June 1, 2012  

The militarization of the presidency

The danger of conflating military and civilian values

“Poor Ike,” President Harry Truman is reported to have mused in 1952, as he contemplated the prospect of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower succeeding him in the White House. “It won’t be a bit like the Army.” Tapping his Oval Office desk, Truman exclaimed: “He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen.”

Fortunately for them, modern presidents face no such frustrating transition. Far from trading stars for a suit, they are now much more likely to be elected without having served in uniform at all. Our first nine presidents after World War II were veterans, with military service of varying duration and distinction. In contrast, two of the past three chief executives have had no military experience whatsoever. The one who did, President George W. Bush, faced questions about the nature and extent of his Air National Guard service, rendering it a source of controversy rather than a political boon. Nowadays, when presidents talk about the armed forces in a personal way, it is often through the experiential prism of their parents or grandparents.

To put the current trend in historical context, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden comprise the first such executive tandem to have no combined military service since 1944, when President Franklin Roosevelt, seeking a fourth term in office, chose the Army veteran Truman to replace Vice President Henry Wallace as his running mate. Indeed, absent unforeseen political developments, this fall’s election cycle is likely to witness the aberrant spectacle of all four major party candidates for president and vice president never having served in the armed forces. The last time that happened was 1932, FDR’s first presidential campaign.

Of course, military service is no prerequisite to becoming the nation’s chief executive. It is neither required nor mentioned in the Constitution, and the founders presumably would have included such a provision (along with the age and citizenship restrictions) had they thought it necessary or wise. Perhaps it is instructive that the last two losing major party candidates for president made their decades-old military exploits the centerpiece of their campaigns. In one form or another, Sens. John Kerry and John McCain went to the well of battlefield nostalgia. The public, or at least a majority of it, apparently wasn’t in the mood to drink.

By and large, modern voters’ evident immunity to such martial ardor can be seen as a sign of robust health for a democracy that prizes civilian control over the military.

Writers on civil-military relations already bemoan the development of a “professional military caste” in the all-volunteer era. There is undoubtedly some truth in this. In a country where only about 1 percent of the population serves in uniform and less than 10 percent are veterans, how many troops seem to have spouses, siblings or parents with a military background? Regardless of whether this is actually a problem that demands attention, it would certainly be exacerbated by a public expectation that our elected officials be veterans. The much-hyped civil-military disconnect would then translate into a similar gulf between the nation’s citizenry and its political leadership.

Although, it should be mentioned that there is without question an Ivy League alumni fraternity pervading the highest rungs of the executive, judicial, and to some extent, even the legislative branch, and no one seems terribly concerned about that. A degree from Harvard or Yale appears to be a much better predictor of one’s ascent to high political office than military service, although the two needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Whether such educational/economic elitism is any better or worse than military elitism in the structure of national governance is anyone’s guess. From an occupational perspective, it’s also notable that the president, vice president and secretaries of defense, state and homeland security are all lawyers — perhaps a reflection of (and further impetus for) our complex national security apparatus.


But a funny thing happened on our way to a civilian utopia of peace-loving leaders: The fewer military bona fides our politicians possess, the more militaristic their bearing and vocabulary have seemingly become. This is particularly true of the presidency, which increasingly appears enveloped in a military aura that bears little relation to our founding documents or principles.

True, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 69 that the president’s war powers “amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first general and admiral of the confederacy,” but his emphasis was on the “nothing more,” in order to differentiate the president from the British king, whose authority extended to both making and declaring war. There was no implication that the president was anything other than a civilian, albeit one with the profound and sacred duty of exercising ultimate command authority over the nation’s military forces.

Of note, the Constitution only uses the term “commander in chief” once, but presidents constantly refer to themselves as such. A foreign observer of our political system, with no prior knowledge of American constitutional traditions, could be forgiven for mistaking the modern presidency for an exalted military rank. The Defense Department quadrennial election-year public affairs guidance — which states that candidates cannot “engage in any political campaign or election activity” on military installations, then explicitly exempts the president, vice president and House speaker from such prohibition — no doubt adds to this impression. It also probably increases the incumbents’ re-election prospects.

