Civilian Control and the Unitary Executive
Who sets military policy under our constitutional system? The answer is one that is (largely) free from any ambiguities of constitutional interpretation: the President is Commander in Chief. Beginning with the President, our constitutional tradition has firmly entrenched the idea of military policy chosen by politically accountable civilian actors. Although controversial expansive domestic law enforcement powers have been asserted by the past Administration under the Commander in Chief power to conduct activities such as electronic surveillance of Americans outside of statutory authorization, there has never been any doubt about the President’s authority over military policy. In this, the executive is truly unitary. This unity is why General McChrystal’s comments, and those of his staff, are so abrasive. They suggest a lack of respect for this fundamental feature of our system and a division within the executive branch that should not exist. Add to that, the increased politicization of military officers, and we get a glimmer of shifting attitudes and priorities within our constitutional system that we would do well to confront.
Writing in the L.A. Times, Bruce Ackerman proposes creating a presidential commission on civil-military relations tasked with formulating a new canon of military ethics to clarify principles of constitutional governance in the modern world, and writes about these issues in his forthcoming book. Given the enormous amount of national resources the military consumes, and given the ability of policy to follow resources, the militarization of our politics risks distorting the order of priority in constitutional governance. Do military officers exist to serve civilian leaders and national policy, or do civilian leaders and national policy exist to serve military interests? The answer should be clear, but the more military officers become active in everyday politics—and I take McChrystal and his staff to be openly doing just that in its most bare-knuckled form—the more we risk inverting the proper answer. I would not be the first to observe that the rationality of war has a way of organizing the rationality of everyday political practice. Military interests all too easily can become the interests of all political policy. Civilian control of the military, however, at least guarantees that such rationality will be employed by politically accountable actors, making possible alternative ways of organizing our collective political life. General McChrystal’s actions, and those of his aides, challenged these settled constitutional governing principles. It is therefore good for the nation that McChrystal resigned today—but this is not enough. I think it is important to implement something like Ackerman’s proposal to avoid relying on faith that McChrystal’s case is sui generis and does not reflect growing attitudes and tendencies within the military that might further distort the rationality of our politics and the integrity of our constitutional system.
Update after the break.
Alice Ristroph comments that the whole affair reminds her (again!) of Dr. Strangelove. (If you have not seen her fantastic essay, Professors Strangelove, I highly recommend having a read). From the film:
Ripper: Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?
Mandrake: No, I don’t think I do, sir, no.
Ripper: He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, 50 years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
Alice also reminds us that a similar dialogue occurs in A Few Good Men, where Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep repeats many of the same themes as Ripper. “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it.”
Although General McCrystal’s comments do not rise to either of these rhetorical levels, I do think that the attitude behind his actions is not very far at all from the fictional representations.