The Risk of Letting the Warriors Run a War

IN Operation Desert Storm, President Bush has opted for a military operation run by professional military men, not by civilian politicians. This makes Bush's decision to strike Iraq doubly bold. Not only has he rolled the dice of war, hoping he can achieve the goal of driving Iraq from Kuwait at acceptable cost, but he has also delegated responsibility for directing the campaign to military advisers. Military operations often define a presidency. If the operation is a success, the president is hailed as a hero. If it fails, he is a bum with no political future. Because of this, presidents are under intense pressure to micromanage military operations.

Presidents respond to the expectations of the American public and media that they, as commander in chief, be ``in charge.'' Americans want a decisive president who appears to be in control; one strategy to foster that appearance is to make every important decision during the campaign. The Navy calls this ``rudder orders from the beach.''

For the past 30 years, presidents have exercised tight assertive control by giving detailed rudder orders to their local commanders. During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy meddled to such an extent that he once took time out to ascertain whether one of the destroyers enforcing the quarantine had an officer on board who could speak Russian.

President Johnson picked the targets for each day's bombing runs in Vietnam and reportedly boasted that US pilots could not strike an outhouse in North Vietnam without getting his permission first. Experts blame the failure of the Iranian hostage-rescue mission in part on presidential micromanagement: President Carter supervised small details of the operation and restricted the activity of the soldiers and airmen.

Bush's handling of the Panama invasion foreshadowed his behavior in the current conflict. Instead of relying on his own ability to direct events to a successful end, he is relying on the competence and professionalism of the local commanders.

So far, Mr. Bush's experiment appears to have paid off. The air strikes have been more precise than even the most ardent air-power advocate could have dreamed. Correspondents inside Baghdad report that even Iraqi officials have been astonished at the small number of civilian casualties even in densely populated areas of Baghdad. So far, then, a relatively unfettered military has balanced the often conflicting demands of military effectiveness, low losses among friendly troops, and low civilian casualties.

This experiment, however, is not risk-free. When a president delegates control over military operations to those in uniform, he gets a campaign run according to military logic. That means a massive unrelenting use of force with one goal: the destruction of the enemy's capacity to fight. Military logic says to follow the momentum of the conflict. When you are winning you press on until the enemy is defeated completely.

But this military logic could ultimately undo the present operation. Without civilians moderating the military's zeal, how will politically viable institutions survive the war? Without civilians meddling to insert pauses into the military conflict, how will Saddam signal his willingness to get out of Kuwait? When queried specifically on this point, General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded that the military will continue to execute the plan until the president orders them to stop.

Will historians say that we followed the plan too closely? That the unrelenting military campaign went on too long? Will future victims of terrorist attacks die because we learned the lessons of Munich but forgot the lessons of Versailles - do not so dominate your enemy that he is humiliated and unrepentently hostile?

That is the dilemma that plagues all presidents who confront the need to use military force: the logic of military victory may be inconsistent with the requirements of political accommodation. Bush's predecessors cut the dilemma too close to political accommodation and lost. Operation Desert Storm leans the other way, and the president appears to be winning - at least on the military front. If the political goals of the operation are also achieved - Iraq out of Kuwait and stability in the Gulf - the president may have rewritten civil-military relations for a long time to come.

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