Whether it’s landing on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit or tipping off a televised basketball game in the same venue, presidents want to be seen with the military — and to be seen as one of the military. Presidential flight jackets with embroidered names ensure that the military motif persists during periods of transportation and relaxation. Do our chief executives really have trouble getting recognized without a name tag? Evidently, we’ve come a long way since 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln wore a formal suit and top hat while dressing down Gen. George McClellan at Antietam for his failure to aggressively pursue the enemy. Meeting with top Union officers, Lincoln quite literally stood out and above — nearly a foot taller and in civilian garb. This significant moment (and famed picture) would have somehow been less poignant had the president been flaunting a quasi-military coat embroidered with, “Abe Lincoln, Commander-in-Chief.” As it was, the president’s authority spoke for itself.

In some respects, the current environment may simply reflect the old adage that those who have seen war are the ones who hate it the most. A decade before becoming defense secretary, Robert Gates wrote, “The biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms.” In “From the Shadows,” he noted the ambivalence of the Pentagon brass about invading Grenada in 1983: “Our military leaders have seen too many half-baked ideas for the use of military force advanced in the Situation Room by hairy-chested civilians who have never seen combat or fired a gun in anger.”

Indeed, arguably our most dovish president since World War II was the five-star supreme commander Eisenhower, who ended one war (Korea), avoided another (Vietnam), opposed military action in the Suez, and then warned us about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” on his way out of office. The eminent political scientist Jean Edward Smith’s new biography, “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” is an instructive reminder that President Eisenhower’s war aversion — whatever its merits or defects — was at the very least a matter of principle rather than passivity.

In keeping with this theme, it is noteworthy that the uniform Eisenhower chose to be buried in omitted most of his medals. One of the most decorated soldiers in American history, he apparently declined to thump his own chest even at the close of his life.

Yet perhaps it should come as no surprise that presidents are enamored by the armed forces. The military’s performance, especially when it comes to special operations forces, has the power to make presidents look very good or very bad — even though the outcome of specific missions, let alone larger campaigns, are generally much more attributable to training, intelligence, the vagaries of warfare, and just plain luck than any guidance emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The death knell of President Jimmy Carter’s re-election prospects may very well have been a haboob over eastern Iran, whereas Lincoln’s political future (and maybe the nation’s) in 1864 had more to do with the fall of Atlanta than a stirring stump speech.

Over the past three-plus decades in particular, the military has been a reliable and spectacular asset for incumbents seeking to project power and control. Whether killing terrorists, rescuing hostages, toppling dictators or stopping genocide, it has, by any measure, been an incredible run — accruing largely to the benefit of the world, the nation, the military itself, and yes, to that exclusive club of (so far) guys sporting the good hair and wearing the embroidered flight jackets.


Political commentators have long noted that over the course of their time in office, presidents tend to gravitate toward bold foreign policy initiatives, largely out of frustration with the difficulties of forging contentious domestic legislation. Time magazine’s famous 1990 “Men of the Year” cover showed two headshots of President George H.W. Bush, ostensibly to highlight his “vision on the global stage” and lack thereof at home.

Of course, this dichotomy between the president’s relatively free hand abroad and more circumscribed domestic role has less to do with legal constraints than pragmatic ones. Congress possesses both positive (declaring war, equipping and sustaining the military) and negative (vetoing treaties by minority Senate vote) powers in the domain of foreign affairs. As a practical matter, however, if the president fails to consult Congress before or during a military adventure, the legislature is armed only with politically unpalatable tools for reprisal: cut off funding and/or impeach the executive.

Even the much-ballyhooed War Powers Resolution didn’t give Congress an easy way out of a showdown with a defiant president while troops are in harm’s way. Some might view legislative inaction in this context as an abrogation of Congress’ responsibilities, but only a few brave or reckless souls on either extreme of the political spectrum would dare mount such a frontal assault on executive authority, particularly in the midst of an armed conflict. In any case, the president’s dominion over foreign and military policy is due less to any constitutional defect than to plain old political reality.

Given this stunningly successful track record of consolidating executive power on the international stage, the next step is all too logical: Invariably, intractable domestic issues are analogized to those seemingly insurmountable military obstacles that have been overcome through grit, determination and unity of effort. From the “war on poverty” to the “war on drugs,” martial language comprises part of the president’s vocabulary in setting the domestic agenda.

