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From MacArthur to Haig to Petraeus: How the Military Brass Trampled the Constitution

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In two separate newspaper columns over the past many months, I've argued that we are witnessing an intense assault on one of the most fundamental tenets of our constitution: the principle of the nation's civilian elected leadership having command control over the military. Today's revelations from the Washington Post's Bob Woodward proves that exactly what I predicted is happening is, in fact, happening.

To review, the first column I wrote, headlined "Who are 'The Deciders?'" and dated October 3, 2009, looked at the military's attempts to force President Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan -- an assault almost no Washington journalist bothered questioning:

The coordinated assault sharpens that question about who "the deciders" (on military policy) should be - elected officials or the military?

The Washington Establishment clearly believes the latter, and that's no surprise. The war-mongering political class has called for presidential and congressional deference to military demands since Hollywood movies and anti-communist ideologues began countering the public's "Vietnam Syndrome" by blaming that quagmire in Southeast Asia on elected officials. In the purest articulation of the argument, Ronald Reagan asserted in 1980 that Vietnam was lost not because of flaws in mission or strategy, but because politicians allegedly forced soldiers to fight "a war our government (was) afraid to let them win."

In the second column, headlined "Rogues Gone Wild" and dated February 19, 2010, I wrote:

We've so idealized cowboy-style rebellion in matters of war and law enforcement that "going Haig" is today honored as "going rogue." Defiance, irreverence, contempt -- these are the moment's most venerated postures, no matter how destructive or lawless...

It began re-emerging in September with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Afghan escalation plan. McChrystal didn't just ask President Barack Obama for more troops -- protocol-wise, that would have been completely appropriate. No, McChrystal went rogue, pre-emptively leaking his request to the media, then delivering a public address telling Obama to immediately follow his orders. Incredibly, few politicians or pundits raised objections to McChrystal's behavior. Worse, rather than firing McChrystal, Obama meekly agreed to his demands, letting Americans know that when it comes to foreign policy, the rogue general -- not the popularly elected president - is in control in the White House.

McChrystal, of course, was later fired for personal -- but importantly, not policy -- insubordination. He was then replaced by Gen. David Petraeus, who is, according to today's Washington Post, arguably more insubordinate than McChrystal -- and yet still, somehow retains the patina of respectability:

President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward...

During a flight in May, after a glass of wine, Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was "[expletive] with the wrong guy."

The big story out of Woodward's piece is exactly what I and a few others have been saying for many months: Military officials have quite literally usurped the policymaking powers of the President of the United States, to the point where the president is asking for things and they are not being given to him. And while this is going on, those generals are getting more and more blatant about their usurpations -- whether McChrystal's epithets or Petraeus's taunts and statements that contradict the president's declarations. Indeed, while President Obama is out saying that he "ended the war in Iraq," Petraeus is quoted telling colleagues, "We're in (Iraq) for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."

As I noted in the second column, this represents a major shift in America from just a few decades ago. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was fired for this kind of behavior and Gen. Al Haig became infamous for his similarly anti-constitutional "I'm in control here" comments. Now, people like Petraeus are actually promoted despite such insubordination -- and the president is effectively taking orders from the military.

This leaves us with the same two simple questions my columns asked: Why, when the commander-in-chief has ordered military advisers to do things, has he not fired them for not following his orders? And why has almost the entire Washington political and media class simply not covered this very serious assault on one of the most basic tenets of our constitution?

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