In the spring of 2002, Eliot Cohen, a professor of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, authored a widely discussed treatise on civil-military relations, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. Cohen’s account centered on case studies of four great leaders—Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben-Gurion—to demonstrate the character and principles required to lead democratic peoples to military victory. Cohen concluded that, contrary to the then-received wisdom about the need for a division between civilian and military functions during the conduct of a war, the highest political authority should be very much engaged with the details of war and war planning.

Supreme Command was completed and published shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. The Bush Administration spoke of Operation Enduring Freedom as being but one campaign in the War on Terror (what some termed “World War IV”). Talk of further military action, particularly against Iraq, was then very much in the air. Whatever Cohen’s purpose in researching and writing the book, he and it were drawn into that discussion.

President George W. Bush entered office advocating a corporate, hands-off management style which, by implication, meant setting general goals and letting the military go about its business. On the other hand, before 9/11 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had rubbed many former and current high-ranking officers the wrong way with his aggressive management style aimed at bringing about a fundamental transformation of the military. During the summer of 2002, President Bush told a journalist that he had included Supreme Command on his vacation reading list. According to Cohen, it was widely assumed that Bush had

interpreted [the book] as a mandate to the president and his senior advisors to brush aside the hesitancy of America’s military and to embark on a radical program of military adventure abroad. The truth was that although I favored the course of action—war in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq—chosen by the administration, the book spoke to neither policy per se, as some reviewers noted. Still, the book played a role—how great, I do not know—in shaping perceptions of American civil-military relations in the period immediately before the second Gulf War.


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Of that, more later. Cohen’s analysis in Supreme Command was clearly intended to be a timeless work of political science that explored the topic of civil-military relations. For the United States, the central problem in this area is not to prevent a military takeover of the state. Rather, it is finding the proper relationship between the preparation and use of force, on the one hand, and the ends of policy, on the other. For at least three decades, the “normal” American theory of civil-military relations held that the healthiest and most effective form of civilian control of the military is that which isolates soldiers from politics but gives them a free hand in military matters. Civilians should not ask too many questions, much less give orders about military tactics or operations, measures of success, or the use of hardware. They should not seek to promote, dismiss, or interact with anyone but the most senior officers. Civilian leaders should set clear but general strategic objectives and then leave the military as much latitude as possible to achieve these goals.

According to advocates of the “normal” theory, the wisdom of this approach was proven in the negative sense during the Vietnam War, when “abnormal” interference by civilians supposedly tied the hands of the military by limiting the geographic scope of the conflict, picking specific bombing targets from the White House, and so on. The theory was said to have been vindicated positively by Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the George H.W. Bush Administration ostentatiously avoided interfering with the conduct of military operations against Iraq.

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Cohen takes a very different view. He follows the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, whose oft-cited aphorism “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” is better translated, according to Cohen, as “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” For Clausewitz there is no field of military action—however small—that might not be touched by political factors. Civilian leaders must therefore make every effort to bend military operations to serve the end of politics (even admitting that the “fog” and “friction” of war makes such a relationship difficult to establish in practice). There is no arbitrary line dividing the civilian and military sphere, no neat way to create a unique and separate military dimension. As Churchill wrote, “the distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit, true politics and strategy are one.”

But isn’t such meddling by civilian amateurs bound to interfere with the professional conduct of the war? Cohen acknowledges that for a politician to try to dictate military action is almost always folly. But the entire field of military activity must remain open to civilian oversight. When and where to exercise this oversight is a matter of prudence.

Prudence, of course, is the province of the statesman. Cohen observes that contemporary political scientists have unfortunately lost their sense of the practical. “A belief in the greatness of statesmen,” he writes, “puts in jeopardy theories built on descriptions of social forces or institutions, or systemic explanations such as ‘rational choice.'” In contrast, Cohen “unabashedly accept[s] the notion that there are, occasionally, great statesmen whose skill in the policies of war exceeds those of the average run of political men and women.”

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This leads to the case studies of the four great wartime leaders from different times and nations, and with very different backgrounds. Lincoln and Churchill will be familiar to American readers. Clemenceau—famous for the observation that “war is too important to be left to the generals”—entered the French government as premier in 1917 and breathed a spirit of resistance into that exhausted country during the latter stages of World War I. Ben-Gurion was the most important political leader of the campaign to create and defend the state of Israel after World War II.

