With the notable exception of General Dwight Eisenhower, few presidents or presidential candidates have devoted much preparation for the role of commander in chief of U.S. military forces. John Kennedy was a combat veteran exception, but a rare one.
Certainly, presidents receive the advice of senior military commanders and civilian national security advisers, whose credentials vary widely. But that advice must be filtered through a president's personal judgment, and that judgment must be a trained and educated one. Why we do not expect that training and education of them, and why they don't expect it of themselves, is a matter of mystery.
National security requires a well-trained and well-equipped military. But increasingly it requires sophisticated understanding of intelligence in a highly-technological age. Presidents who have not prepared themselves in both military force structures, strategies, tactics, and doctrine and in an understanding of intelligence collection and analysis are not going to ask the right questions or make the right judgments.
It is one thing for senior members of Congress to say, about complex defense questions, "I trust the experts." It is quite another thing for presidents to do so. It is impossible to be a competent commander in chief, as required by the Constitution, without preparing for that role.
Preparation is enhanced by military service, either in active or reserve duty, but should certainly include service on a Congressional armed services and intelligence committee, absorbing classical and contemporary books and articles on strategy and foreign policy, time spent with experts who have earned the right to be called such, schooling from the most thoughtful and experienced retired military officers, and visiting military facilities, including those abroad.
Like at least a basic comprehension of economics, this kind of self-preparation should be expected. But this almost never happens. Why it does not remains a mystery, especially in today's increasingly layered and complex world.
This is all brought to mind by the current furor over massive communications intercepts by the far-flung intelligence "community." Unless a president exercises very tough oversight of such operations, and we have no way of knowing whether the current president has done so, operations will run amok. (I write this as a veteran of the Senate Armed Services committee and the Senate Intelligence Oversight committee, but also the Select Committee to investigate intelligence operations.)
Presidential candidates should be expected to address national security questions competently and knowledgeably and to demonstrate a background in security matters, both military and intelligence, that substantially exceeds that of the concerned citizen. This takes time, energy, and most of all interest.
Too many candidates in both parties fail to meet this test. And by failing to do so, they are inviting serious trouble for themselves and for all of us in the form of misplaced military invasions (Iraq) and abuse of rights of privacy (Verizon, etc.).
If national candidates will not raise the bar for qualification as commander in chief, then we should do it for them. The stakes are too high not to.