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The President & the Generals

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The New York Times reported last week that President Obama decided not to apologize to Pakistan about the U.S. airstrikes that killed Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in part because he did not want to be seen to be overruling his military commanders yet again. How ironic that the president should feel the need to accept the advice of his military leaders on diplomatic matters while regularly disregarding their opinions on military matters. This most recent incident illuminates the ongoing confusion in the White House and among the American political elite generally about how the president should take advice from his senior military commanders. The situation has become very dangerous for an administration that has overruled its commanders dramatically and frequently and is reportedly considering doing so again by announcing accelerations of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan beyond what military commanders have recommended.

Photo of President Obama with General David Petraeus, Robert Gates and Joe Biden

President Obama with General David Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Vice President Joe Biden in June 2010

Such confusion is not confined to the White House. In a recent Republican presidential debate, candidates sparred over the proper role of the president as commander in chief. Mitt Romney emphasized the importance of listening to commanders in the field. Jon Huntsman dismissed that idea with reference to the bad advice tendered by commanders in 1967 during the Vietnam war, declaring that the president is commander in chief and must therefore make his own decisions.

Understanding the proper relationship between the president and his generals is essential both for the president and for Americans concerned about national security. The president has the right to make decisions about the conduct of war as he sees fit, but he jeopardizes America and brings his own fitness for office into question by dismissing the professional advice of commanders he has personally selected.

The commanders of American troops in combat are the president’s. He is responsible for choosing them and, by doing so, reposes his confidence in their abilities, judgment, and integrity. If and when he loses confidence in a commander, he has not only the right but the obligation to replace that commander. The same is true of the other military and civilian leaders of the armed forces. The president is personally responsible for selecting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the other service chiefs if he so desires, the secretary of defense, and all of the combatant commanders. The services can and do propose various names for these positions. But the final selections are the president’s alone.

The Vietnam war not only poisoned American politics, but also enshrined a fundamental misunderstanding of civil-military relations. The American military is not an adversary to the White House, a rival to the president, or a challenger to any other governmental organization. More than any other government body, the military is explicitly an instrument wielded by the president. His personal involvement in the selection of military officers at various levels, which is so much greater than his involvement in the selection of subordinates at any other cabinet office, demonstrates the degree to which those officers are executors of the president’s orders.

Commanders are all imperfect, of course. Some may mistakenly put interests other than those of accomplishing the orders they’ve been given ahead of their duty. More often, commanders may offer advice or make decisions or judgments with which the president disagrees. And the president, in those cases, has the right to overrule his commanders.

But, if a president finds himself repeatedly overruling or rejecting the advice of commanders he himself has selected, his own judgment must start to come into question. Is he such a bad judge of character and capability that he cannot see the quality of officers he selects for command before he selects them? Is he so weak a leader that he allows choices for senior military positions to be made by default? Or is something else at work entirely? If the president, as commander in chief, rejects the advice of his field commanders and senior staff and chooses another course of action for military operations, on the basis of what planning and judgment does he do so?

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