The Commanders Guy

The report to Congress by General Patraeus is a good occasion to reflect on the proper relationship between civilian elected officials and the military in wartime. President Bush famously declared earlier this year that he's a "commanders guy," by which he meant that military commanders in the field are better positioned to make military decisions than politicians in Washington. It's hard to know where to begin with this one, so I'll simply make three observations.

Observation No. 1: Bush is not in fact a commanders guy when it counts. The current surge was designed by the White House and resisted by many of the military commanders (not to mention the troops) and perhaps more importantly, at both the inception of the war and at later points, commanders whose professional judgment (about such matters as initial troop strength) differed from those of the civilian leadership were overruled and/or replaced by other commanders who agreed with the President's policy views. Since 2004 Petraeus has been publicly saying that victory may be just around the corner so let's not give up yet, but he is only the latest example of a commander selected for views similar to those of the President so that the President can then defer to those views. This does not mean that Petraeus is insincere in his views, but it does undermine the claim that Bush simply follows the advice of the professional military on matters military.

Observation No. 2: The political angle in the President portraying himself as a commanders guy is obvious. With the public distrustful of his own judgment, the President can do better by ascribing his views to military professionals. This works for members of Congress too, although it's harder for them because they don't stand in the chain of command. Accordingly, in opposing the President's policies, Congress tends to turn to retired officers. Last month, seven active-duty troops (six sergeants and a specialists) co-authored a NY Times Op-Ed that essentially argued for a redeployment along the lines proposed last year by the Iraq Study Group, even while pledging to carry out the official policy to the best of their ability. Writing the piece took great courage but also raises real questions about the propriety of active-duty soldiers questioning the wisdom of orders their orders. One cannot and should not count on this sort of statement occurring very often.

Observation No. 3: It's not clear that it makes sense for a President to be a commanders guy. Obviously, there is a limit to the extent that a commander in chief can or should try to micro-manage a war. Our last President with the sort of knowledge to make day to day military decisions was Eisenhower, and even he could not run every aspect of military operations, for the same sorts of reasons that CEOs can't run every aspect of the companies they manage. But acknowledging that limit, it remains the job of the President to make the big decisions, and in doing so there will sometimes be reasons to doubt the judgment of the commanders. Most famously, Lincoln was endlessly frustrated with the unwillingness of General McClellan to attack the Confederate Army. McClellan's concern for troop safety and morale made him a favorite of the troops but as Commander in Chief Lincoln was entitled to think that preserving the Union and bringing the war to an end sooner rather than later should be given higher priority than troop morale or even than avoiding casualties.