The Absent Commander-in-Chief: Who's in Charge Here?

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The Huffington Post

The Absent Commander-in-Chief: Who's in Charge Here?

During World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt was commander-in-chief, I observed the president quite closely. I once joined him and Admiral William Leahy (first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) for lunch at his desk in the Oval Office. Just before I left for boarding school, I had lunch on the lawn beside the West Wing with my grandfather's running mate in the 1944 presidential election, the senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman--just the three of us. Over chicken sandwiches my grandfather reviewed the war's progress and his problems with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in planning for the post-war era. But the conversations at cocktail hour and supper gave me a real sense of how Roosevelt personally exercised his responsibilities as commander-in-chief of our armed forces.

As the British historian Andrew Roberts writes in his recent book, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945:

Roosevelt was the ultimate arbiter between the competing strategies of Marshall, Churchill, and Brooke. ...[T]he man who most influenced the course of the war was the one who openly acknowledged that he knew the least about grand strategy: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It wasn't until much later, when I read in more detail about FDR's role as commander-in-chief, that I came to understand just how purposefully he engaged in running the war. Even though he only intervened with his service chiefs when political implications were involved (or they were at loggerheads), he kept himself extremely well informed. For example, in 1943, dissatisfied with the summaries of the intelligence reports he received, he demanded to see the same data that the Army and the Navy saw. In the evenings, after supper, I saw him retreat to his study to review this daily pile of documents. (He commented to my grandmother that "they"--Navy Intelligence and Army Signal Corps personnel--just didn't see the geopolitical implications of the information they were receiving.)

A wartime president has many responsibilities, one of the most important of which is to know why America is at war while clearly conveying those reasons to our citizens. That is patently not the case today. Recent polls show that sizable majorities (more than 60 percent) are now opposed to the war in Afghanistan; believe that the war was not worth fighting; that the war is going badly; and that our troops should be withdrawn as soon as possible.

Presently, when I review America's extensive commitments around the world, I know that many Americans are not even aware of some of the military obligations we have assumed and how costly they are. Some obligations are left over from the Cold War. Others have a connection, often tenuous, with "terrorism." We might wonder why the United States should be so stretched around the world with a military presence in more than 160 countries and an estimated more than 720 bases to maintain. Whose interest is really being served, especially at a time when many of our citizens are suffering grievously from the Great Recession?

When President Obama took office, many people hoped there would be a bipartisan review of our commitment to the endless and intractable war in Afghanistan. However, we now have more troops in Afghanistan than at any time over the past 10 years and are suffering a higher number of casualties as a result. More than 1,400 American military have already been killed there and 3,500 seriously wounded, not to mention the tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

And there is more than $100 billion dollars now being spent every year on the military presence in Afghanistan alone.

During his 2008 campaign for the presidency, I was impressed with Barack Obama's values. I assumed that the new Administration, when reviewing whether it was truly in America's interest to be an imperial power, would develop a new geopolitical strategy that reflected the president's thinking.

Obama summarized his thinking well in his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, critically observing:

...our tendency to view nations and conflicts through the prism of the Cold War; our tireless promotion of American-style capitalism and multinational corporations; the tolerance and occasional encouragement of tyranny, corruption, and environmental degradation when it served our interests; our optimism once the Cold War ended that Big Macs and the Internet would lead to the end of historical conflicts; the growing economic power of Asia and the growing resentment of the United States as the world's sole superpower....


He went on to expand on these points--including condemning the Bush Administration for continuing to lead us down the path described above--so that I, for one, had no doubt the president would assume office with a geopolitical strategy firmly in place that would underlay, as FDR's did, his function as commander-in-chief.


There is no doubt that the clear rationale for WWII made things easier for Roosevelt. Every American grasped our predicament after we were attacked--with a huge loss of American lives--at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Both Japan and Germany, then Italy, declared war on us. Our enemy was plain for all Americans to see.

