Saturday, February 23, 2008

Commander in Chief, yes, but not of all of us

At Thursday's Democratic Presidential debate the candidates were asked about qualifications "to be commander in chief." Sen. Barack Obama's response hewed closely to military matters. In contrast, the response of Sen. Hillary Clinton ranged farther afield. She spoke of her role as wife of President Bill Clinton: of traveling to "80 countries," of "negotiat[ing] on matters such as opening borders for refugees during the war in Kosovo," and of "stand[ing] up for women's rights as human rights around the world." She spoke too of her role as U.S. Senator: of "serv[ing] on the Senate Armed Services Committee," of "work[ing] as one of the leaders in the Congress on behalf of Homeland Security."
Gotta problem with all that?
Well, the Constitution might. Here in full is the Commander in Chief Clause of Article II:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; ....

"Commander in Chief," therefore, is a term that relates to the military, to the use of the armed forces. "Commander in Chief" isn't a catchall for foreign policy, certainly not for diplomacy or what in international law is called the pacific settlement of disputes. The powers pertaining to those matters are more properly sited elsewhere in the Constitution -- in that part of Article 2 that lets the President "require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments," perhaps, or that which grants the President a portion of the powers to make treaties and name ambassadors. Then there're the grant of power to receive other states' ambassadors, and requirement that the President to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed ...."
As laudable as that act of as 1st Lady was, giving a speech on human rights is not an act to be subsumed within the Constitution's Commander in Chief Clause.
To ask for precision on this point is not to quibble. It is, rather, to underscore a distinction that makes a difference. Shoehorning all of the United States' foreign relations into the term "Commander in Chief" is a risky business. It increases the danger of jumping to military solutions for problems best resolved by other, less forcible measures. It tempts some politicians to obscure military inexperience with militaristic misadventure. It risks reinforcement of all-too-quick and oh-so-wrong assumptions that national security is something apart from, something at odds with, the security of human beings.
Criticizing the current President's misapprehension of the term was a superb op-ed that historian Garry Wills published a full year ago in The New York Times. He put the problem succinctly: "[T]he president is not our commander in chief. He certainly is not mine. I am not in the Army."
Wills proceeded to link misapprehension of that term to the Nixon-era firing of special prosecutors appointed to investigate Watergate and, more recently, to what he called the "fetishistic ... secrecy" that's enabled the current administration to obscure extraordinary renditions and other excesses of its post-September 11 campaign against terrorism. Wills wrote:

When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, 'commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.' That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just 'commander in chief,' or even 'commander in chief of the United States.' This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline.

That's wrongheaded thinking, Wills concluded:

The representative is accountable to citizens. Soldiers are accountable to their officer. The dynamics are different, and to blend them is to undermine the basic principles of our Constitution.

It's time for all who would be President to endeavor to honor these principles, in what they say and, should they win election, in what they do.

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