Civil-Military Relations, Wartime Decision-Making, and the Duration of Armed Conflict

Why do some leaders expand their war aims in the face of initial successes, like Harry Truman in Korea, while others exercise restraint, as George H.W. Bush did in the Persian Gulf? Why do other presidents, from Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam to Donald Trump in Afghanistan today, continue to fight in the face of stalemate, while others sue for peace? Dominant explanations for the termination of limited wars suggest that leaders will modify their political demands in response to successes and setbacks on the battlefield in ways that facilitate a negotiated end to the conflict. In practice, however, the metrics warfighters use to measure battlefield progress are often highly fraught, both because of the inherent difficulty of assessing strategic effectiveness in the “fog of war” and because various institutions within the same government can rely on disparate indicators to derive different – and, at times, contradictory – conclusions about whether to intensify military efforts or renounce their original objectives.

Much of this literature treats belligerents as unitary, rational actors and remains insufficiently attentive to the complexities of the bureaucratic and domestic political environment leaders must navigate when making decisions regarding the use of force. Drawing on studies of civil-military relations and bureaucratic politics, my dissertation project develops a bureaucratic bargaining thesis that analyzes the ability of top-level civilian advisors and senior military officers to influence the information, options, and recommendations presidents receive when making strategic reassessments during wartime. In addition to weighing the substantive merits of various courses of action, presidents will work to accommodate the preferences of politically salient advisors in their inner circle to prevent internal dissent from spilling over into public view through press leaks or disclosures to Congressional allies. Given their proximity to the battlefield and their specialized expertise in warfighting, the president’s military advisors wield considerable political leverage domestically – and a powerful bargaining chip internally – that allows them to frame their recommendations with an imprimatur of authority unavailable to their civilian counterparts. The latent threat that dissent from senior uniformed officers could become public renders any effort by presidents to override the military’s professional judgments as politically risky.

These risks are amplified if the president’s top civilian counselors endorse the professional military’s recommendations. Although comparatively disadvantaged in terms of the political leverage they wield relative to their military counterparts, the civilian heads of organizations like the Department of State, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency can claim greater authority should the so-called “credibility gap” widen between the military’s optimistic reporting and a more pessimistic outlook from alternative information channels. Civilian advisors also have more leeway to voice dissent given more stringent professional norms that discourage soldiers from commenting directly on matters of policy.

Presidents will therefore make decisions that satisfy the preferences of their military and civilian advisors as a way of forestalling criticism in the public arena, even when these decisions prove less than optimal on the battlefield. When senior civilian and military advisors are united in their assessments and recommendations, presidents will defer to the judgments of senior military officers, supplying them with their desired troop numbers and equipment to execute their preferred strategy. This deference increases the likelihood that military campaigns will be sufficiently resourced to succeed. Should the campaign fail, however, the president, having met the military’s initial demands, will be empowered to turn down later resource requests and take more decisive action to change strategies or wind down failing wars.

By contrast, when faced with contradictory assessments of battlefield progress and conflicting recommendations from their military and civilian advisors, presidents will forge compromises that mediate between the preferences of civilian counselors and senior military officers. Although these minimally satisfactory compromises may forestall dissent from politically salient actors, they neither make the political concessions necessary to negotiate a meaningful settlement with the adversary, nor commit sufficient resources to deliver the operational successes needed for victory. Having denied part of the military’s request, a president will have less leverage to reject future demands for more resources as officers blame tactical constraints for their losses. These “compromising compromises” ultimately perpetuate the war effort; presidents avoid making hard choices, opting instead to reconcile growing civilian skepticism with military assurances of impending victory through incremental measures that perpetuate combat.

My dissertation weighs these propositions against two sets of alternative explanations: the impact of domestic politics and public opinion on mid-war reassessment, and the personalities, preferences, and biases of presidents themselves. The professional backgrounds, reputations, and prior combat experiences of presidents can impact how they structure their advisory systems, and also shape their beliefs on the merits of particular military intervention strategies. Moreover, some leaders may terminate unpopular wars regardless of the counsel they receive. Others may continue fighting to avoid the domestic political repercussions of suffering even modest defeats in the wars they initiate. I find that although these factors can interact with the advice executives receive from their inner circle, presidents ultimately prove more susceptible to the bureaucratic pressures that compel them to accommodate their advisors’ preferences.

I evaluate my argument using explicit Bayesian process tracing methods and case studies from the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Analyzing the flow of information and advice from the battlefield to the decision-making table in each of these conflicts requires access to fine-grained data on the internal deliberations of key policymakers. I have gathered this evidence through interviews with former officials and archival research at four presidential libraries. This work has been generously funded by the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Moody Foundation, the LBJ Foundation, and the Eisenhower Foundation, among other entities.

Although much ink has been spilled on the causes of war, comparatively less research has explored its duration, particularly in settings where national survival is not immediately at risk. My research challenges rationalist assumptions associated with the bargaining literature on interstate wars and contributes to a revival in the study of advisors in international relations research.

Image: Gen. William Westmoreland meets with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House, March 6, 1968. LBJ Library Photo by Yoichi Okamoto




©2017 by Theo Milonopoulos