THE BLOG

The Commander-In-Chief Test: Failed?

05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The American Revolution was inspired and led by civilians, not by Generals. Later, our Constitution was likewise conceived and written by civilians. We have no history of military control over our political institutions. The Founders entrusted the President with the power to command the entire military of the United States because they realized it was - and always would be - essential to a free representative republic that there be absolute civilian control of the violent potential of the state. This ideal separated the new United States from all past empires and all contemporary Great Powers of the Eighteenth Century. A President leading armies in the field was never the vision of the Constitution. But a republic free from the threat of tyranny required a heavy civilian hand hard upon the neck of the armed forces. The primary responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief is to lend weight to that hand, to firmly apply pressure, never giving the beast a chance to run wild.

Contrary to popular belief, and recent Executive custom, the Constitution conveys only three powers to the President of the United States that are entirely his and not subject to review or reversal. They are: Commander-in-Chief; oversight of members of the cabinet; and the issuance of pardons. These specific yet diverse authorities are all included in a single sentence, in Article II Section 2: "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; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."

Some might say that the Executive Order should be counted here as well. However, no such Executive authority is granted by the Constitution. Such a power will not be found anywhere within the document. Andrew Jackson invented it to continue his punishment of those Cherokee Indians who suffered the misfortune to remain alive while he was President. When the Supreme Court ruled Jackson's order out of order, his only response was to mock the Court's helpless inability to enforce its decision. Pity the poor Cherokee. Ever since, the Executive Order has been a source of continued Presidential shame. Lincoln fairly gutted the Constitution during The Civil War via the Executive Order. Woodrow Wilson and later FDR used them to defy recalcitrant Congresses during their war years, much the same as Lincoln had. The Executive Order might better be called what it is - rule by decree.

As to those three powers a President does legally have, no one has ever sought to challenge the power of the pardon although many have questioned the worthiness of its beneficiaries. Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson was impeached for his exercise of oversight of his cabinet. After the Senate failed to convict him, no President since Johnson has needed to worry about that again. Over time these two Presidential powers have come to be seen as absolute.

The Commander-in-Chief designation is quite another matter. While we have had many Presidents who served in the military; some in combat and some who were Generals; only two Presidents have led American forces into battle as Commander-in-Chief. George Washington donned his old uniform and personally commanded 12,000 federal troops in Western Pennsylvania, as they put down the Whiskey Rebellion in the late summer of 1794. Ironically, our first President then pardoned the rebellion's leader, a man known as Tom The Tinker.

Twenty years later, on August 24, 1814, James Madison briefly commanded about 5,000 US soldiers against the invading British army at the battle of Bladensburg. While Washington's stint in the field had been a success, Madison was humiliated in defeat. The British went on to burn down the Capital and the White House before finally losing the war for many of the same reasons they lost the American Revolution almost 40 years before.

No one has posed a challenge to an American President as Commander-in-Chief since 1814 unless you count the occasional insubordinate General officer. Despite this longtime acceptance of Executive authority many have questioned the Commander-in-Chief credentials of those who sought the Presidency. In fact, some candidates have been declared to be outright incompetent. In the election of 2008 much was made about the so-called "Commander-in-Chief test." The Constitution was of no help in that debate. There is nothing in that document - certainly nothing about a 3am phone call - that guides us in even recognizing the qualities needed for the job. We are left to make that judgment ourselves. Nevertheless, Barack Obama's principle opponents in that election, Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, both claimed a special knowledge that Obama had failed this nonexistent exam. The American people overwhelmingly disagreed.

While in principle no Commander-in-Chief test may exist for candidates, the President of the United States, once in office, is most certainly faced with one. Wars are matter of policy, but civilian control over the military is a matter of high principle. The foundation of America's freedom is civilian control and the President is the sole guardian of that sacred trust. No task he faces is of greater consequence.

It is with great disappointment that I have unexpectedly come to see the sad truth that President Barack Obama is failing the Commander-in-Chief test.

Recent events in Afghanistan now highlight how badly our current Commander-in-Chief has loosened the bridle. The stampede begins. Reports are widespread, from many sources around the world, that General Stanley McCrystal has lost control of the American Special Forces in Afghanistan. Our own men in uniform are not following the commander's Rules of Engagement. Substantial elements of American fighting forces, plus private soldiers who are hired assassins in the direct employ of the United States government, and are unknown and accountable to the public, are now apparently operating beyond the effective control of the Commander-in-Chief. The chain of command in Afghanistan is broken. That means the constitutional chain of command, which Harry Truman dramatically demonstrated ends in the White House not in the Pentagon, no longer exists. The Commander-in-Chief is not in command.

If absolute civilian control over the world's mightiest military machine has been lost, whether surrendered voluntarily or involuntarily, the Constitution will have been abridged in a manner even Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln could not have imagined. There is still time for repair. Barack Obama's term of office is four years. We are barely a quarter way through. But his current failure conjures up the worst fears of our Founding Fathers. Without a stout, firm, unflinching Commander-in-Chief who is without doubt in complete control of the US military complex, we stand in jeopardy - as Benjamin Franklin painfully predicted - of losing our republic and our freedom.