The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…
Thus begins Article II Section 2 of the United States Constitution. The most important principle gleaned from this language is that of civilian control over our nation’s military power. Remarkably this principle has received universal acceptance among the populace.
Respect for the military itself has wavered to some extent through the years, likely reaching a nadir during the Vietnam War. Though our government set the policy, there was no doubt the influence of military leaders was important in developing and implementing the policy of engagement in Southeast Asia that was folly unfolding before our very eyes.
Though advisors had first been sent to Vietnam by Eisenhower and JFK had expanded their roll, LBJ became the President of record for that war and his legacy is largely based on it. That, in spite of huge accomplishments in civil rights, the beginnings of Medicare, and other successful domestic initiatives that are as praiseworthy as his military adventures are damnable.
Is LBJ the only President to be judged on exercising his authority as Commander in Chief? Certainly not, or I would not have a topic for this blog entry.
FDR is fondly remembered for ushering the country through the Great Depression. But that challenge almost pales in comparison to what he faced in bringing the United States into World War II, culminating in the near victory achieved at the time of his death on April 12, 1945. Failure in that endeavor would have not only detracted from his legacy, but probably would have eradicated the memory of his restoration of the economy.
So today on a lesser scale we have a President with a recent successful military excursion now added to his resume. The editorialists, bloggers and media talking heads are now debating whether the tracking and killing of Osama Bin Laden will elevate the stature of President Barack Obama sufficiently not just for his legacy but, more importantly in the short term, assure his re-election in 2012.
Why is that. Why should his popularity, his survival in the Office, depend on much on this relatively minor exercise of his Commander in Chief powers, no matter how favorable the outcome?
An odd sidelight to this discussion is that, having only a few days prior to the raid on OBL’s hideout fended off a good deal of the birther issue, new polls apparently justify the conclusion that, miraculously, that issue is a now a mere speck on Obama rather than an albatross around his neck.
But the events of last Sunday also resurrected the tale of President Jimmy Carter’s failed rescue mission of the Iranian hostages in 1980, which certainly would have resulted in the deaths of many Iranians. That failure sealed Carter’s fate in his bid for re-election.
At one time we had a President, Woodrow Wilson, who enhanced his bona fides as CIC by “keeping us out of war” and won re-election in 1916. Post WW II, however, especially post Vietnam War, the image of the President suffers unless and until he has some meaure of success militarily, i.e. kills some bad guys.
That factor is even more evident as we elect Presidents with no combat military experience themselves. Ronald Reagan served in WW II but he made propoganda films and never came face to face with either German or Japanese combatants. He loved rattling sabers against the Soviet Union but had to invade tiny Granada lest his desire and capability to go to war be questioned.
George H.W. Bush served more than honorably in that war, but when he declined to drive all the way to Baghdad to oust Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War he was derided as a wimp.
Bill Clinton was excoriated as a “draft dodger” and unworthy to be CIC but deflected some of that criticism by sending troops to Kosovo and Somalia. Because neither of those moves resulted in, or ever COULD have resulted in clear military victories, his CIC legacy is not strong.
George W. Bush is the epitome of a President who took his CIC powers to heart. After starting two wars of dubious merit he then reveled in being a “war President”, though he chose to be so , often proclaiming how much these responsibilities weighed on him, but to this day offering no regrets for the cost of lives in those conflicts.
Most pointedly he did something his dad did not—hunt down and kill Saddam Hussein. Even if the actual execution was due to Iraqi justice, Bush got de facto credit for the death. For better or for worse his legacy will be judged on those wars and the demise of Hussein
So we arrive back at our current CIC who has shown little hesitation employing our forces, from maintaining a presence in Iraq to expanding one in Afghanistan, to firing assorted missles and dropping bombs in Libya Obama already dispelled any notions he was shy about using army, navy and air force to further his policies.
But, like many of his predecessors, Obama has found that his popularity, legacy and foreign policy support gain more traction from killing than from legitimate efforts to maintain peace or from the success of any domestic policy whatsoever.
The President of the United States is Commander in Chief of our armed forces and militias every day of his term(s) in office. But it seems that this power is underappreciated and even criticized and thought unworthy of him until he puts those forces in harms way to kill the bad guys of the moment.
My desire is for my Commander in Chief, no matter who, to demonstrate his, or her, strength as such by being able to maneuver the Ship of State through troubled waters without resort to the extreme use of that power.
I shouldn’t hold my breath, should I?