need to treat civilian career staff members like the professionals they are. Military staffers are, typically and rightfully, accorded respect as apolitical national servants. Civil servants are due the same. It is they who are the most important players in any national security transition, and it is not too early to start elevating their roles. Although Secretary Rumsfeld made a run at changing Title 10 to make the Joint Staff more akin to the Office of the Secretary of Defense in its relationship to him, military staffs were created with different tasks and missions than their civilian counterparts and should not be equated with them, nor expected to function in the same way. The respect must go both ways: Civilians should know well their roles and responsibilities during a transition and not seek to substitute for military advice. Morris Janowitz, writing in 1964, summarized the onus that civilians bear: “Recognition of the specialized attributes of the military profession will provide a realistic basis for maintaining civilian political supremacy without destroying required professional autonomy.”

The third point stems from this: The military should provide an independent voice on operational matters. That does not mean that service members should expect their advice to be accepted without question. War is merely the continuation of policy by other means, after all, and civilian leaders in our country oversee policy. Nevertheless, these elected officials and their appointed representatives need to take seriously the views of military leaders on the use of American forces and use of force. In my experience, both the civilian and military sides on use of force questions have concerns about gamesmanship by the other. Civilian leaders sometimes worry that military advice is tainted by a desired policy outcome, such as avoiding an unwanted military operation or seeking to grow budget share, force structure, or key capabilities. Military leaders, in turn, worry that civilians demonstrate poor judgment in interpreting military cautions and tend to overlook key assumptions. Both sides are right to be wary. The best approach for the military to take is to follow Joe Friday’s advice from Dragnet: supply “just the facts, ma’am.” Military advice should neither inflate issues nor deflate concerns beyond the evidence or their operational judgment. This is profoundly more difficult to pull off in practice than in theory — who doesn’t want to please her boss or to prevent her from carelessly harming your institution or people? Yet it is the gold standard for which military leaders should strive.

Fourth, defense civilians and the armed forced should take pains to avoid being used as political pawns. National security is one of the last vestiges of true bipartisanship in Washington. That is a national strength. Of course there are differences between parties and candidates, executive and legislative branches, and in the personal political views within and between civilian and military leadership cohorts. But beware the opportunists who seek to exploit honest differences — and those with poor judgment who inadvertently create the appearance of division — in the name of political rhetoric, transition management, or defense reform.

Our tradition of stable and healthy civil-military relations, although challenged throughout our history, is the envy of the world. Over the next year, it will take hard work and wisdom by civil servants, politicians, military professionals, and departing and incoming political appointees to keep it that way.


Kathleen H. Hicks is Senior Vice President, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She previously served as the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces, as well as a senior civil servant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.