Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why McChrystal's Out, but Obama's Still Down

In September 2009, General Stanley McChrystal stood before an audience in London and advocated for an increase of troop levels in Afghanistan. He was out of line then, and he was out of line last week, when he mocked a number of key Obama administration officials on Rolling Stone magazine. But if the President insists on being the Commander in Chief, he should have known that his generals' insubordination is encouraged if not guaranteed, and there was little to be gained by so publicly dismissing McChrystal.

General McChrystal's firing brings into sharp relief the martial sub-culture in American politics -our deference to things and persons military. What is less often admitted, even by the President himself, is that this culture begins with three specific words in the Constitution - "Commander in Chief" - an anachronism in our age of republican self-government.

The first thing a soldier learns as a recruit in the military is that s/he does not think. An effective war machine enlists the complete obedience of nameless and dog-tagged soldiers, not the reflective judgment of citizens. The military is a good fit with monarchy like that (as it is said, war is the sport of kings). At every rung of the rank ladder, there is total obedience from subordinate to superior. All authority culminates in the King - the only person who does any thinking.

By this account, General McChrystal has been a bad soldier, for he dared to think, and worse still he dare to think aloud. The General did not understand that no good could be done for America's effort in Afghanistan if he or his aides publicized their differences with Vice President Joe Biden, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke. For all his talk about winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, it is almost as if the General wanted to ensure, by his indiscretion, that there would be no diplomatic solution to the problems in Afghanistan, so that we will forever be seeking a military one.

But I think the problem is rather deeper than one soldier's insubordination or indiscretion. It is about a militaristic political culture intertwined with our democratic outlook - for we do not have a King doing the thinking, but a Congress of the People - and there is an uneasy juxtaposition formalized in our constitution which President Obama failed, perhaps understandably, to effectively navigate last week.

Our constitution is quite conventional in accepting the norm that soldiers should not think. What is less noted is that this principle applies to the Commander in Chief as well. The Constitution states that it is Congress who declares war and who controls the purse strings. That is to say, even the President, designated the Commander in Chief, is in the end, only a executor to whom is delegated the job of implementing the legislative will.

Of course, this has not transpired in practice. And the framers of our Constitution are not guilt-less despite their better intentions, for the constitution does not unambiguously sanction the doctrine of civilian control of the military because the President of the United States was also dubbed the Commander in Chief. By this a civilian office was at least partially martialized. These three words, "Commander in Chief" have together been the constitutional clause which has kept giving to the officer of Article 2.

Much of the rise of the modern and imperial presidency has emanated from the fact that one cannot be an effective commander without also appropriating the prerogative to do more (or less) than what is legislatively willed, especially in moments of war when the legislature cannot be expected to convene to deliberate on every military decision. Out of war and the necessity for a Commander in Chief, Harvey Mansfield has argued, the monarch has reappeared in our new constitutional clothes.

Even though one fired the other, Obama and McChystal owe much of their influence from the same source. The President cannot wield or exaggerate his constitutional status as Commander in Chief without at the same time empowering his commanders on the ground. His power and theirs are tethered by the same appeal to prerogative and militarism and a macho disdain for legislative wimps and armchair generals. If Obama wants to speak out of turn, ahead of the first branch, Congress, then he cannot at the same time expect his generals - especially those on the ground who countenance war necessities every day, to obey him without exception. If we allow executive discretion to trump legislative deliberation, we have no choice but to defer to the real generals, who after all are the ones on the ground.

This is a serious dilemma, one constitutionally invited, and one borne out by reactions to the White House's inevitably sub-optimal public-relations management of McChrystal's removal. Ironically, the President had hoped to appear more "presidential" when he fired McChrystal, but there was a glass ceiling to his display of bravado because his fortunes are intricately linked to his generals.

The President has gained some ground politically because to his base, he now looks strong and decisive. To his fans, he appeared rather more like a Commander in chief and less like a law professor. But to his detractors, the firing of McChrystal only exposed "his confused Afghanistan policy and dysfunctional civilian team."

The US presidency is both a civilian office and a military post. The President often benefits from his dual station, but he must also bear the costs of role confusion. By firing McChrystal, Obama has reminded his friends who are cool about foreign wars that prerogative - the source of his own power - is a dangerous thing to be left to errant commanders. And the President has at the same time given new fodder to his foes that he grasps not the centrality of prerogative and the contempt for legislators and armchair generals necessary for the robust exercise of presidential power. To his friends he has reminded that executive discretion is over-rated, and to his foes he confirms that the executive will is weak and confused.

The White House did what it had to do. But there were no winners in this power play.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The President Doth Gesture Too Much

President Barack Obama gave his first speech from the Oval Office last Tuesday. It wasn't great, as most commentators have noted.

