You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 58: Who Really Controls the Military?

Who Really Controls the Military?

The United States military is the most powerful in the world; it is ordered from within by a strict hierarchy—people in uniform—and from without by civilian leadership, or people in suits. The Joint Chiefs of Staff bridge the gap between the military and executive branches to maintain the balance between military and civilian leadership. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Sharon Weiner joins us to discuss the roles of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Professor Weiner discusses her new book “Managing the Military” (2:46) and explains the history of the JCS’s policy of public disagreement (4:41). She discusses how Robert McNamara shaped the practices of the JCS (time) and talks about the impact of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (9:55).

Why does an increase in so-called “jointness” increase the power of the chairman of the JCS (12:03)? Will we see another chairman as powerful and influential as Colin Powell again (14:07)? Why was it so shocking when current JCS chairman Gen. Mark Milley appeared in a certain famous photo with former President Trump (27:37)? Weiner answers these questions and discusses the importance and impact of the public and political image of the chairman and the JCS (28:35). The episode concludes as Weiner examines who really manages whom and how the government and military exert their leverage over one another (32:03).

During our “Take Five” segment, Weiner shares five policies and procedure that would improve military and civilian relations (20:57).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters.

0:14 .The US military is the most powerful in the world. It's ordered from within by a strict hierarchy built on rank earned by people in uniform, but it's ordered from without by people in suits. Civilian oversight and leadership of the military is one of the hallmarks of American democracy and the American system. Responsible for bridging between the service branches and the executive branch, including the Secretary of Defense and the President, is the body known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. How does this delicate balance of interests that governs the deployment of the most powerful military the world has ever known occur? Today, we're talking about civilian-military relations and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Sharon Weiner.

1:02 Sharon is a professor here at the School of International Service. She's currently a senior resident fellow with the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Her research, teaching, and policy engagement are at the intersection of organizational politics and US national security. Sharon has collaborated with Moritz Kutt on The Nuclear Biscuit, a virtual reality experience involving a nuclear crisis. The project analyzes how people make high stakes national security decisions under conditions of uncertainty. And I just love saying the name, The Nuclear Biscuit. There, I said it again.

1:37 From late 2014 through early 2017, Sharon served as a program examiner with the National Security Division of the White House Office of Management and Budget, where she had responsibility for budget and policy issues related to nuclear weapons and non-proliferation. Her previous government service includes the Joint Staff's Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate, and the House Armed Services Committee. Her most recent book, Managing The Military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Civil-Military Relations, analyzes the power of the joint chiefs of staff chairman to help or hinder the president's ability to implement their defense policy preferences. And it is the main subject of our conversation today. Sharon, thank you for joining Big World.

2:21      Sharon Weiner: It's a pleasure to be back on Big World and to be back in touch with SIS.

2:26      KS: Your recent book, as I said in the intro, is called Managing the Military, and it's about the joint chiefs of staff and civil-military relations. You detail a lengthy history between when the joint chiefs were established under President Truman and the Trump administration. Why is this an important topic now in 2023?

2:46      SW: This is one of those topics that I think is always important, but the particular issue that we focus on changes with the politics of the time, with the administrations, and, really, with the state of the world. But one of the reasons that civil-military relations remain important is because of the relationship between the joint chiefs of staff, so these are the heads of the Army, Navy, and the Air Force, and, more recently, the Marine Corps, the relationship between the joint chiefs of staff and the president.

3:18 We tend to think of it as one where the president tells the military what to do and they run off and do it. But, in fact, it's a relationship that's inherently based on bargaining, and bargaining over policy. The military and the President don't always agree. And so what we discover in times like this where there's increased political polarization, where there are differences on social issues, where there are differences on how to respond to how to deal with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, that the president and the military engage in a bargaining relationship where each is trying to, sometimes not so subtly, influence the other's choices in what they do.

4:01      KS: And, Sharon, as you say, the president and the military don't always agree, and, in your book, it becomes clear that the joint chiefs themselves don't always agree. And in looking at the history of civilian-military relations since World War ii, which is kind of where we pick up, it's probably inevitable that Vietnam would loom large because Vietnam probably came as close to breaking our military as anything ever has. So looking at that era and disagreement, how did the approach of Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, under Lyndon Johnson, help shape the joint Chiefs of Staff's approach to public disagreement with each other?

