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.

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