Article II, Section I of the United States Constitution states "The president shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States". Civilian control of the military is one of the cornerstones of American democracy.
But with the growth of the national security state since the end of World War II, reality has become more complicated and civilian control of the military more tenuous. President Eisenhower warned:
We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence.. by the military-industrial complex... We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.
Elements of the military and the intelligence community, along with their Congressional and media allies, often test new presidents, and try to bend them to their will. It's increasingly evident that these elements are using Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal to try to potty train President Obama to follow their advice to escalate in Afghanistan or face the dangerous political fallout of firing his own General for insubordination. President Obama must resist falling into either trap or he could put his very presidency in danger. If he escalates, he risks becoming LBJ, bogged down in an increasingly unwinnable and unpopular quagmire. If he's baited into firing McChrystal's, he risks becoming Harry Truman who fired his popular Korean War Commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, only to see his poll numbers plummet and his chances of reelection destroyed.
Some cautionary tales from recent history: The Bay of Pigs invasion was planned by the CIA before JFK took office and the new president was put under tremendous pressure to give the order for the disastrous invasion, a decision he quickly came to regret. But he also listened to his military advisors on Vietnam, increasing American commitments from 500 advisors to 16,000 troops before his assassination, proclaiming he had not become president "to see a war lost". Lyndon Johnson approved virtually every request from his generals for more troops, eventually sending over 500,000, and destroying his presidency.
Regardless of the Constitution, presidents resist even bad advice from their Generals at great peril to their political standing, and the Generals know this and often use this knowledge, in conjunction with conservative politicians, to bend presidents to their will. The historical example of President Truman and his popular Korean War commander General Douglas MacArthur weighs heavily on the mind of all presidents.
MacArthur wanted to use the American Air Force to bomb China. Truman rejected MacArthur's recommendation, fearing that bombing China would bring the nuclear-armed Soviet Union into the War and risk Armageddon. MacArthur tried to go around the president by leaking his conflict with Truman to the press through Republican Speaker of the House Cong. Joseph Martin. After consulting with his Secretary of State, former Gen. George Marshall, who said MacArthur's disrespect and defiance of the president should have gotten him fired 6 months earlier, President Truman relieved MacArthur of his command for insubordination. In light of MacArthur's flouting of the Constitution, it was the right decision and may have averted nuclear war, but it was also one of the least popular presidential decisions in American history, and may have cost Truman reelection. Truman's poll number plummeted. Robert Taft, the Republican leader in the Senate, called for Truman's impeachment, while the conservative media like the Chicago Tribune editorialized:
President Truman must be impeached and convicted, His hasty and vindictive removal of Gen. MacArthur is the culmination of acts which have shown that he is unfit, morally and mentally, for his high office.
In a recent article, lamenting President Obama's decisions to ratify many of George Bush's national security strategies, Gary Wills notes that
A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire's secrets. He feels he must avoid embarrassing the hordes of agents, military personnel, and diplomatic instruments whose loyalty he must command. Keeping up morale in this vast, shady enterprise is something impressed on him by all manner of commitments.
According to Wills, nowhere is this pressure more relevant than in President Obama's decision last March:
to end the nation-building in Iraq, while substituting a long-term nation-building effort in Afghanistan, run by a government corrupted by drug trafficking and not susceptible to our remolding.
Now President Obama is reevaluating his Afghanistan strategy, while his commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is making MacArthur-like statements in public which border on insubordination, backed by vocal support from leading Republicans in Congress and the media. One has to wonder if elements of the military, backed by Republican neoconservatives, are trying to force President Obama to either ratify McChrystal's plans to escalate in Afghanistan, or fire McChrystal for insubordination, thus potentially facing Truman's fate and crippling his presidency.
Here's what McChrystal and his supporters have done so far:
• On Sunday, September, 20, President Obama blitzed the Sunday talk shows and made clear that he was conducting a high level reevaluation of his strategy in Afghanistan, telling CNN, for example, "I don't want to put the resource question [i.e. the number of troops] before the strategy question [e.g. counterrorism to disrupt Al Qaeda vs. nation building]. Because there is a natural inclination to say, if I get more, then I can do more. But...the first question is, are we doing the right thing?"
• Even before the president's statements, members of Gen. McChrystal's staff in Kabul and officers at the Pentagon were leaking anonymous threats to McClatchy Newspapers that McChrystal would resign if he didn't get the increased number of troops he was demanding from President Obama for. It's unlikely McChrystal's staff would be leaking to the press without his implicit or explicit permission, and perhaps the permission of McChrystal's boss, Gen. Petraeus (who is rumored to be considering a run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination), or even Petraeus' boss, Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. In fact Mullen was already telling people on Capitol Hill that the US would "probably" be sending more troops.