4:41      SW: So Kay, you're absolutely right that this is an important period of history, but it's really important also for civil military relations, because there's a key change that happens. So when the Defense Department was first created, the chiefs of staff of the different services argued with each other. This was the beginning of the Cold War, they were arguing over budgets. They were arguing who should have a role in nuclear weapons. They were arguing over all kinds of things. And sometimes civilians, the President, the Secretary of Defense, would make choices between them.

5:17 So if you imagine yourself as the President of the United States, you might be an expert on something entirely different than national security. So you rely on the heads of the military services to give you advice because they're the experts. So the heads of the services, when they're arguing with each other, they'll point out to you what each other is doing this wrong.

5:41 So the Navy, they may say, the Air Force is doing this mission, it's either too expensive or they're doing it incorrectly. We can do it better. Or the Army may say, we're better at the Marine Corps than this. And, of course, the Marine Corps argues back. And so this makes information available to civilians and they can use that information to pick winners and losers. Winners and losers in terms of budget, in terms of mission, in terms of all kinds of things that are important to the military.

6:10 And Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara did this. And partially this was Vietnam. There was strong civilian leadership, there were disagreements about what should happen. And McNamara was very good about making choices between the services. And you can imagine the services didn't like it, because while each service chief has a loyalty to their service, collectively, they have a loyalty to the military.

6:35 And so what the service chiefs learned to do under McNamara was to argue with each other in private, not in public. And by arguing in private, they deprived McNamara of the information he needed, and of the ability to make choices between them. So the service chiefs would decide in private what they were going to do and what approach they would have, and then they would present a united front to McNamara.

7:03 Now, the problem with this becomes that as the service chiefs are reconciling their differences, there are two possible outcomes. One is they can make trade-offs with each other, and say in the name of National Security it would be better if the Navy did this, not the Air Force. And so then they collectively present this unified opinion, which is really what each of them should be doing with the overall goal of national defense.

7:33 The problem is that's not what happened. Because none of the service chiefs out ranks the other, they engaged in horse trading. And they would come up with informal rules of thumb that basically let each of them get what they wanted. And if, for example, the defense budget was going to be cut, they would share those cuts equally. If it was going to increase, they would each get a chance to have the same share of increase. If there was a new mission, they would share it, rather than assigning a leader.

8:05 So the result of this was excess military spending, duplication, and probably most importantly, not sound advice for the president. Because they were providing the president with advice that was the result of collusion, not trade-offs. And that was the big change that happened under McNamara.

8:26      KS: Right. If you and I are deciding amongst ourselves how we're going to divide up a million dollars, it's very easy for us to come up friends if we both say that we have half each, right? We each get 500 grand. But if we had to have a real discussion and decide that ultimately, maybe in this case me. I really would have the goal of whatever we're trying to achieve would be better served if I took the lion's share of that, and you only walked away with $200,000. That's a much harder conversation for us to have and to come out with, as

9:00      KS: ... friends, and it's sort of the same, I guess, with the Joint Chiefs, where it's sort of a forced equality among them rather than them doing the really hard work.

9:14      SW: You could think of it as a forced family. Like many of us do around the holidays, to keep peace in the family you come up with informal rules about what you do and don't do.

9:25      KS: And Sharon, you describe the evolution of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since its inception under President Truman. But one piece of legislation from 1986 is a theme throughout the book. It almost cleaves the era of history since the Joint Chiefs were conceived into before and after. What was the Goldwater-Nichols Act? And what has been its lasting impact on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and civilian-military relations?

9:55      SW: The Goldwater-Nichols Act not just goes through the book, it's actually sort of a theme in my life. My first job out of college was working for Mr. Nichols, who was a representative from Alabama. I worked for him on the House Armed Services Committee at the time, right after they had passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act. So, I was involved in some of the implementation and the oversight of that. That translated eventually into a research theme for me once I got a PhD.

10:26 So, when I was talking about jointness and the collusion of the service chiefs, the point of Goldwater-Nichols was to give power to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So think of this as the person who is not really first among equals, but even higher than that. He's supposed to be the person who coordinates the service chiefs, works with them to develop advice for the President.