To begin with, the White House appears to believe that body language is presidential language. Our eyes were constantly drawn to the bottom quarter of the screen, where the president's hands seemed to have taken on a life of their own. If our democracy has degenerated from deeds to words, we're now becoming accustomed to gestures. Our great deliberative democracy, reduced to a series of hand flicks.

The words weren't that good either. Even though the President was, understandably, trying to signal strength and decisiveness with words and gestures, he had to lace his speech with tentative caveats in a bid to lower our expectations about what can be achieved and how soon - another presidential goal on Tuesday night. As a result, the speech was wishy-washy, tepid and pointless. It looked and sounded like a damage-control skit, and the president looked like he had George Clooney's PR job in "Up in the Air" - telling the American people harsh news and artificially sweetening the news with an a dose of saccharine.

Talking about enlisting scientists and experts doesn't help when they can't even agree on the size of the oil spill. And everyone can see that the purpose of telling the American people how serious the problem served, selfishly, only to tell us that the president feels our pain. It is gratuitous at best and condescending and worst. Empathy and euphemisms together do not eloquence make.

The administration was hoping for a game-changer in this speech. But not even the weight of his office was able to help this young, politically inexperienced president stave off the inflexion point he did not intend. From now on, it looks like there will be no more free passes from Rachel Maddow and the liberal media.

If Obama is our era's Greatest Communicator, then perhaps the only good that came out of this speech is that we may begin to realize that no rhetorical wizardry can solve our nation's crises. There is no messiah, and there is definitely no rhetorical messiah. Indeed, I would go one step further and hope that we all realize that eloquence is not the solution to our problems. Eloquence - our atavistic yearning for a grand orator, a Cicero who can inspire our nation into action - is the problem itself for it is a phantasm that too often has become a substitute for deeds.

The next time the president is in political trouble, and he has nothing to offer but damage-control dribble, then perhaps he shouldn't say anything at all. Let the pundits and bloggers chatter, but lie low and just get down to work for goodness sake. Sometimes, a measure of humility, in spite of popular expectations for presidents to speechify and to perform, can help a president ride out of a political quandary. Let the media narrative run. Political suicide? Perhaps, but why not give it a shot. It's not as if talking and gesturing worked.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Limits of Presidential Leadership

Presidents struggle to take charge when crises befall the nation. In the immediate aftermath of disaster, whether it be the terrorist attacks of September 11, Katrina, or a massive oil spill, Presidents Bush and Obama alike have been accused of being slow to take charge. Despite the conventional narrative that crises unite the country and cause us to rally round the flag, the truth is that the American presidency is not an institution to which we quickly rally around because we have unrealistic expectations of what presidents can and should do.

While it has become a presidential cliché to declare, Harry Truman believed, that the "buck stops here," it never does. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the oil spill disaster in the Gulf. The reason why the cliché doesn't work is that even if the president may have the will to take charge, he cannot be responsible for someone else's mistake, and even he is, he and the federal government lacks the technological resources to clean up BP's spill. Incidentally, the first branch, Congress, ought to have some responsibility too.

Like the press and the American people, the White House clearly has not worked out the ethical boundaries of culpability versus responsibility, which it why it has floundered in articulating, exercising, and then defending the proper role of government in handling the present crisis. All this is compounded by the fact that the American media demands and expects a semblance of control even as nature and a complex reality stacks up against one.

While everyone is asking for it, no one knows what leadership means in this situation. If asked, talking heads would each have a different answer. The fact remains that the White House does not have plenary control over corporations and regulatory agencies, nor should it. The President can entreat other oil companies to chip in, but he does not have the authority to command them to do so. The President can pressure BP to be transparent about its operations, but he cannot seize BP's assets or command a corporation to deploy its assets whichever way the White House directs.

And so the President has made repeated trips to the Gulf to show that whether or not he is in charge, he is at least in the loop and emotionally invested. Empathy, apparently, is a virtue in presidents if not in judges. We desire "activist" presidents, but events do not always permit them. If we insist on turning leadership into messiahship, we should hardly be surprised at the president's showmanship.

Given the contested and myriad models of leadership being purveyed on the Left and Right, it behoves the President, at the very least, to decide exactly and then defend what his leadership amounts to. If Obama believes that the buck really stops at the White House, then, as the Left desires, the regulatory power of the federal goverment must be considerably increased. If he does not want bigger government, then he needs to educate the American people and the Right that the buck really doesn't stop with government, but at civil society or somewhere else. Right now Obama hasn't made up his mind, but in this vaccillation he is trying to have his cake and eat it as he tries to appear in charge without taking charge. The first task of leadership is to decide what is leadership. And that our president has not yet done.