FREDERICK W. KAGAN
December 6, 2011
The New York Times reported last week that President Obama decided not to apologize to Pakistan about the U.S. airstrikes that killed Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in part because he did not want to be seen to be overruling his military commanders yet again. How ironic that the president should feel the need to accept the advice of his military leaders on diplomatic matters while regularly disregarding their opinions on military matters. This most recent incident illuminates the ongoing confusion in the White House and among the American political elite generally about how the president should take advice from his senior military commanders. The situation has become very dangerous for an administration that has overruled its commanders dramatically and frequently and is reportedly considering doing so again by announcing accelerations of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan beyond what military commanders have recommended.
Such confusion is not confined to the White House. In a recent Republican presidential debate, candidates sparred over the proper role of the president as commander in chief. Mitt Romney emphasized the importance of listening to commanders in the field. Jon Huntsman dismissed that idea with reference to the bad advice tendered by commanders in 1967 during the Vietnam war, declaring that the president is commander in chief and must therefore make his own decisions.
Understanding the proper relationship between the president and his generals is essential both for the president and for Americans concerned about national security. The president has the right to make decisions about the conduct of war as he sees fit, but he jeopardizes America and brings his own fitness for office into question by dismissing the professional advice of commanders he has personally selected.