Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force / Edition 1

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America's debate over whether and how to invade Iraq clustered into civilian versus military camps. Top military officials appeared reluctant to use force, the most hawkish voices in government were civilians who had not served in uniform, and everyone was worried that the American public would not tolerate casualties in war. This book shows that this civilian-military argument—which has characterized earlier debates over Bosnia, Somalia, and Kosovo—is typical, not exceptional. Indeed, the underlying pattern has shaped U.S. foreign policy at least since 1816. The new afterword by Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi traces these themes through the first two years of the current Iraq war, showing how civil-military debates and concerns about sensitivity to casualties continue to shape American foreign policy in profound ways.

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Editorial Reviews

Review of Politics
Feaver and Gelpi's intriguing and well-executed study provides a welcome contribution to scholarship in this area. In it, the authors address a subset of provocative issues within the broader study of American civil-military relations.
Virginia Quarterly Review - Spencer D. Bakich
Feaver and Gelpi offer important insights into the character of civil-military relations in the U.S. and into its effects on the nature of U.S. foreign policy. . . . [A]n important work whose findings have wide-ranging policy implications.
" Review of Politics a A. Brooks

Feaver and Gelpi's intriguing and well-executed study provides a welcome contribution to scholarship in this area. In it, the authors address a subset of provocative issues within the broader study of American civil-military relations.
From the Publisher
"[A] highly statistical but thankfully lucid study. . . . [The authors] find that non-veteran civilian elites are more likely to advocate the use of force than either military elites or civilian leaders with military experience. . . . The pattern holds historically. The authors consider a total of 111 instances from 1816 to 1992."Chronicle of Higher Education

"Feaver and Gelpi offer important insights into the character of civil-military relations in the U.S. and into its effects on the nature of U.S. foreign policy. . . . [A]n important work whose findings have wide-ranging policy implications."—Spencer D. Bakich, Virginia Quarterly Review

"Feaver and Gelpi's intriguing and well-executed study provides a welcome contribution to scholarship in this area. In it, the authors address a subset of provocative issues within the broader study of American civil-military relations."—Risa A. Brooks, Review of Politics

Chronicle of Higher Education
[A] highly statistical but thankfully lucid study. . . . [The authors] find that non-veteran civilian elites are more likely to advocate the use of force than either military elites or civilian leaders with military experience. . . . The pattern holds historically. The authors consider a total of 111 instances from 1816 to 1992.
Virginia Quarterly Review
Feaver and Gelpi offer important insights into the character of civil-military relations in the U.S. and into its effects on the nature of U.S. foreign policy. . . . [A]n important work whose findings have wide-ranging policy implications.
— Spencer D. Bakich
Foreign Affairs
Feaver and Gelpi clearly set out the results of a widely cited study on the differing attitudes of military and civilian elites toward war. The study, conducted in 1998 and 1999 by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, disproves glib assumptions about how the public views military operations and military casualties. Contrary to popular belief, public opinion is often quite strong in the face of bloodshed; military elites are more cautious than their civilian counterparts about intervening in conflicts when national security is not at stake, and more insistent on using overwhelming force when an operation is authorized. These conclusions are perhaps not surprising given the history of post-1945 U.S. foreign policy; there is also no sign that events since 1999 have altered them. Feaver and Gelpi address some of the methodological issues of the study and locate its results in the broader question of civil-military relations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691124278
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/22/2005
  • Edition description: With a New afterword by the authors
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 268
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter D. Feaver is Alexander F. Hehmeyer Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University. He is the author of "Armed Servants" and "Guarding the Guardians" as well as coeditor of "Soldiers and Civilians". Christopher Gelpi is Associate Professor of Political Science at Duke University. He is the author of "The Power of Legitimacy" (Princeton).