• Just hours after Obama's interviews aired, Bob Woodward in the Washington Post was publishing a leaked copy of Gen. McChrystal's secret report to Defense Secretary Gates in which McChrystal called for a significant increase in troops (at least 40,000 according to another "leak" a few days later) and warned that if he didn't get them, the 8-year long war "will likely result in failure". It's apparent that insiders with access to the secret report were trying to force Obama's hand to escalate, or look like he was ignoring his commanders on the ground.
• Immediately leading Republicans backed McChrystal, calling for him to testify before Congress to make his case for escalation, bypassing the Pentagon chain of command and the president's authority as Commander in Chief. Republican Senator Kit Bond, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, criticized the Obama administration for "not telling us what our forces need to succeed. The only way to do that is to let McChrystal testify, so that we know what we need to complete our mission." John McCain then announced he was introducing a bill in Congress for McChyrstal to testify. As retired senior military intelligence officer Col. Pat Lang noted, "this is actually an incitement to mutiny".
• The neocons immediately sprung into action. The day after McChrystal's report was leaked in The Washington Post, neocon consultants Fred and Kimberly Kagan delivered a "private" proposal for a 45,000 troop escalation this year, backed by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. The Kagan report, which "coincidentally" exactly recommended the same number of new troops McChyrstal was proposing, failed to mention that they were part of the team that drafted McChrystal's report. This was starting to look like a coordinated sneak attack on the administration's policy flexibility by neocons inside and outside of the military.
• Last week, McChrystal gave a public speech in London in which he rejected following any strategy but his own. When asked about Vice President Biden's suggestions that the focus be shifted from nation-building and propping up the Karzai regime to fighting Al Qaeda, McChrystal said it was a formula for "Chaos-istan". When asked if he would support such an alternative strategy to his own recommendations, he said "The short answer is: No." McChrystal clearly had no authority to be giving public speeches on policy. His answer probably crossed the line from implicit to explicit insubordination, all but inviting the president to fire him if the Commander in Chief didn't follow his recommendations. McChrystal must surely have been aware of the MacArthur/Truman history. As Bruce Ackerman wrote in a Washington Post column, McChrystal's London speech "is a plain violation of the principle of civilian control."
• In response, President Obama summoned McChrystal for a 25 minute meeting aboard Air Force I in Copenhagen. McChrystal showed up to meet the president in his field uniform, instead of his dress Greens. Col. Lang noted that his was a sign of disrespect, writing "the man does not seem to know his place". It's not clear what orders the Commander In Chief gave McChyristal.
This is starting to look like a case study of how the military-industrial complex potty trains new presidents to do their bidding. McChrystal, with support from others in the military command structure and from leading Republicans seem to be threatening Obama to either escalate the war or be forced to pull a MacArthur on McChrystal and fire him for insubordination, upon which the Republicans will turn McChrystal into a hero, accuse Obama of not listening to the generals on the ground and try to cripple his presidency. On the other hand, if Obama does follow McChrystal's advice and escalate in Afghanistan, he could be pulled into an unwinnable quagmire, as success remains unachievable, more Americans die, his poll numbers decline as an already skeptical public turns against the war, and Obama faces the fate of LBJ.
Fortunately, the military does not seem completely united behind McChrystal's escalation strategy. According to the New York Times, Colin Powell recently met with Obama and "expressed skepticism that more troops would guarantee success". Reportedly, Defense Secretary Gates, who is of course a holdover from the Bush administration, is undecided about McChrystal's troop requests. National Security Advisor, Gen. Jim Jones, the former Allied Supreme Commander in Europe, is also skeptical.
Gen. Jones went on the Sunday talk show circuit this weekend and adroitly tried to put McChrystal back in his place. Jones suggested that McChrystal's public campaign for his war strategy is complicating the White House review, saying "it is better for military advice to come through the chain of command". He also made it clear that McChrystal would no longer be permitted to present only one strategy option, stating, "I'm sure General McChrystal and General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen will be willing to present different options and different scenarios in this discussion that we're having. On CNN, Jones described McChrystal's recommendations as "his opinion" of what he thinks his role within that strategy is".
Moreover, unlike during the early days of the Korean War and the Vietnam War when a large majority of the public backed the war effort, recent polls show a majority of voters oppose escalation. So if Obama chooses a different strategy from McChrystal's, it won't as easy for Republicans to demonize Obama. Hopefully, he will also get some political cover from the likes of Gen. Jones, Gen. Powell and Secretary Gates.
Still, the McChrystal affair is a vivid reminder of the huge pressures powerful vested interests can place on a new president to protect the status quo and prevent meaningful change, whether in military matters, financial policy, climate change, or health care. The jury is still out on Afghanistan, but on domestic policy, I'm starting to worry that the banks, energy industry, insurance companies and big pharma may be winning the battle to define the limits "change".