This essay is adapted from Cage Fight: Civilian and Democratic Pressures on Military Conflicts and Foreign Policy (Hoover Institution Press, 2023).
In The Gathering Storm, the opening volume of his memoirs of the World War II era, Winston Churchill catalogues the causes of the conflict. Among them he lists “the structures and habits of democratic states,” which “lack those elements of persistence and convictions which can alone give security the humble masses. . . . Even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued even for ten or fifteen years at a time.” From the birth of democracy in ancient Athens until the present, the political institutions that protect the freedom and rights of citizens have also been potentially dangerous in times of war—by complicating and interfering with the policies and decisions that, during a conflict, require swift execution, decisiveness, and persistence.
The “structures and habits” Churchill notes include regularly scheduled elections, by which the citizens hold their elected leaders accountable; the right of all citizens to speak openly and freely on all matters, including the conduct of foreign policy and the management of war; and the voicing of dissent against the war itself and the reasons for conducting it. Most important, in democratic states the military establishment and war are subordinated to the civilian institutions and offices accountable to the citizens through elections.
Voters Call the Shots
Regular elections, in the United States held every two years, make long-term military strategies vulnerable to the shifting moods of the electorate, which are expressed in frequent turnovers in Congress and the presidency. On the other hand, this critical instrument of political accountability can also change a dangerous course.
The iconic example in recent American history is the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, elected after the disastrous abandonment of Vietnam, counseled that we should get over our “inordinate fear of communism” and prioritize human rights in US foreign policy rather than containing and pushing back on the Soviet Union’s adventurism in Latin America, Afghanistan, and Central Africa. Reagan, in contrast, announced that it was “morning in America,” exuded confidence and faith in America’s goodness, increased the military budget, pushed back against Soviet interventions in Latin America, and summed up his strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union as “we win, they lose.”
Similarly, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 led to a change in military policy from Barack Obama’s foreign policy of retreat, diplomatic engagement, and “leading from behind.” Obama had sought a “reset” with Russia, with promises of “flexibility” made indirectly to Vladimir Putin. He also rejected planned antimissile batteries for Poland and Czechoslovakia and Javelin antitank weapons for Ukraine, and in October 2011 withdrew US forces from Iraq. This latter move created a power vacuum quickly filled by Iran, ISIS, and other jihadist organizations, and exacerbated the brutal civil war in Syria by enabling Russia and Iran to take a larger role in that conflict and the wider region.
Responding to voter displeasure, Trump had campaigned against the “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq and near the end of his term negotiated with the Taliban for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The Biden administration campaigned on the same aim, which ultimately was carried out in 2021, with the loss of thirteen American lives, the abandonment of many Afghans who had worked for US authorities, and the loss of billions of dollars in weapons and materiel.
Some policies are disliked by voters of both parties, which compels Democrat and Republican candidates to promise to address their concerns even if doing so might compromise long-term strategies for short-term political gain. In democratic societies, voters can end both a politician’s career and a party’s control of government.
Relations between civilian governments and the military have often been contentious, especially over the management of a conflict, its tactics, and its purposes. The constitutional right to free speech allows citizens to criticize and protest publicly how a war is conducted, which complicates military planning and puts pressure on the elected officials who are held accountable on election day for setbacks and failures.
Since the Sixties and the war in Vietnam, antiwar organizations have proliferated, and protests have accompanied every conflict. These constitutionally protected events bolster enemy morale even as they intimidate presidents, legislators, and candidates for elected office. Such demonstrations, often extensively covered in the news, also affect domestic politics.
In 2004, the US presidential primary overlapped with a violent guerrilla resistance in Iraq to the American occupation. Democratic Vermont governor Howard Dean leveraged antiwar protests to mount a grass-roots campaign for his party’s nomination, gaining surprising support. Dean’s brief success spooked the front-runners for the nomination, Senators John Kerry, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton, who reversed their support for the war, even though they had earlier voted for the Authorization for Use of Military Force that sanctioned it, based on the same intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that was one of President George W. Bush’s predicates for the war. For the Democrats, opposition to the war became an important plank in the party’s platform and eventually in candidate Kerry’s campaign.
Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign also incorporated the antiwar movement’s interpretation of the Iraq War as unnecessary and based on false, if not manufactured, evidence for Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. By then, voters were tiring of the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, both still troubled by violence and seemingly making little progress toward fulfilling Bush’s aim of creating liberal democracies in nations culturally unsuited for Western political ideals.
In 2007, with the antiwar movement still active, then-senator Obama responded to the “surge” of troops to Iraq, which eventually reduced the violence, by calling it a “reckless escalation,” and introduced legislation to remove all US combat forces by March 31, 2008. Obama’s presidential campaign also framed the war in Iraq as predicated on fabricated intelligence and dubious strategic aims.
Eventually, the Biden administration withdrew all US troops from Afghanistan in 2021. The fallout from the withdrawal, driven by people exercising their First Amendment right, reflects the price Americans pay for the foundational freedom of our political order.
Threats to Civilian Control
In the United States, Congress possesses the power to declare war, and the president serves as commander in chief of the military even if he has no military experience or training. These provisions give the people the power, through the representatives they elect, to make war and to hold the military accountable for how it conducts it.
These guardrails were designed to protect citizens and their freedoms from the national institution made up of those who are trained in warfare and have access to the materiel for making war. The founders checked military institutions with elected officeholders because European history was replete with examples of powerful military leaders, autocrats, and kings who commanded armies without accountability to the people. Those figures often turned against civilian political institutions to create some form of tyranny. The founders saw the centuries of chronic European warfare as typifying abuse of power and heedless destruction of defenseless people.
During the American revolutionary and founding period, one of the premier historical examples of this danger was Julius Caesar, who abused the terms of his imperium, the right granted by the Roman senate to wage war on behalf of the republic, by marching his legions into the city of Rome and its territory in violation of the law, thus becoming a tyrant not accountable to the people or the Senate. For the American colonists chafing against the governance of the British parliament and king, Romans who resisted Caesar embodied the defense of freedom against tyranny.
This distrust of the military and fear of standing armies has been a perennial feature of American history. And then came the Cold War—with its nuclear face-off and its proxy struggles around the globe—which required a much larger military, and more sophisticated weapons, than Americans had been accustomed to. The strategy of “containment” demanded a permanent security and defense establishment, and the cost of that establishment began to take up more and more of the national budget, leading to clashes over civilian and military funding.
The modern wariness of the military is reflected in the warning by president and former general Dwight Eisenhower, in his 1961 farewell address, of the “military-industrial complex.” He painted a picture of a “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” whose “influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government,” encompassing “the very structure of our society.” He cautioned,
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
One factor underlying Eisenhower’s warning is that our military and security establishment is housed in large federal agencies concentrated in Washington and close to Congress, which decides their funding levels. Moreover, such large, hierarchically organized bureaucracies, especially ones not accountable to the market or the voters, are prone to professional deformation. The aims and interests of the agency shift from the functions they were created to perform to the interests of the agency itself. And the proximity to the Capitol and the White House, and the consulting, advocacy, and lobbying firms clustered around both, leave such agencies open to their influence.
These large agencies also offer top military leaders opportunities to serve in a president’s cabinet. Or, upon retirement, retired brass can take lucrative seats on corporate boards of armament manufacturers, or billets with lobbying firms, where contacts from their years of service are useful in securing government contracts.
This is not to say that serving in such positions is necessarily about politics or greed, or that those who do so are not serving honorably. But this state of affairs is rife with moral hazard, contributing to the disaffection with the military shared by many citizens. And it leads to distrust of powerful institutions and their perceived careerist or politicized leaders who pursue political aims like the “war on carbon” or critical race theory training instead of military preparedness.
Institutional orthodoxy, received wisdom, and unchallenged paradigms transform the military and security establishment into the proverbial “box” we are supposed to “think outside of.” And the lessons of history often cannot penetrate these silos of orthodoxy.