10:54 The goal of Goldwater-Nichols was to give power to that Chairman so that the Chairman could force those trade-offs between the service chiefs. And that, the advice they produced would be the best advice they could give, even if that involved trade-offs between them, and then it would move away from collusion. The label this was given was something called jointness. The idea was that the service chiefs would work together jointly to provide advice that was good for national security, as opposed to something that was a negotiated agreement where each of the service chiefs got something. Goldwater-Nichols wanted to do this by giving more power to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

11:39      KS: Sharon, you talk about the concept of jointness, but you also say that increasing jointness increases the power of the Chairman, which on the surface is counterintuitive to the idea of collaborative decision-making if one member has more power. So first off, why do the services struggle so mightily against jointness? And why does increasing jointness ultimately increase the power of the Chairman?

12:03      SW: Think of each military service as your standard bureaucracy. I mean, we all have how many bureaucracies that we have to deal with in our lives. We expect those bureaucracies to help us, but to also look out for themselves. Each bureaucracy has an expertise that it brings to solving a problem and it thinks that its expertise matters. I mean, we all think its expertise matters. That's why we have bureaucracy. So, each of the services has their own source of expertise. So of course, they think that's the best solution to national security and that's the thing that they want to take care of and feed by recruiting quality people, by having a budget, by having the best weapons, by using those people and weapons when it's needed to defend the United States. So, part of the problem with this was if each of the services are doing their thing as a bureaucracy, civilians then are required to exercise management of that.

13:04 What we were discovering was that for various different political reasons, civilians hesitate to exercise that command authority. For example, imagine you're the President of the United States and you have a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, such as Colin Powell. Who, at the time he was Chairman, he was considered more of an authority on national security issues than was President Bill Clinton. And so if President Clinton contradicts Colin Powell on something about national security, that looks bad for the President politically. So when I talked earlier about this bargaining relationship, well of course the military knows this. Of course, the Chairman knows this. The key focus of civil-military relations is each side recognizing the weaknesses of the other, but then also trying to manipulate those weaknesses to be able to do the job that bureaucratically has been assigned to them.

14:07 So, Goldwater-Nichols comes in and says, "For political reasons, mainly, civilians have had a really hard time making choices among the military. So you know what? Let's empower a military officer to do that. That's the Chairman." And so the presumption is that the Chairman will go into the Joint Chiefs and say, "Okay, we're not giving military advice unless it's good joint advice based upon trade-offs." Or, the Chairman could go to the service chiefs and say, "Okay, let's make sure everybody gets what they want and we'll label that joint advice." So is jointness, I guess I would call it a verb, where you've worked the trade-offs? Or is it an adjective that's applied to the same old trade-offs that were always issued in the past? It's not just that the Chairman might do either jointness and joint advice as collusion, or jointness and joint advice as trade-offs. It's that the Chairman has an incentive to do this. That's because the President's relying on the Chairman to manage the services, to keep them in line with administration policy, to get them to give good advice.

15:22 But the Chairman can only do this with the cooperation of the service chiefs. And that cooperation is key. It means that the Chairman has a strong incentive to never side with the President against the collective advice of the service chiefs. So this puts the Chairman in a really difficult position. You think of it this way, the Chairman lives in two worlds. One is, he's responsible for helping the President implement the President's defense policy choices with the military. But the Chairman is also responsible for looking out for the military and making sure that the President respects the preferences of the service chiefs. So the poor Chairman is sort of caught in the middle. The book is really a story about how different Chairmen have manipulated that role, sometimes to get the services to do what the president wants, but more often to get the President to do what the military wants.

16:19      KS: I think that's one of the more fascinating parts of the book for me because I love reading about personalities. When you start looking at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretaries of Defense and the presidential administrations since World War II, you really quickly run into a lot of bold-faced names and big personalities. You mentioned Colin Powell is perhaps the most recognizable name to have ever served as Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff. He also went on to serve as Secretary of State. His political influence was significant, particularly when he, in 2008, endorsed Barack Obama over his Republican challenger John McCain.

17:03 You focus in your book on his time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1990s, during which he successfully limited the US' engagement in Desert Storm, under President H.W. Bush, and kept President Bill Clinton from making good on a campaign promise to open the military to openly LGBTQ people. Are we likely to ever see a Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman with his political skills again? Or is this something that an administration would actively work to avoid?

17:38      SW: So the answer to this question is yes, but the answer is also no. The book isn't a story about how chairmen take power. It's really a story about how presidents have ceded power. A president who's seen as politically weak on national security or who's elected at a time where public faith in

18:00      SW: ... the military is high, and faith in other institutions like Congress of the Supreme Court is low. In times like that, you may want a politically savvy chairman, so a president will want someone to help be the president's counterpart and get in what they want. But the problem is the chairman's not always on the president's team and so the book really argues that the chairman may try and create his own team. He may become a policy entrepreneur that tries to get the president to shift preferences to where the chairman as a human being wants policy to go. But more often, actually, it's always the case, the chairman is always part of the team of the service chiefs at the JCS.

