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Supreme commanders

The generally accepted understanding of the relationship between the civilian head of government and the military may be deeply flawed

Tewfick Aclimandos , Friday 28 Sep 2018
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I am currently reading US author Eliot Cohen’s magnificent book Supreme Command. First published in 2002, it has successfully passed the test of time, though perhaps with one or two exceptions.

The book deals with civil-military relations in democratic countries, but it can also be read as an analysis of the predicament of modern politics, whether democratic or authoritarian. Both the general argument and the details of the book are thought-provoking. Cohen’s many insights on leadership taught me a lot, even when I strongly disagreed.

His main argument is that the currently “normal” conception of the relations between the civilian head of the executive branch of government and the military is deeply flawed.

This conception states that the civilian leaders decide on whether the country should go to war and define its goals and strategies without interference from the military top brass. They then let the military implement the war, doing what is necessary to achieve the strategic goals and sorting out the details.

This “normal” conception seems to be the lesson that was drawn in the US from the Vietnam War: according to the conventional accounts, the politicians reined in the military, thus preventing it from doing what was necessary to win the war.

The late Egyptian author Amin Howeidy, author of many books on the wars carried out under former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat, had similar views.

The civilian leadership defines the goals, and then the military command obeys. If the latter feels unable or unwilling to do so, the top military commanders resign and are replaced.

The failure of military chief Abdel-Hakim Amer to do so during the 1967 War with Israel was the main cause of the defeat, he says.

Cohen contests both the generally accepted interpretation of the US failure in Vietnam and the general conception of civil-military relations. Concerning the Vietnam War, the problem was not the meddling of then US president Lyndon Johnson or of defence secretary Robert McNamara.

On the contrary, Cohen says. These two men failed to do their jobs, and they did not monitor the jobs being done by the military sufficiently.

They did not replace the US military commanders, despite their failures, and they did not propose clear plans with well-defined means and goals.

The military kept on asking for more troops, while admitting it did not know whether they would be enough. Indeed, the latter turned out to be true.

While Johnson did look at the list of targets to be bombed in Vietnam, and opposed the choice of many of them, this was not for idealistic reasons, but was because of cold realism.

e was afraid of a catastrophic scenario in which China and possibly Russia would intervene in the war. This had already happened in the earlier Korean War.

Regarding the “normal conception” of civil-military relations, Cohen adopts a simple method: to study what four great civilian leaders did and what were the results of the policies adopted by those who behaved according to the conception that prevails today.

The four great leaders are the American Abraham Lincoln, the Frenchman Georges Clemenceau, the Englishman Winston Churchill and the Israeli David Ben-Gurion.

The chapters dealing with the first three of these are impressive. The chapter on the Israeli leader is somewhat weaker, but the weakest part of the book is what Cohen has to say on the 1991 War on Iraq.

Written in 2002, the book castigates the US decision “not to finish the job,” meaning accepting “too lenient terms for the armistice” and not toppling then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

All this may have looked “wrong” in 2002, but today, with the appalling results of the 2003 War, the 1991 decisions seem to have been wise ones.

Let us return to Cohen’s four great leaders. All four did closely monitor their generals in their daily work. They did question their assumptions. They did constantly probe them, and they paid a lot of attention to details and implementation.

They also did not hesitate to replace those who failed or who were unwilling to obey instructions.

To sum up, these men never adopted the behaviour that is recommended today as the “normal conception” of civil-military relations.

All four men had a good knowledge of military affairs. Clemenceau often met with soldiers and middle-ranking officers and heard what they had to say. He had to arbitrate between two senior officers, Foch and Pétain, who held contradictory but equally plausible views.

Lincoln was a very good manager of men and correctly understood the implications of the technological innovations of the time. Churchill had considerable experience and had previously devoted a lot of time to studying wars and writing books about them.

He was willing to harass the military men with questions and to follow up the implementation of his instructions by recalcitrant generals. Ben-Gurion was an autodidact and a voracious reader. He understood that Israel needed a transition from militias to a professional army.

The four men possessed a mixture of common sense, will-power, ruthlessness, the willingness to contest assumptions and an incredible mastery of words. They knew how to explain things to public opinion, how to galvanise it and how to mobilise it behind a cause. Cohen draws a cruel comparison in his book between the speeches made by Churchill and George W Bush.

The four leaders also had a clear view of the “broader picture” and a mastery of “relevant details.” They were able to identify which of the trees needed to be seen to understand the forest, and they also thoroughly studied them. I would add that one of our current problems is the general loss of this ability to draw a distinction between relevant and irrelevant details.

They understood that each situation was new and avoided the well-known trap of drawing comparisons with historical precedents. This is a very important point, and I think Cohen should have devoted a chapter to it. Historical comparisons can be the cause of huge mistakes.

Former British prime minister Anthony Eden thought Nasser was a new Mussolini, or worse, for example, explaining his behaviour in the lead-up to the Suez Crisis.

Many Western academics wrongly think that the Muslim Brotherhood is a kind of Muslim version of the European Christian Democrats. Comparisons with fascism are also in many ways just as dangerous.

That said, a knowledge of history is still necessary, and all four of Cohen’s leaders had it. Moreover, when trying to galvanise public opinion by evoking past symbols and traumas speaking to collective political memory is unavoidable. To understand novelty, you must know about the past.

A good leader is also a good manager of men. He knows the strengths and the weaknesses of his team members. He knows who deserves a promotion, who deserves a second chance, and who should be fired. He knows when and how to use people’s talents and how to manage their faults.

Cohen insists on the following crucial point: that a political leader, even if a genius, is often prone to making mistakes. He is not always right, and his commanders are not always wrong. A great leader should be able to listen, learn, adapt and accept that he can sometimes be in error.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Supreme commanders 

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