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Read an Excerpt

Choosing Your Battles

American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force
By Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi

Princeton University Press

Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691115842

Chapter One


FOR MONTHS after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, a vigorous debate raged within the Bush administration: should the war on terrorism be expanded to go after well-known state sponsors of terrorism, especially Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq? By the summer of 2002 the internal debate had spilled out onto the front pages of the major newspapers, culminating in a historic congressional debate and vote in favor of the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq.

The public debate was lively and wide-ranging, but many commentators focused on one curious feature: how the principals in the debate tended to fall into two camps, one military and the other civilian. Within the administration, the strongest proponents of going to war with Iraq were the civilians, especially those who had never served in the military: Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle; they argued that creative uses of special forces and limited strikes could topple the Hussein regime and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). At the same time, the strongest opponents of going to war were the senior military leaders and the most prominent veteran, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs and current secretary of state Colin Powell; they considered the innovative war plans too risky, while the more prudent military option of a massive buildup to a second Desert Storm was too costly. Accordingly, they argued, diplomacy and deterrence were the best way to deal with Iraq's WMD threat. Outside the administration, the pattern seemed to replicate itself. Some of the staunchest critics were retired senior military officers, and for a while the leading congressional critics included some of the most decorated war veterans in office. Of course there were prominent exceptions; for instance, Senator John McCain, the former Vietnam War POW, was a vocal hawk, whereas the late Senator Paul Wellstone, a well-known nonveteran liberal, was a prominent critic, but the pattern was too pronounced to ignore (Dewar 2002; Kiely 2002; McGregor 2002). In the words of retired four-star general Anthony Zinni, "It's pretty interesting that all the generals see it the same way and all the others who have never fired a shot and are hot to go to war see it another way" (Salinero 2002).

This marked civil-military subtext was matched by another at work in the Iraq debate: would the American public be willing to pay the human costs of a war against Iraq, or would support collapse when body bags showed up on CNN? Opponents of the war, military or otherwise, emphasized that Hussein could be expected to do everything possible to make a war bloody for Americans. Although polls showed consistent and fairly strong support among the general public for war, the support eroded somewhat when pollsters talked about "thousands of U.S. casualties" (see figure 6.2). Even without analyzing specific polls, some pundits were convinced that the body-bag syndrome would sink a war in Iraq. As one retired Marine officer worried aloud, "How long will public support last when hundreds, possibly thousands, of body bags start arriving home? Desert Storm and Afghanistan make war look so easy, with so few casualties. When support at home wanes, how will you turn back the clock?" (Raspberry 2002).

This book argues that the Iraq debate is not exceptional. On the contrary, the debate's civil-military and casualty sensitivity subtexts fit a pattern. The pattern is evident in systematic surveys of civilian and military opinion, shows up in case studies of decision making on the use of force since World War II, and shaped American foreign policy in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Do civilians and the military in the United States differ in their attitudes about when and how force should be used? Do they differ about the appropriate human costs that the use of force should entail? And do these attitudes, however differentiated, affect the propensity of the United States to use force in international disputes? We answer yes to all three questions, and demonstrate this with original survey data as well as with systematic analysis of the historical record of U.S. involvement in foreign disputes since 1816.

Civil-Military Gaps and the Use of Force

The debate over Iraq recalls the civil-military turmoil of the 1990s. In his autobiography, General Colin Powell relates his difficulty in dealing with the academic and "nonmilitary" style of the Clinton foreign policy team. He describes his patient efforts early in President Bill Clinton's first term to instruct civilian leaders on when and how to use force. During one such session, Madeleine Albright, then ambassador to the UN and later secretary of state, asked General Powell in frustration, "What is the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Powell reports that he thought he "would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board" (Powell 1995, 576-77).