18:48 If you think of Colin Powell as an example of a powerful chairman, and are we going to have another one, you also have to take into account not just the personality of the chairman, but the political issues that the president faces on national security, but also more broadly, and also the degree to which the joint chiefs of staff have a strong preference about those political issues. If you think back to the example you gave of Powell ... I mean, if you think of the military, many people would argue that it's not the military's responsibility to comment on the ability of openly LGBT people to serve in the military. As some chairmen have done, it's also certainly not their role to comment on the role openly LGBTQ people should play in society, but yet chairmen have. So the history of civil-military relations is this blurry line where sometimes people say things in what they think of as an expert capacity, but it's really about social issues.

19:54 So the president can either say, "You know what? That's none of your business. You shouldn't be commenting on it." Or the president can use the support of the military on issues that really aren't about the military, and leverage that into political support on other issues. Civil-military relations and each chairman is embedded in a relationship that is inherently political and the lines of what's appropriately the exercise of expertise versus the political manipulation of expertise, those lines are very blurry, and they depend upon the personality of not just the chairman, but the president, but also the big social and military issues at the time.

20:40      KS: Sharon Weiner, it's time to take five. You, our esteemed guest, get to daydream out loud with five policies or practices you believe would change things for the better. What are five policies or procedures you'd like to enact to improve military and civilian relations?

20:57      SW: Number one is to improve faith in other institutions of government. So help people look up to Congress, the Supreme Court, the press, the executive branch. This will inherently mean that the military doesn't outrank literally every other institution in the US government in terms of political clout. So that's number one. Number two, this would also mean if there were increased faith in other institutions of government, this would also mean that the president could more easily overrule the collective position of the joint chiefs of staff, this joint advice. Number two is if this were the case, a president would be more able to be commander in chief rather than persuader in chief when it comes to defense policy. The third thing I'd do is to put civilians in roles that are intended for civilians.

21:53 Over time, many of the roles of the staff and the people who deal with defense policy, and these are roles that are required to be held by civilians, they actually end up increasingly being held by former military officers. Individually, this isn't a problem and certainly there are qualified former military officers who should be allowed to use their expertise in civilian positions, but there are also qualified civilians. Not having those qualified civilians predominantly in these roles generally suggest that civilians don't have the expertise necessary to make choices about defense policy, and I just don't believe that's true. So more civilians, please.

22:37 Number four, URFs. So a URF is an unfunded requirement. The heads of the military services, after the president puts together the budget and sends it to Congress, they're allowed to go to Congress and say, "Here is our list of things not in the budget that we very much absolutely need." It's not unfunded desires. It's called unfunded requirements. I would end this practice because it simply undercuts the president's budget and the president's policy choices. The last one is I'd provide both military and civilians with training and with a discussion about what it means to have an apolitical relationship. In general, in theory, and also in practice, there tends to be the assumption that the political role of the military is a strict line and you know exactly when it's crossed.

23:32 But this isn't the case. That line is really blurry and pretending that it's not sets up a false sense of certainty that our military isn't crossing political lines and that civilians aren't inviting them to do so. So instead of the myth that there's a strict division between civil and military, between political and expertise, I think this should be a conversation and an ongoing debate, especially a debate about specific instances.

24:04      KS: Thank you.

24:14 Just looking back and remembering many people, particularly students who are in college now, may not even remember that President Clinton, particularly early on in his first term, was very much dogged by accusations and perhaps feeling among those in the military and those in the wider society, that he himself was a draft dodger for having not served in the Vietnam War. He was in college, I believe. He had that at a time when historically most presidents had had some type of military service. If any of this were a high stakes card game, he was holding kind of a weak hand when it came to influencing the military to do something just by force of his personality and he was confronting the headwinds about LGBTQ people in our society at that time in the '90s, which was very different landscape. I mean, nothing's unique in the world. Everything happens again and again. But it does feel somewhat unique in the role that he played as a president without that military experience attempting to dictate to the military in the role of commander-in-chief, does it not?

