Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Commanders on the Ground

For years, President Bush has told us that troop levels in Iraq "will be decided by our commanders on the ground," and not by political figures in Washington, D.C. Deferring to the commanders on the ground has been a familiar refrain and deflecting strategy from the administration (and in every administration since the Vietnam war).

The two senators aspiring to be Commander-in-chief have already adopted this rhetorical prerogative: command when the decision is unpopular with one's supporters("I am the decider"); but defer to "commanders on the ground" when, as is usually the case, one still has some supporters to take the heat/fall.

Today, Senators McCain and Obama sparred on foreign policy. "Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades," McCain said today in a town hall meeting in Albuquerque. In the latest phase of his evolving position in Iraq, Senator Obama now feels that his commitment to remove troops from Iraq within 16 months is dependent on "talking to the commanders on the ground."

Defer to the "commanders on the ground" is the new "support the troops." Nevermind exactly what the commanders want - after all, both Obama and McCain, with different (though converging) proposals for where the war in Iraq should go, are pledging to listen to the "commanders on the ground" - just purport to defer to them and it's all good. Nevermind that the "commanders on the ground" owe their jobs to the Commander-in-chief.

Deference to the "commanders on the ground" appears to be power delegated, but in fact it is only reponsibility shirked but power deployed. Such is the paradox of executive prerogative that is recalcitrant to reason and therefore to constraint: an awesome power that hides itself even as it is being exercised.

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