Undercurrents: A Question on the Role of the President and the Military

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:09:00 AM

The question of the day in the American presidential race appears to be: Why is Barack Obama not further ahead of John McCain, given the current political climate and recent developments? 

After eight years of George W. Bush, an ailing economy, record budget deficits, a political stalemate in Iraq and a deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan, American voters have certainly indicated a preference for a change in the country’s direction. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has had one of the best couple of weeks imaginable for a presidential candidate, with the roaring success of his overseas trip combined with fumblings and missteps by his Republican opponent, Mr. McCain. 

And yet, Mr. Obama’s lead in the polls over Mr. McCain hovers somewhere between four and six points, with Mr. Obama’s national approval rating hovering naggingly under 50 percent. Unlike many of my fellow political analysts, I don’t think there is anything Mr. Obama’s campaign is doing “wrong,” nor is there much that can be done—outside of what they are already doing—to “fix” the problem. I think this is something that will work itself out on its own, or not. 

The first barrier to Mr. Obama breaking the 50 percent national approval barrier—or jumping to a double-digit lead over Mr. McCain—is still the newcomer factor. In presidential politics, this is a two-stage process. The first stage comes as voters make themselves used to the idea that a particular candidate might actually become president of the United States. Then and only then do those voters begin to take the candidate seriously, and examine her/his biography and positions with an intense and critical eye. 

And so, for many voters, Mr. Obama was still a novelty candidate at the first of the year, a mere tune-up for Hillary Clinton, who—it is difficult to recall, now—was considered the inevitable Democratic Party nominee. Up until the last primaries, in fact, many thought that somehow the “relentless, never-say-quit Clintons,” the quintessential comeback kids, would somehow pull out the nomination by some final, clever stroke. It was only when they did not—and the probability of a Democratic victory in November loomed—that many voters began to take their first, sustained, serious look at Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, trying to imagine what it would be like for them to be in the White House. 

One of those considerations—and one can never discount this in America—is imagining an African-American president in the White House. While most of the country has accepted this idea in theory and as something that would someday come about—at least since the days of the first Jesse Jackson campaign—it is a fact now staring the country in the face, altering the nation’s entire view of who we are, and who represents us. For many Americans—what exact percentage, no one can say for certain—that is a difficult bit of soul-searching. 

Myself, I wouldn’t begin to guess at how that is going to come out. 

Meanwhile, let us deal with the silliness that’s in front of us. 

It is always a source of wonder how much our good conservative friends—who let no opportunity pass to remind us of the need to wrap ourselves in the whole cloth of the nation’s constitutional legacy—are so quick to abandon that legacy, without a whimper of protest, when it suits their political necessities of the day. 

One could do a lifetime of writing on how the Founding Fathers impressed upon their contemporaries and future Americans the necessity of safeguarding civilian control over the military. There was a real concern in 18th-century America over a military coup or hijacking of the political direction of the country. One of the main reasons George Washington was the popular choice for the first president was that in 1783, following the end of the American Revolution, he voluntarily resigned his commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army, pushing the country in the direction of a political republic rather than a military dictatorship under his control. 

And so, in Section 8, the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare War (it is capitalized in the original), and in Section 2 designates the president as Commander in Chief of the army and navy. 

Anyone with a decent understanding of military hierarchy knows what “commander in chief” means. This is the person with ultimate and final authority over the troops and, when the nation is at war, over the conduct of the war. On this point, the Constitution is unobscure, and unambiguous. 

Nothing in this doctrine should be confused by the fact the American presidents, while maintaining their ultimate authority, often give their generals and military commanders wide discretion in the actual conduct of war. Abraham Lincoln—arguably the country’s greatest wartime president—did not even ask General Ulysses Grant the details of his plans after Grant was appointed general-in-chief of the Union armies. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt gave General Dwight Eisenhower wide latitude in his military responsibilities as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. 

