The New York Times: The President and the Generals

December 12th, 2011

The New York Times
December 12, 2011
By Richard Clarke

HARDLY a debate goes by without one of the Republican candidates criticizing the Obama administration for not siding with the “commanders on the ground.” It’s become a shorthand way to attack the president’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq and planned reduction in forces in Afghanistan. “I stand with the commanders,” Mitt Romney said last month.

Such an attitude is reminiscent of George W. Bush, who repeatedly said things like “our commanders on the ground will determine the size of the troop levels” in Iraq. Letting generals in the field dictate strategic decisions didn’t turn out well for Mr. Obama’s predecessor, and the president is wise not to do the same.

There’s no doubt that the United States has the most professional military officer corps in the world, and certainly the one with the most combat experience. Part of their training and professionalism is, however, a deep-seated understanding of the American tradition of “civilian control of the military.” They know that Article II of the Constitution says that the elected civilian president is the commander in chief of the armed forces.

But civilian control isn’t just a matter of law; it’s also a matter of effectiveness. Being on the ground may provide for an understanding of local circumstances, but it does not necessarily offer insight into what is best in the long run for our nation. We want our president to think about that larger context, and to make decisions that take as much as possible into account.

History provides ample evidence of bad judgment on the part of American military commanders, and some of our best presidents have had the courage to overrule them. Abraham Lincoln regularly dismissed military commanders in the middle of the Civil War, in which the battle lines were often less than 100 miles from the capital. Harry S. Truman dismissed Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his commander on the ground during the Korean War, even though MacArthur had achieved victory in the Pacific in World War II. (MacArthur was insisting on bombing China and on using nuclear weapons along the China-Korea border.) Had John F. Kennedy followed the advice of his commanders during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union would almost certainly have engaged in a nuclear war in which millions of Americans would have died.

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