President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced plans for the withdrawal of 10,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year, followed by an additional 20,000 troops by the close of 2012. While weary of the 10-year war, I am also mindful that a hasty and politically motivated withdrawal may endanger our central objective: Keeping the Taliban out of power. The announcement unsurprisingly provoked a cacophony of opinions from both the political right and left, though layered beneath some of the criticism of the withdrawal is the mindless argument that many of the president’s own generals oppose the drawdown.
In a thinly veiled critique upon hearing the news, the Drudge Report prominently displayed in bold capitalized lettering, “OBAMA PREPARES TO IGNORE HIS GENERALS.” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly weighed in by adding that while unsure of the decision’s prudency, “General Petraeus [commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan] is the key. Whatever he says, Mr. Obama should do.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) even intimated that his support for the withdrawal plan might be conditioned on its approval by Petraeus, dropping no hints that he wished to judge for himself.
Deferring to a respected general’s viewpoint is, of course, fair. But doing so blindly, without substantive supporting arguments – particularly when a president advocates another course – can be dangerous. Worse, it is historically ignorant.
American history is replete with examples of policy disagreements between presidents and their highly regarded generals. President Abraham Lincoln and Union General George McClellen feuded over Civil War strategy during the Peninsula and Maryland campaigns of 1862, and even as opposing candidates in the presidential election of 1864 (McClellen was still on active duty, and irresponsibility advocated negotiations with the Confederacy).
President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur sparred with one another only months after the general’s successful and daring assault at Inchon during the Korean War. Voicing publically his disagreement with Truman in dealing with Communist China, the haughty general was summarily sacked by Truman in 1951.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy was advised by his Joint Chiefs to order a full-scale attack and invasion on the Communist island. He instead opted for a naval blockade to confront the Soviets before back-channel negotiations resolved the crisis. Even President George W. Bush was challenged by his generals in 2007 when he announced his plans for the Surge in Iraq.
The fact that history supports the presidential leadership in the aforementioned instances is beside the point. Generals are rightfully concerned with achieving military objectives. Their role, however, does not always require evaluating the full spectrum of geopolitical and social consequences of making war and peace. The Founders understood this.
This is why our Constitution proscribes that the president serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. This is no small point.
Since man began making war, militaries have usually been led by generals, juntas, or kings. Civilian-controlled militaries (democratic or not) tend to be short-lived in much of the world, with military coups commonly bleeding the pages of history. Yet our Founders correctly recognized that the potency of the presidency must include stewardship of the armed forces, and that military aims would best be achieved with strict civilian oversight, through the prism of political landscapes.
It would help if the President’s critics – certainly including me – understood this too. Blindly deferring to the generals must never be an acceptable answer.
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