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Excerpted from Proconsuls: Delegated Political-Military Leadership from Rome to America Today by Carnes Lord


The Montréal Review, September 2012


 Proconsuls: Delegated Political-Military Leadership from Rome to America Today by Carnes Lord (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)


"Many observers have noted with unease the rise of America's combatant commanders as figures who often seem to overshadow their civilian masters in Washington; until now, no one has studied them in the depth, or with the historical perspective of Carnes Lord. An important contribution to the literature on civil-military relations, and, one hopes, to the rethinking of America's national security architecture."

-Eliot A. Cohen, Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


In spite of the often bitter disputes among Americans of different political persuasions over the nation's recent struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would probably be widely agreed that the difficulties the United States has encountered in the Middle East since the events of September 11, 2001 are not simply a reflection of policy failure in Washington. Some of them may have been unavoidable, or a function of the "fog of war" or for that matter simple bad luck. Yet political-military decisionmaking by American officials in the field has also left something to be desired. This was most clearly the case in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of US military operations there in mid-2003. At the same time, in at least one conspicuous case-the "surge" in American ground forces in Iraq in 2007-a dramatic improvement in American fortunes can be traced primarily to the initiative, strategic vision and operational virtuosity of the American field commander, General David Petraeus.

What role do or should subordinate officials have in providing national-level or strategic leadership? What scope do they actually have for independent action? What is the relationship between such officials and their superiors and how should that relationship be managed? These are the fundamental issues this study sets out to address. Remarkably little thematic attention has been paid to them in the relevant academic and policy-oriented literature of recent times. There seem to be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the most significant is the lingering influence within American social science of the distinction between "policy" and "administration." This distinction, traceable to an essay of Woodrow Wilson's of the late nineteenth century, was originally intended to have normative force-that is, it was supposed to lay the groundwork for a new, more professional, and less political approach to public administration than that previously obtaining in the United States. Over time, however, it has leached into the mental picture academics and practitioners alike tend to hold of the actual workings of policymaking in contemporary democracies. According to this understanding, policy and administration are sharply distinguished, with subordinate officials seen as mere implementers of decisions taken at the higher policy or political levels of the government.

There can be little doubt that in other societies and earlier historical epochs, the situation was rather different. In feudal societies, the higher nobility generally controlled extensive territories and commanded military forces personally loyal to themselves. Such men were political leaders in their own right, not merely administrators, and their political interests and concerns had to be taken into account by their feudal overlords if their cooperation was to be ensured. In extensive empires such as those of Persia, Rome, China, the Ottoman Turks or the Spanish Hapsburgs, covering vast areas and with primitive communications at best, control could only be sustained by delegating extensive authority to local officials. These officials often became powerful magnates in their own right, and their loyalty could not always easily be commanded. Particularly in times of weakness or turmoil at the imperial center, these men often went into business for themselves, sometimes ruling autonomously in return for a pro forma acknowledgment of imperial suzerainty, sometimes proclaiming actual independence, and at other times attempting to seize power at the center for themselves. Our English-language political vocabulary has been enriched by a number of terms designating essentially this phenomenon, of which the one clearly enjoying the most currency today is "proconsul."

The word proconsul derives from a Latin phrase meaning "in place of a consul." In the Roman Republic of classical times, executive power was wielded by two annually elected officials known as consuls. In the course of Roman expansion in central Italy during the fourth century BC, the Romans discovered that it could be highly inconvenient to recall a consul in the middle of a military campaign after his term of office had expired, particularly as the military requirements of an expansionist foreign policy were becoming more and more demanding. The solution they hit upon was to create a new type of official capable of substituting for a consul in a major military command, that is to say, one endowed with the prestige and authority of high political office and an ability to take important decisions on his own responsibility. Roman proconsuls under the Republic were therefore never mere administrators, though their freedom of action might vary significantly according to circumstances. Some of them, at any rate, were surely statesman by any description. If there is a single simple way to characterize proconsular rule in general, it would perhaps be this: delegated political-military leadership that rises in the best case to statesmanship.

There are a number of reasons for supposing that proconsular leadership is obsolete today. An obvious one is the invention of virtually instantaneous overseas electronic communications in the course of the nineteenth century. The key development here was the laying of transoceanic telegraph cables beginning around mid-century, which allowed Great Britain in particular to reduce from weeks or even months to hours the time necessary to communicate with the far-flung officers of its empire. The fact is, however, that Britain's most memorably independent-minded proconsuls largely postdate this development. As one historian puts it: "The last years of Unionist rule [1895-1905] were the heyday of proconsular authority. Cromer's position in Egypt was unchallenged. Balfour complained that Curzon raised India to the status of an independent and not always friendly autocracy. But as he recognized all too well, it was difficult to override prestigious officers who had detailed local knowledge."