The Powell-Albright exchange cannot be dismissed as merely a contretemps between two powerful and idiosyncratic personalities. Nearly every post-cold war use of U.S. military force was conducted against the backdrop of some sort of civil-military dispute, and these disputes in broad brush seemed to conform to the Powell-Albright pattern: civilian leaders seemed more willing than military leaders to deploy the military in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Kosovo, and so on (Desch 1999; Feaver 2003). Nor is this simply an artifact of partisanship, with a Democratic administration flummoxed by a Republican-leaning senior military. During the debate over Iraq, Senator Trent Lott, then the Republican leader in the Senate, was asked about the apparent hesitation on the part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to embrace the Iraqi mission; Lott averred that the chiefs would end up backing the Bush administration in a war, but then went on to express his frustration in Albrightesque terms: "If the military people don't want to fight, what is their role? Do they want to be people that clean up after natural disasters?" (Gertz and Scarborough 2002). Something deeper than personalities or partisanship is at issue-a basic civil-military divide on how force should be integrated into American foreign policy.

It is conventional wisdom that military experience colors people's attitudes about America's role in the world. The scholarly literature on civil-military relations argues that there are important differences of opinion between civilian and military leaders (Huntington 1957; Betts 1991; Holsti 1999; Feaver and Kohn 2001b; Kohn 2002; Feaver 2003). At the colloquial level of the media pundit, the insight seems obvious. Of course we should expect civilian and military leaders to approach foreign policy and the use of force differently (Bamford 2002; Kessler 2002c; Van Deerlin 2002). There is even a popular slur-chicken hawk-directed at one of the apparently persistent features of American politics: non-veterans who are gung-ho on the use of force (Cohen 2002a; Kelly 2002). To be sure, exceptions abound, with some prominent civilian politicians showing reluctance and some prominent military officers showing a greater willingness in a given case (Avant 1996/97). At the most senior policymaking levels, the civil-military distinction is blurry and only awkwardly fits the neat categories of classical civil-military relations theory (Roman and Tarr 2001). Nevertheless, reports persist that post-cold war civil-military relations in the United States are characterized by repeated clashes between promiscuous civilians and reluctant warriors (Mandelbaum 1996; Weigley 2001). Even or perhaps especially in the post-September 11th world, many of the most important debates in American foreign policy-how to conduct the war in Afghanistan, whether to attack Iraq, or how to attack Iraq-seem to crystallize along broadly defined civil-military lines (Dowd 2002; Kessler 2002a,b; Landay 2002; Marquis 2002; Milbank 2002a,b; Ricks 2002a,b; Webb 2002).

At some level, this makes common sense. Like any other profession, the military immerses its members in a set of beliefs, traditions, and experiences that those outside the institution do not share. Many of these relate to the military's most central mission: fighting and winning wars. Lawyers undoubtedly differ from the general public in terms of their attitudes toward the legal system. Academics surely have distinct views regarding universities. But in the case of civil-military relations, it is important to know what those gaps are and whether even understandable gaps have an impact on U.S. foreign policy.

This book is a follow-on project to a larger study of the so-called culture gap between civilians and the military in the United States and what that gap might mean for national security (Feaver and Kohn, 2001a; b). The earlier study responded to concerns that a gap was emerging between the military institution and civilian society that was harmful for military effectiveness and civil-military cooperation; it concluded that as the twenty-first century began, the gap between the military and society in values, attitudes, opinions, and perspectives presented no compelling need to act to avert an immediate emergency. However, there were problems that, if left unaddressed, would over time undermine civil-military cooperation and hamper military effectiveness. The earlier study identified the interface between differing civilian and military worldviews and the actual use of force as a priority for research-hence the need for the separate, sustained, and systematic analysis of the issue presented in this book.