Each of these leaders grappled with a different set of problems in attempting to impose civilian direction on the conduct of military operations. Cohen highlights Lincoln’s search for a general whose concept of war mirrored his own (Ulysses S. Grant). Clemenceau intervened to balance contradictory impulses on the part of equally competent military leaders (Ferdinand Foch for the offensive, Philippe Pétain for the defensive). Churchill relentlessly challenged his military leaders for choices and actions when Britain’s strategic position seemed hopeless. Ben-Gurion forced his military commanders to make the transition from an insurgent to a conventional warfighting capability in the midst of ongoing military operations.

What do these statesmen have to teach us about the civilian role? Churchill said it best: “It is always right to probe.” Instead of adopting a hands-off policy, he and the others sought to master the details of war to the point where they could ask intelligent, hard, and uncomfortable questions of military officers. None dictated to his subordinates: they might coax or bully, but all tolerated and indeed promoted men who disagreed with them. Cohen describes this process as “the unequal dialogue.” Both sides expressed their views bluntly and often contentiously, while the final authority of the civilian leader was unambiguous and unquestioned. Rather than following the “normal” theory of civil-military relations, which reserves dialogue only for the beginning and end of a war, these leaders insisted on interacting constantly with the military professionals throughout a conflict.

To be sure, great statesmen make mistakes. But military experts might be equally mistaken—Cohen details some of these errors-and if left unchallenged, their failings would only be compounded during the course of the war. Even the best of commanders will have a restricted point of view, which is understandable because of their responsibility for the conduct of actual, specific operations. The statesman’s task is to comprehend the full scope of military action and to decide when political considerations must supersede or redirect legitimate, even pressing military concerns.

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Nations, Cohen writes, are led and ruled by words. In the best of nations, these words reflect and ennoble deeper truths about the best way of life. Each of these statesmen had mastered the arts of speech and writing. They understood the importance of words that explain as well as inspire. For example, Churchill’s famous wartime rhetoric (“we shall fight on the beaches”) represented only a small portion of his public discourse. He spoke at great length to the British and Allied peoples to describe the course as well as the meaning of the war, including those details of operations and strategy which he could safely share. In this way, ordinary people became part of the great, democratic dialogue between the civilian and military leaders.

So what of Vietnam? Cohen argues persuasively that the United States failed in Southeast Asia not because American leaders immersed themselves in too much detail but because they looked at the wrong details and drew the wrong conclusions. President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did not test the military’s preferred strategy—attrition warfare, search and destroy—against what was actually happening in the field. They did not ask whether the military organizations in Washington or Vietnam were properly designed and tasked. They did not cross-examine their subordinates or force them into debates with other professionals, inside and outside government, who took a different view. Cohen does not take a position whether the war could have been won if the Johnson Administration followed this approach, but clearly it would have avoided at least the scale of the fiasco that followed.

That brings us back to the question of civilian leadership in the second Gulf War. In September 2003 Supreme Commandwas reissued in paperback, with an Afterword, “Rumsfeld’s War.” Baghdad had fallen much more quickly than expected and President Bush had flown to an aircraft carrier decorated with a banner, “Mission Accomplished.” Cohen sought to apply his model of civilian-military relations—”the unequal dialogue”—to this case and to ask the question whether it applied to a subordinate of the commander-in-chief, the secretary of defense (a position known as the minister of defense in other countries). Cohen’s answer to the latter question was yes; in modern governments, such a minister has many of the attributes and responsibilities possessed by the statesmen described above (Churchill held both the office of prime minister and minister of defense during World War II).

In a broader sense, Cohen argued that the unequal dialogue was at work in the Iraq War and that it was effective. Rumsfeld, against much criticism from former senior military officers and resistance from at least some currently-serving commanders, had pushed the system (especially General Tommy Franks, the theater commander) to formulate war plans in Iraq and Afghanistan that accorded with Rumsfeld’s notion of a military transformation. This was a style of conflict predicated on special operations, air power, and, in the case of Iraq, a limited if heavy armored punch on the ground aimed to get quickly to Baghdad. The default solution of the military planners, by contrast, envisioned a replay of Operation Desert Storm (the first Gulf War), with a much more substantial build-up of ground forces and the use of sequential operations, beginning with a lengthy air campaign. Once the air assault was complete, the U.S. Army and Marines would undertake a more deliberate, broad-front take-down of the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard, one that largely avoided urban areas. Critics of the Rumsfeld-Franks plan argued that it was imposed by civilian theoreticians who were “interfering” and ignoring professional military judgment. In particular, so the criticism went, the ground force was too light—it was roughly two-fifths the size of that in Desert Storm—and its application as envisioned would result in many more U.S. and Coalition casualties than necessary. Some also argued that the U.S. force would be too small to ensure a successful post-war occupation and transition to Iraqi rule.

