Civilians, Soldiers, and the Iraq Surge Decision
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Civilians, Soldiers, and the Iraq Surge Decision

To the Editors (Richard K. Betts writes):

In “The Right to Be Right,” Peter Feaver slurs Samuel Huntington and other civil-military relations theorists whom he dubs “professional supremacists.”1 This is doubtless inadvertent, because everyone in the field knows that he reveres Huntington. Moreover, Feaver’s version of the debate about prerogatives and limits in the interaction of soldiers and civilian policymakers is generally fair, even though I would assess it differently. My objection is to the label “professional supremacists.” This is not pedantic quibbling, because even academics succumb to the vice of skimming and attributing according to the bumper sticker versions of complex arguments. If taken seriously, this catchy label will establish a flatly incorrect term of art that falsely discredits, a priori and almost by definition, the view it challenges.

The dictionary unambiguously defines “supremacist” as having a claim to dominance and control. Neither Huntington nor anyone I know in his camp challenges the norm of civilian supremacy, which Feaver nevertheless poses as the opposite of their arguments for certain degrees of military assertion. A few ignorant militarists aside, no one I know argues that, in determining policy, professionals should have even an equal vote, let alone supremacy. (Feaver makes much of the verb “insist” in how some describe the right of professionals to get their way, but insisting on one’s view does not mean denying the right of higher authorities to act irresponsibly and overrule it.) The case for uninhibited debate within government—what I have called elsewhere “equal dialogue and unequal authority”2—and for allowing disagreements of military leaders about the effectiveness of proposed wars to be known by Congress and, at least after resignation, by the public, is not a brief for military control.

Peter Feaver is a conscientious scholar and an honorable public servant. He should keep his argument but retract the defamatory label “professional supremacist” before it catches on.

—Richard K. Betts
New York City, New York [End Page 179]

To the Editors (Michael C. Desch writes):

There are two ways to read Peter Feaver’s “The Right to Be Right: Civil-Military Relations and the Iraq Surge Decision.”1 First, it is a straightforward assessment of the link between various forms of civilian control of the military and how militaries perform in wartime. This is an important issue for scholars and policy analysts to debate. Second, it is an account, from Feaver’s perspective as a participant-observer, of how the George W. Bush administration made one of the most important national security decisions of its second term. If the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 was the most significant (and controversial) national security decision of President Bush’s first term, then the success of the “surge” of more forces to Iraq in 2007, in the face of considerable skepticism both inside and outside the U.S. government, represents the potential vindication of that initial decision, especially if it achieved the president’s lofty objectives of creating a stable, democratic, and capable Iraq allied with the United States in the war against terror.

In a piece in Foreign Affairs about the early stages of the war in Iraq, I argued that it was the Bush administration’s disdain for professional military expertise that was at the root of many of the United States’ subsequent problems there.2 In making this argument, I drew on Samuel Huntington’s distinction between two forms of civilian control: (1) “subjective control,” which is a strategy employed by intrusive civilian leaders to ensure their control by making the military look like civilian society; and (2) “objective control,” which strikes a balance between domestic liberty and battlefield effectiveness by demarcating distinct “political” and “military” realms and then reaching a compromise in which the military acknowledges civilian supremacy in the former realm in return for substantial autonomy in the latter realm.3 Huntington argued that objective control was superior in reconciling these two important objectives in a democracy. I argued that it was the Bush administration’s departure from objective control that led to many...


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