Celebrating the Civilian’s Right to be Wrong on Military Matters

By Xiaodon Liang

The sacking of Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly marked another strange episode in the series of civil-military conundrums that have characterized the Trump administration. Modly could not survive a crashing wave of opprobrium from serving and retired military personnel along with members of Congress prompted by his handling of a coronavirus outbreak on an aircraft carrier. This highlights the recent damage done to an underappreciated yet critical principle of civil-military relations in a healthy democratic society: civilian officials have a “right to be wrong” in their management of military affairs. It is not Modly’s dismissal—which, on its merits, may well have been justified—that harms this norm, but the way each civil-military clash gives a new opportunity for the increasingly open opposition of military expertise to civilian authority.

The acting secretary removed the captain of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt for indirectly leaking disagreements over the U.S. Navy’s handling of ill sailors aboard the ship. Video footage of the captain, Brett Crozier, receiving enthusiastic applause from the crew as he departed was widely shared online. Modly, in turn, flew out to the ship, at dock in Guam, to harangue the sailors and criticize Crozier—reportedly employing coarse language. It was the backlash to this speech that undermined support for the acting secretary, making his position untenable.

While the particulars of the case are certainly interesting, what has gone overlooked is the degree to which this incident is representative of a trend: increasing reliance on military opinions—particularly from retired flag officers—to criticize civilian officials of the Trump administration. This pattern is evident in debates on topics as varied as the administration’s reintroduction of a ban on transgender service members, proposed cuts to the State Department’s budget, or, in the most vociferous example, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. In all of these cases, the appeal to military expertise provides an easy way to access the most potent argument in American foreign policy discussions: suggesting that an action will damage national security.

To be precise, there are two interrelated trends here. The first is the increasing willingness of retired military officers to speak out on policy. The second is the tendency for civilian policymakers and the media to champion and amplify military viewpoints, treating them as if they are necessarily correct because of their professional pedigree. While both are worrisome, this post focuses on the latter.

The opportunistic recourse to military expertise contributes to the gradual erosion of a civilian official’s “right to be wrong.” As formulated by Peter Feaver, this principle arises from the different reasons democratic societies have both elected representatives and militaries. Civilian officials are chosen to represent political goals and balance priorities and values against each other. Militaries, in contrast, are expert only in establishing and maintaining security through the maximization (and effective application) of unilateral military capabilities. Elected officials and their underlings have the responsibility to weigh security against other public goods and therefore have both the right to disagree with military advice and to make mistakes about when this is the correct choice. If mistakes are punished, it should be done by elected officials or in subsequent elections after considering the diverse factors in a case, and not simply because military advice was overridden.

Discursive appeals to military authority erode this right because no administration wants to be seen as putting national security at risk. In a divided political system, partisans see little benefit in restraining themselves from deploying military opinion to criticize their opponents. In particular, after suffering decades of criticism for weakness on national security, Democrats have enthusiastically seized on the cudgel of military critiques to beat the Trump administration. With appeals to military expertise now a bipartisan reflex, we have arrived at an equilibrium where sensitivity and deference to officers’ opinions can only increase. The long-term consequence of this unfortunate consensus is that it will be increasingly difficult for any administration to sacrifice a modicum of unilateral military security in exchange for either progress on other political goals or cooperative approaches to security.

Take, for example, the current debate about leaving the Open Skies Treaty, a multilateral transparency arrangement allowing parties to operate reconnaissance aircraft over each other’s territories under permissive conditions. The United States has long complained of Russian violations, including limitations on overflights of the heavily militarized Kaliningrad exclave. Opponents of the treaty are lobbying the president to withdraw, arguing that Russia has benefited from it disproportionately. The viability of arms control agreements is much improved by states’ ability to verify compliance, but cooperative verification measures—from overflights to adversarial inspectors—must be considered as a trade-off with the unilateral maximization of military capabilities. These measures make it harder to protect secrets, and any commanding officer would rather do without them, treating them as a security risk. At the same time, elsewhere in the military, planning and intelligence officers would benefit from the additional information gathered through verification mechanisms. A decision on the net value of the Open Skies Treaty, therefore, requires taking into consideration both a balance of military security factors in addition to non-military factors, such as the overwhelming support of the European states-parties for the treaty.

If policymaking becomes hostage to the fear of criticism from any constituency within the armed forces—particularly if those constituencies work with retired officers or other proxies to amplify their views—it would be politically treacherous to properly weigh costs and benefits. Furthermore, elected officials must be allowed to incorporate chance and risk into their assessments. To put it more crudely, they must be afforded the right to gamble with the nation’s security—taking a bet that a policy will pay off—even if it means accepting limitations on the armed forces’ ability to maximize military approaches to security. This applies as much to unilateral actions—such as the withdrawal of troops from Syria or the decision to keep ill and infectious sailors at sea—as negotiated agreements.

The point is not that Modly should have been spared criticism for his decision to relieve Crozier of his command. Rather, it is essential to recognize that civilians have the “right to be wrong,” and in order to reinforce and protect this norm any discussion of difficult decisions should focus on the merits of the case. It would be much better to compare the two men’s interpretations of the health risks aboard the Theodore Roosevelt, instead of relying on the crush of opinion from retired and active officers to shape narratives and decisions. Ultimately, the preservation of the “right to be wrong” will benefit those who want to pursue alternatives to military power to protect the nation.

Xiaodon Liang is a PhD Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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