Cohen stresses that Rumsfeld desired to affect the campaign plan not only because he believed that his ideas offered a superior “transformative” military alternative but also because it served better his president and the administration’s political-strategic goals. The United States, at least formally, was not committed to go to war in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. A lengthy, 1990-style buildup would impose substantial material costs and wear and tear on already thinly-stretched American forces. Rumsfeld did not want to make such a huge commitment that the United States would face logistical and political difficulties in removing the force should a military strike seem inadvisable. He wanted to configure and deploy the force in such a way as to rally American public support while convincing other nations that the administration was open to a peaceful settlement. The larger the force, the greater the strain on Kuwait, the only country from which it was possible to stage operations (Turkey having declined); and the more vulnerable it would be to attack by Iraq’s presumed chemical and biological arsenal. A large, slow-deploying force would be less able to achieve the sort of tactical surprise that might foil Saddam’s efforts to sabotage the Iraqi oil fields, the use of which would be essential to rapid post-war recovery. In Rumsfeld’s judgment, smaller forces and a more rapid war plan also held out the prospect of minimizing Iraqi was well as American casualties, all of which would affect global public opinion on the justice of the war.

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“The planning and conduct of the Iraqi war of 2003 followed the model of the unequal dialogue,” Cohen concluded, “and though it may have been painful, it yielded a swift and relatively cheap victory on the battlefield. In that respect, at the very least, Rumsfeld won his war.”

That was a judgment that Cohen certainly came to regret, or at least qualify. Even in his contemporary (2003) analysis of the near-term military success of the second Gulf War, he raised a number of political issues whose outcome was unresolved:

The weaknesses of American military planning will also receive attention, especially in terms of the aftermath of the war, in which American forces appeared, for at least six weeks or more, unprepared for the collapse of order in Iraq and the consequent need for effective military government. Nor is it likely to be clear for some time what the long-term consequence of the war will be—whether Iraq will become a promising example of free government in the Arab world or a chaotic reproach to American ambitions; whether the United States will be able to withdraw gracefully from occupation and military rule or find itself throwing up its hands in frustration or despair…whether it has pacified or inflamed the tense relationship between the Middle East and Persian Gulf on the one hand and the West on the other.


Two years later, after the situation on the ground in Iraq had clearly deteriorated and as critics seized on faults in the Bush Administration’s planning for the post-war situation, Cohen was interviewed in the Washington Post. The title of the interview was “A Hawk Questions Himself as His Son Goes to War” (Cohen’s eldest son, a U.S. Army Ranger, was about to deploy to Iraq). “So it is not an academic matter when I say that what I took to be the basic rationale for the war still strikes me as sound. Iraq was a policy problem that we could evade in words but not escape in reality.” Cohen went into some detail about what that rationale was, or should have been—in his view, with less emphasis on weapons of mass destruction, more on “chang[ing] the patterns of Middle Eastern politics.”

But what I did not know then that I do know now is just how incompetent we would be at carrying out that task…. [A] pundit should not recommend a policy without adequate regard for the ability of those in charge to execute it, and here I stumbled. I could not imagine, for example, that the civilian and military high command would treat “Phase IV”—the post-combat period that has killed far more Americans than the “real” war—as of secondary importance to the planning of Gen. Tommy Franks’s blitzkrieg.

I never dreamed that Ambassador Paul Bremer and Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the two top civilian and military leaders early in the occupation of Iraq—brave, honorable and committed though they were—would be so unsuited for their tasks, and that they would serve their full length of duty nonetheless. I did not expect that we would begin the occupation with cockamamie schemes of creating an immobile Iraqi army to defend the country’s borders rather than maintain internal order, or that the under-planned, under-prepared and in some respects mis-manned Coalition Provisional Authority would seek to rebuild Iraq with big construction contracts awarded under federal acquisition regulations, rather than with small grants aimed at getting angry, bewildered young Iraqi men off the streets and into jobs. I did not know, but I might have guessed.


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These were the sort of issues and detailed questions that one might assume a president or secretary of defense would have raised—and demanded answers to—under Cohen’s “unequal dialogue” model of civil-military relations. “The scholar in me is not surprised when our leaders blunder, although the pundit in me is dismayed when they do,” he told theWashington Post.