In a similar way, the "casualty phobia" question raised by the Iraq case-does the U.S. public have the stomach for war or is it a paper tiger?-was only the continuation of a longer debate that has dominated U.S. post-cold war foreign policy. Certainly the last three tyrants to directly challenge the United States-Saddam Hussein in 1991, Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, and Osama bin Laden in 2001-all believed that the United States could be successfully defied. The key to each of their military strategies was not outright defeat of the U.S. military on the battlefield, a task made hopeless by the United States' unmatched technical prowess. Rather, the key was to defeat the U.S. will, by raising the costs of war beyond what the American public would be willing to pay-something that each of the challengers thought was within his grasp. As one Iraqi general captured during the Gulf War told U.S. intelligence officers, "Saddam Hussein, the man is a gambler. He was certain that you would not attack, and if you did, it would only be by air. He kept telling the Iraqi people that airpower had never won a war in the history of warfare and that Americans would never have the nerve to engage the Iraqi army on the ground. I remember him saying that Americans would not be able to stand the loss of even hundreds of soldiers, that Iraqis were prepared to sacrifice thousands" (Gordon and Trainor 1995). Similarly, in 1999, Slobodan Milosevic referred to the U.S.-led NATO force's reluctance to take casualties in Kosovo when he told German foreign minister Joschka Fisher, "I can stand death-lots of it-but you can't" (Daalder and O'Hanlon 2000). And bin Laden made a similar calculation in 1998 when he told a reporter, "America is a paper tiger that runs in defeat after a few blows" (Strobel 2001). The disastrous Ranger raid in Mogadishu in 1993 seemed to confirm this basic American weakness: if you kill enough Americans, they will go home.

Pundits recognized that September 11th may have changed the stakes for the American public, but they still worried that a new war with Iraq might founder on this same body-bag syndrome. After all, the American public might have been willing to pay a huge price to wipe out the perpetrators, Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, but in fact no such price was needed. Once again the Cassandras in the arm-chair strategist community were proved wrong, and after a year of heavy action the U.S. military had suffered only fifty-three casualties in the Afghan war. The real question of how the public would react if casualties ever did start to mount was left begging, even while September 11th brought home the priority of national security. And although the question was usually left hanging, at least since Vietnam the conventional wisdom has supplied only one answer: the American public only wants war on the cheap and will not accept even moderate levels of U.S. casualties.

The Basic Argument

In this book we show that the conventional wisdom about civil-military relations and the use of force is right in some respects and wrong in others. We present evidence to show that civilians and the military do differ in systematic ways in their attitudes concerning whether and how to use force and in their professed willingness to bear the human costs of war. Moreover, these different opinions seem to have had a profound effect on the propensity of the United States to initiate the use of force for most of its history, from 1816 to 1992.

Compared with mid-career active duty military officers, civilian elites who have no military experience are somewhat more interventionist with regard to the range of issues over which they will support the use of force by the United States. Military officer respondents report what may be called a "realpolitik" approach to the issue, one that reserves the use of force for interstate issues that represent a substantial threat to national security such as control of territory, the maintenance of geostrategic access and position, and the defense of allies. Civilian elites who have no military experience are somewhat more likely than military officers to report an "interventionist" opinion, advocating foreign policy goals that do not fit within the realpolitik interstate security paradigm, including responses to human rights abuses and the internal collapse of governance in other countries, or the desire to alter a state's domestic regime. Thus interventionists will generally have a wider set of issues across which they will support the use of force, while realpolitik thinkers will only support force over a narrower range of issues. In other words, civilian and military views converge somewhat when considering potential realpolitik uses of force but diverge more sharply when considering potential interventionist uses of force. Veterans in the civilian elite give responses that track more closely with active duty military officers than with nonveterans in the civilian elite.

At the same time, however, nonveteran civilians express a greater willingness to place constraints on the manner in which force is used, whereas the military respondents are more likely to endorse a position that has come to be known as the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force (Stevenson 1996; Dauber 1998).


Excerpted from Choosing Your Battles by Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
The Civil-Military Opinion Gap over the Use of Force 21
The Impact of Elite Veterans on American Decisions to Use Force 64
Casualty Sensitivity and Civil-Military Relations 95
Exploring the Determinants of Casualty Sensitivity 149
Conclusion 184

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