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.
Algorithmic Analyst says
Thanks Bruce, excellent article.
Dana F Harbaugh says
So political expedience led to the Afghan fiasco, which led to Putin believing the West is weak…. that’s weird. But Biden showed valor above and beyond the call of duty by visiting Ukraine while they’re being destroyed.
Mo de Profit says
Carefully staged, luxurious buildings and hundreds of miles away from any danger, if there was any danger it came from the diversity appointed pilot.
Red Blackerby says
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Now that is funny…..
Dana F Harbaugh says
P.S…. GREAT NEWS… The UN just called for end to the fighting in Ukraine.
Mo de Profit says
That’s because there’s no money going their way.
Kynarion Hellenis says
The purpose of the military is to kill and destroy. Period.
The deadly power of the military should be unleashed for one purpose only – to protect and defend the United States of America. Holding firm to this simple purpose would all but eliminate public / private dissent. I think it would also greatly increase the happiness of our warriors. God makes warriors because they are necessary in this fallen world, and these men are happiest doing what they were made to do. What they do is difficult and worthy of great honor.
A well trained military can also be a deterrent to killing and destroying.
Correction: well trained and equipped.
I recall now the biblical warning against grasping a passing dog by the ears. Sometimes it is better to use restraint. Just because a cause seems just, it does not mean we should pour blood and treasure into the pursuit of a solution that will perhaps never be achieved. Our border defense is more important for America, but the leftists in power choose to exacerbate this threat against our country, while they pour our tax money into a war in Ukraine that may never be won. Joe going to Ukraine is a nice move to appeal to the hawkish in America. But he is still a bad politician and does not understand the international system. He knows how to trade contacts with him for wealth. Good for him, but he is no hero, just a mediocre politician who should never have gotten important roles in Washington.
I think the hawkish in America will still be singularly unimpressed with joetato, wether he’s in ukraine, darkest Peru or on Mars.
They know a bad person/politician/President when they see it, they see through his lies and posturing like it’s a window., and I imagine that they would be laughing at him if he wasn’t such an open and obvious embarrassment.
Another problem is the fact 99% of people never use the method of LEARNING how to THINK called Comparative Analysis,
which involves RESEARCH, looking for EMPIRICAL facts.
Of those who do, 50% use it on SOME subjects,not on others.
1. In the US minimum 50%,either by luck, or because they research ( sometimes ), know Russiagate was a HOAX
created by the GLOBALISTS ( Hillary Clinton, mainstream media,Democrats).
2. But in EUROPE virtually all continue to believe Russiagate is TRUE. Russiagate means PUTIN helped Trump get elected.
There NON-Globalist news in their languages is minimum.
3. Thus one reason for the ANTI-Russia attitude by Europeans is they believe Russiagate is true, being too stupid to apply the Russian proverb:
“TRUST but VERIFY”.
How do you verify?
Using COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS.
1.In the US minimum 50%,based on empirical evidence, have a POSITIVE opinion of TRUMP.
2.In EUROPE virtually all,since they do not use Comparative Analysis, suffer from TRUMP DERANGEMENT SYNDROME.
Literally.They HATE him,despise him,laugh at him,are happy he lost.
3. Thus more reason for Russophobia there,not only do they believe in RUSSIAGATE (hoax) as literally TRUE ( that Putin helped Trump get elected)
but they believe PUTIN helped not just anyone, but helped
Trump,who for them, is the most evil, stupid, horrible, disgusting politician ever.
Daniel Greenfield says
You don’t care about East Palestine which is why you quickly change the conversation to your real agenda of protecting Assad in Syria and then pushing Chinese and Russian propaganda.
Mo de Profit says
“ 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.”
The withdrawal was badly planned and badly executed period.
Biden has blood on his hands.
John Blackman says
” biden showed valor ” that would have to be the most inane comment ever published in the comment section ever . biden is a feckless individual who changes his tune whenever his dementia kicks in . he has been in politics for 50 yrs. and even obama recognised his history of ineptitude and his ever changing moral bankruptcy and that coming from one of americas worst presidents in the last 50 yrs is high praise . just like his dolt vp cackala harris she had to get her staff to point out on a map where ukraine is and then explain it to the audience in the tone of telling 5 yr. olds where in the world it is . its been said many times , the only standards they have are double standards otherwise they would have none . unfortunately it applies to the other side of american politics as well . to prove my comments on biden one only has to watch an hour of ” walk don’t run ” to see how incompetent ol joe is and continues to be and he is getting worse if that is possible .
One thing I have noticed,At least 50% of the US population,being GLOBALIST and even wokist, practice DEHUMANIZATION
of people who are anti-Globalist,Conservative, MAGA, and more so if they are also WHITE.
A) The TOXIC substances in OHIO have now KILLED no less than THOUSANDS of ANIMALS.
B) But American Globalists do NOT care about the 5,000 people of East Palestine,almost all white.Because they are white,probably non-woke.
No outcry in the wokist press (Vox,Vice,Salon,Slate, Daily Beast).
C) But MAGA people also practice DEHUMANIZATION. I have noticed that even after you tell them that the Economic Sanctions and Secondary
on SYRIA in 2017 by TRUMP,still in place, and that based on a LIE ( fake chemical attack,as shown by WIKILEAKS and other WHISTLEBLOWERS),
have resulted in 90% of the Syrian people living in EXTREME poverty…. they are AS indifferent as the wokists are regarding
what happens to the 5,000 of East Palestine.
The major ways “how civilians and soldiers work with – and against – each other” is by the ruling class’ artificial creation of divisions among them and the “civilians and soldiers”/the public’s willful ignorance about what the true division is all about.
The only real division that has ever existed is between the ruling class and the non-ruling masses — https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html (“The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room”)
“Separate what you know from what you THINK you know.” — Unknown