Mr. Lincoln, by the way, was deferential only to Mr. Grant, whose judgment and abilities he trusted. The Civil War president famously fretted over the reluctance of one of Mr. Grant’s predecessors—John McClellan—to go on the offensive with the Army of the Potomac, once telling a couple of general officers that “if McClellan doesn’t want to use the army for awhile, I’d like to borrow it from him and see if I can’t do something or other with it.” 

When the Army of Northern Virginia—under Mr. Lee—invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863, Mr. Lincoln differed sharply with union commander Joe Hooker, who wanted to take it as an opportunity to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond. The differences eventually led to the resignation of Mr. Hooker while Confederate armies were still marching on northern soil, and the selection by Mr. Lincoln of General George Meade as Mr. Hooker’s replacement. But Mr. Meade came under sharp criticism from Mr. Lincoln after the Confederate defeat at Gettsyburg, when Mr. Meade allowed the Army of Northern Virginia to retreat, unimpeded, back across the Potomac and into Virginia. Eventually, Mr. Lincoln’s disaffection with Mr. Meade led to the appointment of Mr. Grant as commander in chief. 

If our conservative friends have ever criticized the handling of generals or general wartime strategy by Mr. Lincoln—who was both the first Republican president and a man relatively inexperienced in military matters prior to his election—then they—our conservative friends—are not making a public fuss about it. They appear to get the whole presidential commander-in-chief doctrine all ass-backwards and confused only when it comes to applying it to modern times, and potential Democratic presidents. Witness the response when General David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, disagreed with Mr. Obama over setting a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from that country. 

On July 18, the Lonely Conservative blogger writing out of New York posted a short entry whose heading said it all: “Who do you trust on the Iraq war, General Petraeus or Senator Obama?” 

On July 22, on the website The Patriot Room (guess which political persuasion they belong to), Bill Dupray writes “And Amateur Hour continues apace. ABC’s Terry Moran asks Obama about what Petraeus thought about Barry’s 16-month pullout plan. Obama breaks out the leisure suit, starts dancing, and finally says, “You know, I, I, umm, uhh, I mean, uhh, you know, well ... Screw Petraeus, I’m the boss and I’ll decide when the hell we’re gonna pull out.” 

And on July 28, the Gateway Pundit, another conservative blogger, wrote, “Here’s a major blow to the mainstream media and their non-surge supporting darling, Barack Obama. General Petraeus is sticking with Bush and McCain and has decided to win the War in Iraq rather than withdraw U.S. troops based on the latest popularity polls back at home. General Petraeus will not endorse Obama’s hasty retreat plans and will base further troop withdrawals strictly on conditions on the ground.” 

And, most telling, Mr. McCain himself told NBC News on July 21 that “I think we should trust the word of General Petraeus, who has orchestrated this dramatic [recent military] turnaround” in Iraq. 

A theme emerges. Not content merely to argue that Mr. Obama is wrong either on the effects of the surge or a timetable of withdrawal—those are, after all, arguable points—many of our conservative friends, including Mr. McCain, apparently, when it comes to applying doctrine to Mr. Obama—appear to be arguing against civilian control of the military. Presuming that Mr. Obama is only talking about being the “boss” when and if he is elected president, if he is not the boss at that point, who is? 

This is sheer madness. By this reasoning—that presidents ever and always should bow to the wisdom of the generals—then President Harry Truman should have allowed General Douglas MacArthur to invade China in the midst of the Korean War in 1951. I don’t think Mr. McCain actually believes this—he would almost certainly make his own military decisions if it were he who were the president, rather than trusting them solely to the generals—and I don’t think any rational American believes that Mr. MacArthur was right in 1951, and the country, and the world, would have been better off had the nation gone to war with China. But that’s what comes from partisan-situational thinking, when the doctrine changes to fit the politics and the opponent of the moment. 

It also goes to show that for too many of our conservative friends, the Constitution is a pointed staff on which to impale their enemies, hip and thigh, rather than a foundation doctrine providing common shelter for us all.