A recent article in the journal Orbis by James Golby and Mara Karlin has important implications for a number of issues in American civil-military relations. Golby, a U.S. Army major with a PhD in political science from Stanford University, and Karlin, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, argue that the concept of “Best Military Advice”—frequently cited by both senior officers and civilian officials alike—is a problematic construct. They argue that, besides being poorly defined, it has no statutory basis, nor is it grounded in U.S. military doctrine or professional norms.
Golby and Karlin highlight five problems with the construct. Best military advice, the authors say, implies military perspectives are superior to civilian, suggests military advice is an ultimatum rather than a recommendation, undermines the ability of military means to serve political ends, constricts the options available to civilian policymakers, and ignores the reality of bureaucratic politics. Despite these problems, military leaders and civilians alike, routinely suggest that it is the responsibility of senior officers—particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff—to offer it.
In supporting these claims, Golby and Karlin reveal how the concept of best military advice exacerbates a number of civil-military relations issues that I’ve written about over the past year:
- Politicization: best military advice allows civilian leaders to use the military as a political crutch when seeking support for controversial policies, as President Trump did in announcing a ban on transgender military personnel (and, as Karlin and Golby note, Presidents Bush and Obama did with regards to the Iraq surge and potential U.S. intervention in Syria).
- Military-Society Gap: relatedly, best military advice exploits the fact that the American public reveres the U.S. military as an institution, yet understands little about it, so when military advice is made public, it ties the hands of civilian leaders because the American people are likely to take their cues from the military.
- Civilian Control: moreover, best military advice undermines civilian control of the military by undermining the idea that civilian knowledge, and presenting military expertise as a take it or leave it proposition.
There is much more food for thought on civil-military relations contained within. The entire article is available here (subscription or library access required).