Civilian oversight of the military is limited to the executive branch
The decision to put the General Staff under the authority of the Defense Ministry has ended an anomaly in terms of the military’s allegiance to the elected government, according to a military expert. But civilian oversight of the military is not fully established as it is only limited to the executive branch, says Metin Gürcan.
The mechanism within the army that works autonomously from the political authority, creating its own norms, has ended, as the General Staff has come under the authority of the defense minister, one of the first changes that came with the official transition to the presidential system. A full harmony between civilians and the military has not yet become institutionalized, according to Metin Gürcan, who added that civilian oversight of the military is only limited with the executive branch and there are still many unknowns as to how these relations will work under the new system.
Q: The General Staff came under the authority of the Defense Ministry, while Hulusi Akar, the chief of staff, became defense minister. How should we read this?
A: The fact that the General Staff looked to be autonomous or even independent was an anomaly. An anomaly in terms of the military’s allegiance to the elected government has ended. The chief of general staff, which formerly looked far from political accountability, has taken off his uniform and became an appointed figure in the executive. He has become a member of a cabinet that will work under the direct control of the president. That means he can be removed from the cabinet any time. That in a way ends the supra political, near autonomous traditional paradigm of the chief of general staff.
Q: Can the appointment of a soldier as minister be interpreted as a transition?
A: Exactly, I find this soft transition as a positive development. There is a vertical harmony between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Akar, especially after the failed July 16 (2016) coup attempt.
And there is harmony in the horizontal sense, between Akar and Yaşar Güler (former land forces commander appointed as chief of general staff) as well as other service commanders. Perhaps what we will see in the future is that the moment Akar leaves as defense minister, so will the chief of general staff and service commanders. That’s why I have said the mechanism within the army that works autonomously from the political authority, creating its own norms and traditions, has ended. There is a transition from an army that was designing its top decision-making cadres without civilian oversight to a situation where the top cadre will come as a team and leave as a team that would therefore enable civilian oversight.
But the problem is that this oversight is limited to the executive branch only. In civil-military relations (CMR) we know who the military is. But what is the definition of the civil? Currently what we are discussing are the relations between the executive powers: Erdoğan and the army. How about the legislative branch? We know that the defense commission for instance continues to exist, but to what degree will it play a role in monitoring the army? What will be the role of foreign policy and the defense office within the presidency? As the power of parliament has decreased, I believe that the civil society, academia, think tanks and the media should have a more efficient role to play.
Q: If the top echelon of the army comes and leaves as a team, doesn’t that mean that the army will be politicized? And are we talking about a cadre that is only loyal to the president?
A: In the old system there was a far long distance between top military decision-makers and the civilian ones. Now there is no distance left. The hyphen in the military-civil relations is no longer there. How is the current system going to work?
The civilians should trust and respect the military expertise and try to abide by their advices as much as they can. The military in return should accept that elected politicians are hierarchically higher and that they have the final word. But looking at the examples in the world we see that this is not always easy; this is more so for Turkey.
The defense minister goes to all the visits of the president. Turkey has a warring army: Both in terms of fighting domestic terror and cross border operations in Syria and Iraq. In addition, Turkey’s muscled foreign policy gives priority to the economy and security and in that sense; it gives a special role to the army.
In the current situation there could be civil-military frictions or civil-military gaps. When the civilian and the military are both too ambitious on an issue then any divergence of view on policy-making could lead to dangerous frictions. In contrast, when the two have totally opposite views; let’s say the military wants the continuation of the draft system while the civilians wants an immediate transition to professional army, then this could lead to a gap in policy-making.
I think there is no intermediary mechanism to resort to in such situations.
Q: What do you think about the decisions that were made regarding the military institutions after the coup attempt?
A: In the first year following the coup attempt, as both the civilians and soldiers were frightened, they worked closely. But I think now they are getting rid of this fear and currently the civilians are criticizing the military of acting as if the coup attempt had not taken place. Armies anywhere in the world love status quo. So the army has started to revive its old traditions which trigger fear among the civilians. When the military starts to show its old reflexes it revives the old suspicions of the civilians towards the military.
Q: What makes you say this?
A: The issue of professional military education system for instance. The status of the national defense university is still unclear. Who is going to prevail? The soldiers or the civilians? Both want to have an upper hand.
This is an example of the civil/military friction I was talking about. So currently while civilians complain about the military, the soldiers in return think the civilians do not respect the military’s expertise and say “the civilians want to undo everything we are trying to do.”
CMR needs to change but we need to have a debate about it. What kind of military do we need? Warrior type, peacekeeper type or a domestic security provider type?
Currently we cannot say there is harmony between civilians and the military. It looks like as if there is harmony. But this is not an institutionalized harmony, but a personal harmony due to the vertical harmony between Erdoğan and Akar as well as the horizontal harmony between Akar and the chief of general staff and the current service commanders. If you take one of them out of the equation I am not 100 percent sure this system can work in a perfect fashion.
Civilian elites are inclined to use civilianization and democratization interchangeably. In their mindset civilianization is equal to democratization. Making something civilian does not mean democratization. In my definition, civilianization is the transfer of power from military elites to civilian elites, but this is the first phase of security sector reform. Civilianization is necessary but not sufficient enough because there is need for democratization and that is not limited to transfer of power.