In his 2005 interview, Cohen still expressed reasons for optimism about the situation in Iraq. He did not despair of public support for sensible policies. He pointed to America’s overarching global power and to the fact that insurgencies in general, and the Iraqi insurgencies (plural) in particular, have their own weaknesses. He did not see an inevitable replay of Vietnam. “For the presidents who got us into Vietnam, and for that matter out of it, the war was a distraction from other, more important priorities. For this president, the war is the defining decision of his tenure, and he knows it. Whatever his faults may be, a lack of determination is not one of them. And in war, character—and above all persistence—counts for a very great deal.”

“Historians have the comfort of knowing how past wars played out,” Cohen concluded. “But short of clairvoyance, no one can forecast the outcome and the second—or third—order effects of events as they unfold. Five or even 10 years from now, we still may not be able to judge our Iraq venture in a definitive way. Unfortunately, that philosophical detachment is cold consolation in the here and now, as young men and women go off to war.”

Cohen’s major points in Supreme Command appear to be supported by the 2007-2008 surge in Iraq, which involved much more than simply an increase in the number of U.S. troops on the ground. It was implemented at President Bush’s insistence, on the advice of some unconventional-thinking civilians and current and former military officers, against much opposition in the Pentagon and in the theater command, as well as in Congress and by outside experts. Cohen, who became State Department Counselor in 2007, played a practical role in that shift in policy. For his later reflections on the surge and an explication of his basic thesis about civil-military relations in a democracy, see a lengthy 2011 interview with the West Point Center for Oral History.

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In this, we are reminded that process can never substitute for statesmanship; it will ever be a case of garbage in, garbage out. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm and even the greatest leaders will have their limitations in directing the unequal dialogue. They will not always be able to frame properly the necessary questions for their military counterparts, or to anticipate second or third-order events as they unfold. We hope that they will, at the very least, make the correct first-order judgment about vital American interests—about whether (or not) to fight and against whom, and about the character of the war to be fought. Yet history tells us that even this may not always be possible.

Which argues, in my mind, for the need for the United States to maintain and enhance what might be called grandstrategic depth. Russia, famously, used its geographic depth—its enormous and difficult terrain—to buy time to wear down invaders, to mobilize its resources, to acquire allies, and to find effective men and means to take the attack to the enemy. The United States, too, historically has used its geographic position, separated from the Eurasian landmass, to buy time to get its act together and to use that time and distance to weaken potential enemies. Grand strategic depth is an even broader concept. It is constituted by a variety (and surplus) of the instruments of power—for example, strong alliances throughout the world, various and redundant means of applying force, multiple points of strategic access to Eurasia (with assured security in our own hemisphere), and international credibility for resolution and effectiveness. These instruments of power require considerable investment and continual upkeep. Not all of these are military instruments—certainly, one must possess a vibrant and innovative economy and strong national culture—but they are all anchored in military power.

The United States suffered a grave operational defeat at Pearl Harbor and a major strategic defeat in Vietnam. It seemed on the verge of strategic defeat in Iraq. In each of these cases, we had sufficient grand strategic depth to buy time to recover, figure things out, and make them right (although Iraq and Afghanistan fall into the “still to be seen” category).

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We will not always get things right the first time. We may not fight when we should have fought, or fight when we should have abstained, or find ourselves fighting the wrong kind of war. Grand strategic depth is a tremendous advantage whenever we are strategically wise but it also gives us the opportunity to figure things out whenever we are not—it provides time for Eliot Cohen’s unequal dialogue to have its full effect, assuming civilian and military leaders learn painful lessons. It even gives us the luxury, if we so choose, to favor military inaction over action with an acceptable margin of safety if that bet is wrong (understanding that not all bets are created equal). The tendency, however, when faced with difficult economic or strategic times, is not only to become anti-interventionist but to retrench, to cut military forces, to reduce commitments, all in the name of relieving “imperial overstretch.” Of course, rebalancing commitments and resources—including withdrawal from exposed positions—can be part of a sensible strategy. But this often has the unfortunate effect of reducing or eliminating the grand strategic depth that must be recovered later, if possible, at much greater cost and risk. “The scholar in me is not surprised when our leaders blunder, although the pundit in me is dismayed when they do,” Cohen reflects. The student of strategy will seek means to ensure that dismay does not mean ultimate defeat.