Shadow Government

One More Reason to Pay Attention to the Civil-Military Gap

A week ago, the Washington Post ran a long story discussing the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on military personnel who had served in combat tours. The story was primarily based on a detailed survey administered in late 2013 in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Post story was titled "A Legacy of Pain and Pride," but it focused on the "pain" side of the ledger. And, to be sure, there is much to tell there with respondents reporting on the physical, emotional, psychological, and relational costs of combat service.

But what struck me most was with the "pride" side, which itself seemed to be a good news/bad news kind of story.

On the good news, the military were overwhelmingly (87 percent) proud of their service and overwhelmingly (89 percent) inclined to "do it again" if they could go back in time -- even despite the many battle scars physical and psychological. This is a strained and in some ways hurting group, but it is not a group that is sullen or alienated from the military profession itself.

Likewise, while the veterans express ambivalence about the value of the wars, they still are markedly more supportive of them than the general public. Forty-four percent of the combat vets said the Iraq war was worth fighting compared to 38 percent of the general public; 53 percent of the vets said the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting compared to 30 percent of the general public. (The Post story claimed that "only 35 percent believe both wars were worth fighting," a cross-tabulation not reported in the topline results here.) To be sure, there was plenty of anti-war sentiment to be found, especially on Iraq -- 34 percent were strongly of the view that the Iraq war was not worth fighting -- but also plenty of pro-war sentiment -- 28 percent were strongly of the view that the Iraq war was worth fighting.

Perhaps most surprisingly, given the way that the popular media demonizes President George W. Bush for how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars unfolded, the combat vets have a strikingly high estimation of the former president. Fully 72 percent of officers said that Bush was a good commander-in-chief. Only 48 percent of officers think President Barack Obama is doing a good job as commander-in-chief. Obama scores even lower overall approval rating, only 38 percent among this group. (The survey did not ask for an overall approval rating for Bush.)

The ambivalent appraisal of the current president is not, however, the most worrying finding. On the bad news side of the ledger, I would pay even more attention to the signs of possible budding alienation from civilian society (as distinct from alienation from the military profession). Right now the signs are more harbingers of possible future problems than indicators of current difficulties, but they are worth watching.

It is perhaps understandable, but nevertheless notable, that these veterans think they are more patriotic (63 percent) and have "better moral and ethical values" (54 percent) than average Americans. While 53 percent of combat vets believe that Americans' respect for the military is genuine, 42 percent say Americans are "just saying what people want to hear." Those numbers could well grow with time, since 69 percent say they sometimes felt like Americans didn't understand their experience in war (and, on this, they were doubtless correct since it is so hard for civilians to comprehend combat from afar).

Hedging against the drift towards alienation is a healthy awareness that the average American appreciates the service of the military -- 71 percent of the combat vets agreed with that. And, most surprisingly, given the prominent pundit voices deriding such public expressions as empty gestures, 70 percent said they liked seeing yellow ribbons as expressions of support.

But the risks are real because of the looming conflict between veteran expectations and fiscal realities. When asked directly, 83 percent said that military benefits should not be pared back even in the face of fiscal constraints. In this respect, the military is very much like every other segment of American society: they do not want to be the bill-payer for redressing the fiscal imbalance.

Yet some paring of benefits may be unavoidable and, if the Post-Kaiser poll is a reliable indication, that could prove wrenching for the military. A military that flirts with feelings of alienation from civilian society could interpret the cutbacks as a sign of disrespect and ingratitude.

It is well worth keeping an eye on the way the military thinks of civilian society and vice-versa. The most systematic information we have on the subject is quite dated. The study by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies on the civil-military gap that I co-directed is over 15 years old now. It is high time someone did a follow-up. The Post-Kaiser poll is a good start.

By the way, surveying the military can be very challenging, so I am inclined to give this sampling design the benefit of the doubt. It took more than four months of phone calls -- August 1 to Dec. 15 -- to reach the 819 combat veteran respondents. A lot can happen in that time. If the poll had queried about how respondents evaluated President Obama's handling of Syria, of instance, would it make sense to group a respondent reached in the first week of August with a respondent reached in the first week of September with a respondent reached in the first week of October? But the questionnaire did not have many such time-sensitive questions so on the whole it provides a reasonable snapshot of one important segment of the military.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Shadow Government

There's Nothing Sinister or Unique about USAID's Cuba Program

Critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba are in high dudgeon over an Associated Press "blockbuster" story on an attempt by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to fund the start-up of a rudimentary Twitter network in Cuba. We are being led to believe that somehow the United States got "caught" in some sort of rogue "covert action" in Cuba, bringing us back to the "bad old days" of poisoned cigars and exploding shellfish targeting Fidel Castro.

Long-time embargo opponent Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for example, went before the cameras to ask the U.S. government, "What in heaven's name are you thinking?"

I'll tell you what they were thinking, as I was intimately involved in USAID's Cuba Democracy Program in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration. Back then, Congress had just tripled the program's funding and our task was to leverage the social media revolution to break down the Castro regime's wall of censorship placed between ordinary Cubans and the outside world, and between Cubans themselves. Our goal was to help create pockets of freedom for the Cuban people, in which their every thought and word would not be monitored by the Castro regime.

We knew that if there is one thing that dictatorial regimes feared more than freedom of expression, it was freedom of assembly. That is why the Castro regime keeps Cuba's dissident community atomized. We wanted to take advantage of modern communications technology denied to Cubans to put them in touch with one another sans government censorship. If they wanted to discuss politics or weather it made no difference; the goal was to facilitate communication amongst them. (Although the Cuba Democracy Program was subsequently downgraded and revamped by the Obama administration, the technology focus of the Bush administration remained for some time.)

Of course, there was risk. Everyone understood the challenges and dangers of implementing such programs in a police state. But at the same time, everyone involved knew it was the right thing to do if the United States stood for anything at all in the world. (The later arrest of Alan Gross involved a mistake that should not have happened.) That the programs were implemented discreetly was precisely to protect peoples' lives. The Castro regime has been abusing the Cuban people for five decades; no one was about to advocate advertising the details of what we were trying to accomplish on the island.

In any case, critics of U.S. policy towards Cuba have consistently mischaracterized the Cuba Democracy Program as something sinister or unprecedented. In fact, there is nothing sinister or unique about the program, which is administered by both the State Department and USAID. It is what is known within the bureaucracy as a "cross-border program" into a non-presence country -- meaning we are trying to help support people living in repressive states in which we have no local development office. There are, or have been, at least six other countries in which the U.S. government runs similar cross-border programs.

Frankly, the only thing unique about the program is the level of scrutiny and criticism to which it has been subjected. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) has argued as much. "They're trying to say that somehow it's a bad idea to help people where Twitter and Facebook are illegal because the governments are so repressive. That's bad?" he told USA Today. "I'm hoping we're doing that everywhere. I'm hoping we're doing that in North Korea, in Iran."

Indeed, singling out one program over any of the others betrays a political motivation that undercuts the critics' arguments -- that their opposition is based more on the fact that it is viewed as an impediment to U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, because the Castro regime vehemently opposes it.

The United States has made a commitment to the Cuban people through its democracy support. And the fact that the biggest challenge to the program, other than the difficult environment, is that Cubans continue to request more and more material support to expand their independence is the best testimony to keeping the program alive.