Upon signing an executive order on federal drug abuse policy, President Ronald Reagan remarked, “We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we’re running up a battle flag.” In defense of Reagan’s metaphor, the amorphous drug war did, and still does, include both covert and overt military activities as part of its portfolio.

But the most illuminating example of a president marshaling the civilian populace with stirring gladiatorial rhetoric may still be FDR’s first inaugural address, declaring war on the Great Depression. Most famous for its poetic exhortation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the speech is peppered throughout with pledges to tackle unemployment “as we would treat the emergency of a war”; to “assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems”; and to “move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline … with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.”

Where was such martial unity in 1933 supposed to lead us? Not to the beaches of Normandy, but in Roosevelt’s language, to a “temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure,” if necessary to meet the exigencies of the economic threat.

That “temporary departure,” in turn, would consist of “broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” In other words, a presidential avowal to usurp legislative authority if Congress were to act too slowly or protest too loudly against the White House’s New Deal initiatives.

Historians can argue about the necessity of such executive bellicosity in the midst of an economic crisis so grave that it threatened to shake the very foundations of the American republic, but FDR’s example no doubt provided a template for future administrations seeking a freer hand in domestic matters. Roosevelt was, in this sense, the forefather of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s “Rule One: Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”

In fact, it is nearly impossible not to hear echoes of FDR in Obama’s most recent State of the Union address this past January. The president opened and closed his remarks with an arresting tribute to the troops, heralding the institutional values of American military personnel: “They’re not consumed with personal ambition. They don’t obsess over their differences. They focus on the mission at hand. They work together.”

Then, like Roosevelt, the president translated those values to the political arena, where they are often in short supply. “Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example,” Obama stated. “Those of us who’ve been sent here to serve can learn a thing or two from our troops. … When you’re marching into battle, you look out for the person next to you, or the mission fails. When you’re in the thick of the fight, you rise or fall as one unit, serving one nation, leaving no one behind.”

As for those querulous legislators, the consequence of their failure to act in such prescribed unison would be the same as FDR envisioned nearly 80 years ago: executive action, “with or without this Congress.”

The president expounded on this topic a few days later on NBC’s “Today,” when he noted that “our founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes.”

This is exactly correct, and is presumably part of “the nature of being president” that Truman predicted Eisenhower would loathe. It is also in keeping with James Madison’s prescription in Federalist No. 51 that the government’s “several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.”

In Madison’s timeless eloquence, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Which is precisely why military obedience and teamwork are the wrong model for domestic policymaking. Military leaders advise their civilian overseers — and should do so fearlessly and forthrightly — but once the decision is made at the political level, the job of the armed forces is to implement it effectively, efficiently and ethically. As the oft-embedded journalist Robert Kaplan writes, politicians do sweeping ideology; the military does dirt-under-the-fingernails logistics.

Other federal institutions, especially nonexecutive ones that have their own institutional prerogative and legacy to protect, simply cannot march in lockstep with the president’s agenda — whether it be a Republican administration’s proposed Social Security reform or a Democratic administration’s health care reform. Of course, this is not to condone obstructionism for its own sake but merely to reject military discipline as the antidote to political gridlock. Given the structure of our federalist system, such acquiescence by the public and their locally elected leaders to executive mandate might pose a greater existential threat to American democracy than does the partisan morass over which the media so often frets. Quadrennial elections resolve some things, not all things.

True to Truman’s prediction, President Eisenhower may indeed have been frustrated by the lack of deference and compliance he had previously come to expect as General Eisenhower. Yet it is forever telling that he elected in his farewell address to argue not for the militarization of democracy but for democratic oversight over all things military.

“As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war,” Ike counseled that “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” could prevent the vast machinery of national defense from endangering “our liberties or democratic processes.”

In the final analysis, eternal vigilance against authority — anathema to good military order and discipline — is precisely the quality of an informed and engaged citizen. This makes our national politics a good deal messier than military life but also well worth the military’s sacred obligation to defend and protect it.

MAJ. CHARLES G. KELS is an attorney for the Department of Homeland Security and an individual mobilization augmentee with the Office of The Judge Advocate General, U.S. Air Force. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the departments of Homeland Security, Air Force or Defense.