Commander in Chief

I watched the Republican debate last night and had plenty of thoughts that I won’t share here. But one thing that really stood out to me was the way in which they dodged military-related questions, both those having to do with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and items of foreign policy. Their most common refrain was “I would ask the generals.”

It was interesting watching them try to reconcile this approach with their own positions of what they wanted to happen. So one of them (Rick Santorum?) suggested that in relation to “don’t ask, don’t tell” he would have deferred to the “combat commanders,” that those officers rather than the top brass would have the appropriate opinion. Newt Gingrich suggested that the Army and Marines were the right group to consult on the policy. And Herman Cain, in responding to a question on Libya, said that he would first consult the “commanders on the ground” before deciding whether we should be involved.

Did you catch that? Not only did he not seem to understand what he don’t have commanders on the ground in Libya, but he managed to suggest that we needed commanders on the ground in order to decide whether we should have a military intervention. Which, of course, would require that we had already intervened.


What really bothered me about all of this, though, was the demonstration of immoderate politics. Their claims of deference to the military commanders placed partisanship (their desire to get in a jab at the president by implying that he was out of sync with the military) above their reaffirmation of constitutional order (in which the president is commander-in-chief, maintaining civilian control over the military branches). Suggesting that Obama’s foreign policy is wrong: totally within the limits of moderate politics. Suggesting that correct foreign policy and military affairs requires deference to the military: immoderate politics and an undermining of a clear constitutional imperative:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States” (Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution).

Anyone looking for passionate moderate politics on foreign policy last night had to look to Ron Paul. In his response to a question about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan (in which his opponents had trotted out the deference-to-generals approach), Paul’s response went something like this: “I’m the commander-in-chief. I tell them what to do, and I’ll tell them to bring the troops home now.” Whether you agree with his decision or not, the process was right.

3 Responses to Commander in Chief
  1. Hans
    June 14, 2011 | 11:17 pm

    I would disagree with some of the wording. I think there is a big difference between “deferring” and “consulting.” Any good leader will consult and gain as many perspectives on the issue as possible.

    If you’re running a bake shop, wouldn’t it be best to consult with the culinary chef before starting a new line of pastries. You want to be able to know if the chef can cook them (which she probably can), whether they taste good, and other important information that the chef probably knows a little more about.

    While you are still the one that is ultimately going to make the decision, there is nothing wrong with consulting and gathering information.

    A good commander isn’t one who defers, but asking for a consultation doesn’t necessarily undermine the role of the commander-in-chief. And an individual who makes decisions without consultation may be acting under his constitutional prerogative, but that doesn’t mean that the choice to first consult and then act is not also constitutional. It may also be constitutional and a wiser process.

  2. Jason
    June 14, 2011 | 11:34 pm

    There certainly is a difference, but it seemed to me that the language and tone of the Republican candidates was more along the lines of deference. I had hoped more were capable of standing up, like Paul did, and suggesting that where he had firm opinions he would follow them. I don’t know how we vote on foreign policy and other related issues if the candidates will only go so far as to say that they would consult the generals. That’s a fine point to make about their process but in a debate it should be followed by a statement about their actual opinions.

    I thought this was especially blatant in regard to “don’t ask, don’t tell” where too few of them were willing to take full ownership of their own plan, instead suggesting that they would defer to [insert handpicked group of military officers/branch that dislikes the change in policy].

    On the other hand, I did appreciate the recognition that the price tag needed to be part of the calculation for military intervention. We seem to have forgotten all too often that wars have multiple costs.

  3. kaahl
    August 3, 2011 | 5:36 am

    Yeah, go Ron Paul, even if he is a bit loony. He reminds me of the old grandpa who just says whatever he wants because he is old.