TCS Daily

Does the President Need to Be Commander-in-Chief?

By Lee Harris - February 7, 2007 12:00 AM

President Bush recently raised a storm of controversy over his statement that he was "the decision-maker" about the conduct of the war in Iraq—a statement that has been challenged by Republican Senator Arlen Specter who has respectfully submitted that the President is not "the sole decider" of such questions. But then even Mr. Bush's Vice President, Richard Cheney, has argued that Congress has the constitutional authority to cut off the funding necessary to continue the war, and, indeed, he has gone so far as to dare Congress to do just this. Yet the last thing that the United States needs at present is a power struggle over who is to make decisions about Iraq. We are divided enough already, and a Constitutional crisis that pitted the Commander in Chief against Congress would only serve to divide and embitter us further. Is there a way out of this threatened impasse?

At the risk of appearing a fanciful dreamer, I would like to sketch a method by which the troubling question of Iraq can be removed from our domestic political arena. It will not solve or fix Iraq itself; but it may well keep Iraq from tearing us apart more than it already has, and that in itself is certainly nothing to sneer at. My proposed solution involves making use of a device that John Adams resorted to when in 1798 he was faced with what appeared to be a pending war with France. But before I get to that story, let us go back even further, in order to understand what the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was thinking about when in Article Two, Section Two of the document it was drafting, it declared that "the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States...."

First of all, what exactly is this clause asserting? Does it mean that the President should actually command troops, decide on orders of battle, pick and choose his officers, or even personally lead an assault on enemy positions? For, in that case, what happens when a President knows absolutely nothing about military matters? Should this clause be read as implying that the office of the Presidency should only be available to men who have proven themselves as military leaders, and not civilians—and if so, then what happens to the cherished principle that civilians should control the military, and not the other way around?

When the Constitution was being written, no one had any doubt that the first President of the United States would be a military man. General George Washington had attended and watched over the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787, and all the participants to that majestic gathering knew perfectly well that the mantle of the Presidency was destined to fall on the shoulders of the distinguished individual who had long been their Commander in Chief. In July of 1775 Washington had received this title at the Second Continental Congress, and it had been John Adams who had nominated him for it.

The verdict of history is unanimous that Adams made a good choice. Though it is possible to fault Washington as a military tactician, no one could accuse him of using his position as Commander in Chief to establish a personal dictatorship, though many had begged him to assume this role during the darkest days of the American Revolution. All of which must be kept in mind when we go back and re-read Article Two, Section Two of the United States Constitution—for we must ask ourselves the question, Would the drafters of this document have boldly assigned the position of Commander in Chief to the President if they had not been convinced that the President was going to be Washington, a man who had already proven his fitness for this assignment through twelve years of revolutionary struggle against all odds?

Because of Washington, the framers of the Constitution were able to fuse the office of the President and that of the Commander in Chief with little, if any qualm. There was only one drawback to this perfect fit of man and office. What happened when Washington was no longer President?

This was the very problem that John Adams faced when he became the second President of the United States. In 1798, it looked as if our new Republic was drifting toward war with France. If war came, then the United States would need a Commander in Chief of its army and navy: someone would have to call the shots, quite literally, if our nation was to survive in a struggle against the brilliant Napoleon. Yet John Adams appears never to have thought to himself, "Well, clearly I should be Commander in Chief—after all, that's what the Constitution says I am." John Adams, a Harvard educated lawyer, harbored no illusions about his fitness to command an army.

So, instead of assuming this role himself, he nominated ex-President Washington to be "Lieutenant General and Commander-in-Chief of all the armies raised or to be raised in the United States." The nomination was confirmed by the Senate; a messenger was sent posthaste to Mount Vernon to offer the command to Washington; and Washington accepted it without any constitutional qualms. For the second time in history, Adams had nominated Washington to be Commander in Chief.

To us, it may seem bizarre that President John Adams could nominate another man to be Commander in Chief, and that the Senate could approve this nomination. We have all been taught the principle that "the buck stops here" when it comes to the office of the President. Our first response may well be something like, "Is it even constitutional for the President to delegate someone else as Commander in Chief?" Yet both Adams and Washington surely knew the original intent of the founders better than any of us could claim—they were the founders.

John Adams' experiment in delegating the office of Commander in Chief was short-lived. The menace of a war with France soon disappeared from the horizon and Washington returned to private life at Mount Vernon, where he died not long afterwards. Yet the experiment offers us a tantalizing, if perhaps quixotic, method by which we might avoid the impending power struggle of deciding who's in charge of decision-making in Iraq. All that is needed is for President Bush to imitate Adams' own example. Let him nominate a man to be Commander in Chief in his place. Let the Senate then vote on his nomination. If two-thirds of the Senators agree on him, then he becomes the sole decider of all issues relating to Iraq. If he wants more troops, he gets them. If he wants the troops pulled out, slowly or rapidly, then he gets his way on that, too. In fact, he would be permitted to have all the authority that Adams and the Senate of his time were willing to repose in Washington himself.

The advantages of this admittedly novel solution would be numerous. First of all, by the nature of his appointment, the new Commander in Chief would have a broad and bipartisan consensus behind him. Both the President and two-thirds of the Senate would be on record of having delegated to him full responsibility over decision-making in Iraq. Second, since the new chief would be recognized by a consensus as "the sole decider," this would avoid the Constitutional crisis that will inevitably come about if there is a tug of war between President Bush and an unfriendly Congress over the question of who is the decision-maker in Iraq—a tug of war that seems increasingly likely in the months ahead. Third, the new Iraqi Commander in Chief would be authorized to make policy beyond the term of the present administration. He would hold his position by appointment, and would be the Iraqi Commander in Chief during the next administration, no matter who became President. This would preserve continuity in our policy, and it would immediately remove Iraq as an election issue in 2008. The man in charge of Iraq would already have been chosen, and chosen by the consent of both parties. Fourth, by turning the decision-making duties about Iraq over to someone else, President Bush would effectively silence those who have accused him of making Iraq a personal obsession, and that our national policy is being dictated by nothing more than his ego. By following John Adams' example, Bush would remove his own personality as a major issue of the Iraq war. Fifth, because the delegated Commander in Chief would not be identified with either political party, as the President necessarily is, he would remove the question of Iraq from the realm of partisan politics.

A fantasy? Perhaps, but before you dismiss it, consider the supposedly realistic alternatives. A President who has lost the confidence of his people locked in a power struggle with a Congress bent on taking away his decision-making authority in the midst of a period of declining American authority throughout the world. We cannot hope to heal Iraq by tearing ourselves apart—yet, with an election year coming up, that seems to be precisely the course that we are heading toward.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.


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