25:32      SW: It's one thing is to dictate to the role of the commander-in-chief, and the book talks about chairmen who have had their own ideas about policy, who do try and convince the president or try and constrain the president so that the president's choices conform to their own. But there are also instances, as you well know, Kay, of chairmen that have inadvertently been drawn into political circumstances by presidents. I mean, so normally the joint chiefs of staff are pretty much low on the radar for most people, but you'll remember not just so many years ago when Chairman Mark Milley, who was head of the JCS under President Trump, he thought he was called to a presidential briefing and in fact, he was called to what was essentially a photo op where he walked with the president across the park on the other side of the White House, went to a church, the president holds up a Bible, they forcibly removed some people from that park, and what that served to do was to make Mark Milley seem like he was part of President Trump's political team, not his team of military experts.

26:46 That wasn't something that Milley did intentionally. I suspect he didn't realize what he was doing until after the fact, and he felt it necessary to apologize to

27:00      SW: ... the nation and to the military, that he had done something inappropriate, because he realized that one of the core foundations of US civil-military relations and of really, this relationship in a democracy, is that the military is supposed to be apolitical, it is supposed to serve the constitution and the person who is elected president. It is not supposed to serve the partisan goals of the person who is elected president. But in that instance, president Trump realized that he might get more votes if there was someone in a military uniform standing next to him.

27:37      KS: Yeah, that was a memorable case for sure. And I'm also wondering, General Milley was pulled in as a political prop in that case. Those protests that were being broken up at the time were about the murder of George Floyd, that were going on around the world at that time. And I'm wondering, in addition to President Trump wanting to show support from the military by having General Milley there, was there also any attempt to message that these protests are something that is being handled, 'handled by our military?, were there two messages that they were attempting to convey by having General Milley there?

28:35      SW: I try desperately to never get inside the head of Donald Trump, but I can imagine a president thinking in a situation, in circumstances like that, that having the military there would suggest either one of two things, that, "We're in charge because we have strength on our side for protests."

28:58 Or to suggest that the protests were illegitimate, something I certainly wouldn't agree with, to suggest that is wrong for legal reasons in the US because the US military is prohibited from policing US citizens. And there's a good reason for that in a democracy. But all of these questions get combined into a situation where the senior military officer in the United States was put in a position where he looked like he was a political prop in a stunt by the president of the United States. And this shows that in terms of political power ... Trump did that for a reason. He assumed that people would look up to Milley, that they would think Milley's support for something was persuasive. And that's one of the reasons why the chairman has political power, that especially in times like now where citizens', faith in Congress is pretty low, faith in the press pretty low, faith in the Supreme Court took a nose dive recently. And so not just do people especially since 9/11, have more faith in the militaries and institution, they're the last institution standing.

30:16 And so when the chairman takes part in something like walking across this park with Trump, it matters. And both sides know it. And the question is, where do you draw the line between a chairman who is supporting the president's policy choices on national security, and a chairman who is being used as a political partisan to support the president on other issues? Presidents are keenly aware of this, and they're keenly aware that the chairman actually has a choice in this. For example, President Obama, many of the stories about how Obama was trying to consider policy choices in Afghanistan, will include stories about how he was very conscious that if he overruled the military, that the military would make it more difficult for him to get other policy choices that he wanted to enact. It's not just about the individual action or the individual decision, it's about the range of persuasive ability that is given to the president, and how the chairman can add to that pool of leeway or can subtract from it.

31:33      KS: Sharon, you close your book by saying, 'Too often, civilian control of the military in the United States is assumed to be a mandate to obey. In reality, it has always been an act of persuasion.’ My last question, in a post-Goldwater-Nichols reality, when both the chairman and the joint chiefs themselves have leverage both publicly and behind the scenes, who is persuading whom?

32:03      SW: They're persuading each other, and they know it. And they're persuading each other not just about each individual decision, but with a view for setting the stage for the next decision and the one after that, and for putting themselves in a position to be able to control that decision. It's the game of politics, just like it's played by all the bureaucracies in Washington, D.C., all the bureaucracies in the government, but we tend to assume the military doesn't play that game. And this book is about showing in great detail how they very much do.

32:39      KS: Sharon Weiner, thank you for joining Big World and talking about civil-military relations and the joint chiefs of staff. I haven't gotten to see you in a long time or talk to you, so it's been a treat to speak with you, and informative as always.

32:51      SW: My pleasure as well, thank you so much, Kay.

32:55      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like always lying on the cool side of the pillow. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold, by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Sharon Weiner,
professor, SIS

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