A Defense of Armchair Generals
Pictured: The chair George Washington used at the Philadelphia Convention to which Ben Franklin observed as the delegates were appending their signatures to the Constitution: "I have often looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I... know that it is a rising...sun."
Sarah Palin is not the only person going rogue these days. In a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last Thursday, General Stanley McChrystal advocated for an increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan by 40,000, while rumors that the General would resign his command if his request was not honored remain unquashed. A week before, McChrystal appeared on CBS's "60 minutes" to spread the word that help is needed in Afghanistan. And before that, he, or one of the supporters of his proposal, leaked a confidential report of his petition to the president to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, which published a redacted version of it. These are the political maneuverings of a General who understands that wars abroad must also be waged at home.
But, the General fails to understand that the political war at home is not his to fight, and his actions in recent weeks have been out of line. No new command has been issued yet about Afghanistan, but General McChrystal has taken it upon himself to let the British and American public know how he would prefer to be commanded. As it is a slippery and inperceptible slope from preemptive defiance to actual insubordination, as President Harry Truman quickly came to realize about General Douglas MacArthur, President Obama needs to assert and restore the chain of command swiftly and categorically.
As Commander of Special Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 to 2008, McCrystal was given free reign to bypass the chain of command. This leeway allowed McCrystal's team to capture, most illustriously, Saddam Hussein during the Iraq war. But it may have gotten into his head that the discretion Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney granted to him has carried over to his command in Afghanistan. No doubt, McCrystal has been emboldened by supporters of a troop increase in Afghanistan, who have recently chastized President Obama for not having had more meetings with McChrystal. Others, like Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) have on CNN accused the "people in the White House ... (as) armchair generals."
Those who assault the principle of civilian control of the military typically and disingenously do so obliquely under the cover of generals and the flag, for they dare not confront the fact that the constitution unapologetically anoints an armchair general to lead the military. It is worth noting, further, that in the same sentence in which the President is designated "Commander-in-Chief," the Constitution states, "he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments." The President may require the opinion of any cabinet secretary should he choose to do so, but he isn't even constitutionally obligated to seek the opinion of the Secretary of Defense, to whom General McChrystal's superior, General David Petraeus, reports via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General McChrystal has spoken out of turn even though his chain of command goes up quite a few more rings before it culminates in the person seated on an armchair in the Oval Office, and yet I doubt he would take kindly to a one-star general speechifying against his proposal for troop increases in Afghanistan.
Dwight Eisenhower, when he occupied the armchair in the Oval Office, wisely warned of the "Military Industrial Complex" because he understood that it was as much an organized interest as was the Liberal Welfare State, Wall Street, or what would become the Healthcare Industrial Complex. No "commander on the ground" will come to the President of the United States and not ask for more manpower and resources, and Eisenhower understood that the job of the armchair general was to keep that in mind.
Let us not rally around military generals and fail to rally around the Constitution. Inspiring as the Star Spangled Banner may appear flying over Fort McHenry, we will do better to stand firm on the principles etched on an older piece of parchment. As Truman wrote in his statement firing General Douglas MacArthur,
"Full and vigorous debate on matters of national policy is a vital element in the constitutional system of our free democracy. It is fundamental, however, that military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner provided by our laws and Constitution."