It could be argued that given the global reach and complexity of the British Empire at its height, the proconsular phenomenon as found there is in fact not typical of empires throughout history. A case could be made that in some respects its proconsuls operated under even looser controls than proconsuls in the Roman Republic-and much looser certainly than provincial governors in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, there are striking parallels between the British and Roman cases. The American case is obviously not entirely comparable, given not only the much smaller scope and duration of American imperial experiments but the weaker commitment to an imperial mission in the country and-a corollary to this-the lower threshold on the part of the political class or the public generally for tolerating proconsular free-lancing. Still, both are highly illuminating of the American experience.

Who typically fills the proconsular role? American proconsuls have been generals, but they have also been politicians, diplomats, or intelligence operatives; on occasion, they have been former cabinet members or potential presidential candidates-a factor which has sometimes seriously complicated their relationship to the metropole. For the United States, I include at least some discussion of all of the most important figures who can be identified as proconsuls in the properly functional sense of the term, from the Spanish-American War to the present. The most prominent among them are General Leonard Wood and William Howard Taft in Cuba and the Philippines in the early twentieth century; General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, Japan and Korea from 1936 to 1951; General Lucius Clay in Germany in the late 1940s; the intelligence operative Edward Lansdale in the Philippines and Vietnam in the 1950s; Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General Maxwell Taylor in Vietnam in the early 1960s; General Creighton Abrams, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and pacification chief William Colby in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s; General Wesley Clark in the Balkans in the late 1990s; Ambassador L. Paul Bremer in Iraq in 2003-04; and General David Petraeus in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006.

Concluding this study is a chapter that attempts to distill the lessons of the American proconsular experience for the present. There has been considerable hand-wringing in this country in recent years over the alleged militarization of US foreign policy caused in significant part by the growing influence of the regional military "combatant commanders." Yet the history of proconsular leadership as reviewed here very largely fails to support the notion that the principal potential danger posed by American proconsuls is by generals insensitive to political contexts and requirements or ambitious for their own preferment. The fact of the matter is that the worst American proconsuls have been civilians-most prominently in our study, ambassadors Henry Cabot Lodge and L. Paul Bremer. MacArthur is an outlier among military figures, but even his record is far from simply negative. The chief underlying problem, to state it simply, seems to be that civilians are less equipped to deal with military challenges than military officers (or at least superior ones) are to adapt to and master the various civil dimensions of post-conflict situations. Such a conclusion has wide ramifications. It suggests that the US military has erred fundamentally in attempting to shed the military government function it had embraced and performed so effectively at the end of World War II, while on the civilian side there has been a corresponding failure to come to grips in a serious fashion with the highly demanding post-conflict-or for that matter "low intensity conflict"-strategic and organizational environment.

This having been said, it is certainly legitimate to question the current organizational framework of the American military's overseas presence. I argue that the "combatant commands" as delineated under the authority of the venerable Unified Command Plan are obsolete artifacts of the Cold War, and need to be fundamentally rethought. The current strategic environment calls for a holistic or global approach to managing US military forces that is in tension with the regional approach imposed by current practice. Further, to the extent that the American "empire" remains in need of a regionally-based organizational infrastructure, there is every reason to transition that infrastructure from a predominantly military to a predominantly civilian and interagency one. Finally, however, none of this is meant to suggest that proconsular leadership is a thing of the past. The key challenge we face in this regard is to recognize a potential requirement for proconsular leadership under certain circumstances and work toward incorporating such a requirement within the structures and processes of American national security decisionmaking.


Copyright © 2012 Carnes Lord.  Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.


Carnes Lord is Professor of Military and Naval Strategy in the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, United States Naval War College. As a political scientist, his interests lie in international and strategic studies, national security organization and management, and political philosophy. Lord holds PhD degrees from Cornell University and Yale University and has taught political science at Yale University, the University of Virginia, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He has held several senior positions in the United States government, including director of international communications and information policy on the National Security Council staff (1981-1984), assistant to the vice president for national security affairs (1989-1991), and Distinguished Fellow at the National Defense University (1991-1993). Lord is the author of, among other works, The Presidency and the Management of National Security (1988), The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know Now (2003), and Losing Hearts and Minds? Strategic Influence and Public Diplomacy in the Age of Terror (2006).


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