Commander-in-Chief Redux

February 24, 2008

Several days ago this very blog posted about Karl Rove’s use of “commander-in-chief.” The phrase will surely come up time and again across the year, as it did in the most recent Democratic debates in Texas.

IntLawGirls covered the incident very well. The post is well-researched, well-expressed, and worth the read. Candidates of all political stripes seem to have a variety of subjective and inconsistent understandings of this role, which, as I attempted to express earlier, is clear in writing and vague in practice. The terminology, in my mind, is most useful in establishing a legal line of authority and accountability. Its use in political debate is misguided.

When Senator Clinton was asked about Senator Obama’s qualifications as “commander-in-chief” she failed in several ways. First, she did not answer in a manner consistent with her vague criticim of his military acumen; second, she expressed a flawed understanding of the position; third, she did not take the opportunity to demonstrate any national defense expertise (which, relatively speaking, she probably possesses). Riding the “change” train and playing nice seem to be more important than the question at hand.

Nevertheless, emphasis on the executive’s military role is bad practice during a campaign: for the media, for politicians, for pundits. When necessary so as to discharge the duties of the office, it’s nothing short of constitutional (and only tangentially political).



February 20, 2008

Karl Rove, recently interviewed by his television employer, mentioned that the public will find Barrack Obama inappropriate as Commander-in-Chief, citing his national security experience. Regardless of what the public will decide, emphasis on that title draws attention to its use.

The president enforces our laws, nominates justices and secretaries, upholds the constitution, and administers the executive departments. His or her job description is not so easily summarized as “commander-in-chief,” which shouldn’t be used as a proxy for “chief executive” or “head of government.” The designation is intended to make the lines of military authority clear; however, in our history this authority has never been clearly defined. To insinuate that Obama is unfit to serve in such a capacity suggests that he wouldn’t be able to plan an invasion of Normandy. To my knowledge, only one former president was ever able to prove that particular ability. It implies some hands-on direction of military resources.

Yes, the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Queen Elizabeth is Commander-in-Chief of the British Defence Forces; without some useful precedent, these are nothing more than phrases.

At any rate, we’ve already seen that this responsibility is a variable one. In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld announced that the regional commanders-in-chief would be renamed “combatant commanders.” The president alone would hold the title, though he always outranked those regional officers. Yet there seems to be an executive privilege that allows the President to shift attention to the real commanders. There will always be someone in uniform nearby, whether it is William Fallon or David Patraeus. The definition of “commander-in-chief” is not clearly understood, and its use in politics is dubious.