Obama upholds a constitutional principle

Print Print
Thursday, June 24, 2010
— Celebrated military leaders have capped their careers in the White House, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower among them. But trumping America's tradition of rewarding victorious warriors with political office is the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military.

President Barack Obama maintained that principle Wednesday by forcing the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal for openly questioning his leadership and the competence of top administration figures.

Whatever McChrystal's skills as a commander, Obama decided the general's verbal blasts at him and other senior administration officials in a Rolling Stone magazine article could not be overlooked against the backdrop of U.S. history and tradition.

"Our democracy depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals," Obama said in announcing his decision from the Rose Garden. "That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command and respect for civilian control over that chain of command.

"And that's why, as commander in chief, I believe this decision is necessary to hold ourselves accountable to standards that are at the core of our democracy."

From at least the time of the Civil War, presidents have rebuked commanders who felt war was too important to be left to politicians. The most famous case of the culture clash between West Point and the West Wing was the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur by President Harry S. Truman in 1951, during the Korean War.

MacArthur, who had a strong following among American conservatives, had defied Truman by publicly proposing wider action against the Communist Chinese army than Truman considered wise or safe.

"If there is one basic element in our constitution it is civilian control of the military," Truman wrote later.

In effect, the World War I Army captain in the White House took down a popular American war hero and was willing to stand considerable heat for it. MacArthur came home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City and a call by a conservative icon, Sen. Robert Taft, R-Ohio, for Truman's impeachment.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln swallowed the preening and nasty behavior of the North's top general, George McClellan, which historian Doris Kearns Goodwin pointed out included references to Lincoln as "the original gorilla."

After turning his cheek, Lincoln finally fired McClellan probably as much for his military judgment as anything.

Historian Robert Dallek found precedent also in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's removal of Gen. Joseph Stilwell as American commander in East Asia during World War II.

Stilwell was punished not for defying Roosevelt but for disrespectful treatment of Chiang Kai-shek, including referring to China's Nationalist leader as "the peanut," Dallek wrote.

Americans may admire brave and colorful military commanders like MacArthur, but they also believe that, even in wartime, it's civilians who call the shots.


EDITOR'S NOTE Barry Schweid has covered diplomacy for The Associated Press since 1971.

Last updated: 2:00 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

Print Print