The "war on terror," launched by President Bush after 9/11, was a different kettle of fish. Terrorism is a very different kind of enemy--murky, hard to pin down. Fighting terrorism is more about combating states of mind than nation states; more about monitoring individuals and small groups than fighting armies. Declaring it a war in order to justify our military actions was a sure way of misleading Americans. As we have now known for several years, we were not told the facts; no one seemed to understand the asymmetric nature and mindset of the enemy we were fighting; the government put nothing in realistic perspective.

Terrorism is a global phenomenon that has afflicted many countries. Other countries fight terrorism but do not consider themselves at war. For example, the British state never declared war on the IRA, nor Spain on ETA.

For President Obama to be open with the nation on these subjects he would have to address public opinion. It would take courage to strongly refute the crude distortion of "patriotism" established by right wing fundamentalists. Courageous acts, however, make a good presidency. The things many of us admire about FDR--not only as commander-in-chief--are often the result of his taking substantial political risks.

By whatever mechanism, bipartisan or not, it was the responsibility of the new president as commander-in-chief to state clearly why America was/is at war, to review with us realistic objectives, and convince us of his leadership to set America on a new course.

But that is not what happened.

To be fair, when Barack Obama was inaugurated on January 20, 2009, America was already fighting two wars. But the question of what direction he should have been running in seems to have plagued him from the outset. Grasping his responsibilities as C-in-C seemed foreign to him.

So he turned to the military establishment for guidance. While always having an aura of self-confidence, the president nevertheless seemed to be in awe of beribboned military brass and seasoned Defense Department hands such as former Secretary Robert Gates. The sacking of General Stanley McChrystal apart, he seems unfazed when the military says one thing to him and another to the media. (His political staff must have reminded him that to be seen as not fully supporting them could place him in danger of being called unpatriotic! Oh my God!)

The history books record that President Roosevelt relied heavily on his military leaders, particularly on General George Marshall. But, in the end, FDR knew that the war was his responsibility. The role of wartime commander-in-chief seemed to fit him: historian Eric Larrabee writes that "the President generated around himself an atmosphere of calm; his office was well organized and ran smoothly."

According to Larrabee, in Commander-in-Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants & Their War, "From this restraint and absence of bravado on the President's part comes much of the misapprehension that he refrained from involving himself in the war's direction. He marched to his own internal rhythms."

Nobody "marches to his own rhythm" unless there is a steady drumbeat from inside. In previous posts, I have mentioned Roosevelt's values--his internal guides. Larrabee lauds Roosevelt's flexibility but notes that, despite this virtue, "Roosevelt was almost rigidly consistent in his overall geopolitical strategies for waging the war."

In our present wars, I believe that President Obama has not been well served by the Department of Defense, nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But should we expect the military mind to substantially place cultural and social factors underlaying the motives of terrorists in their analyses? Probably not, especially when leading figures in Congress ignore these critical elements when defining the enemy themselves. So how skewed is the advice given to the President?

It is up to the president, our chief executive, to sort out the sometimes contradictory advice he may receive. This is where President Obama seems to have lost his way. "The buck stops here," read the plaque on President Harry Truman's desk.

It was FDR's common sense, coupled with experience, that defined his competence as commander-in-chief. One can see plainly that politics was "his game." The "art of the possible" is as applicable to our foreign engagements as it is to our domestic politics. Political instincts honed from a career in politics should give the president, Roosevelt or Obama, the right clues.

The commander-in-chief must certainly rely on his military advisers, but the political aspects of a war are his to set straight--and get right. Without this leadership, how can the American people know why our fighting men and women fight?

Shouldn't President Obama have pressed for more achievable objectives for our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan? For example, how realistic was it for President Bush to expect that a democratic system of government could be so quickly implanted in Iraq, as you would graft a new branch onto a tree and expect it to bear fruit the next year? How realistic is it to expect President Karzai of Afghanistan to implement American objectives for a country whose culture and social norms are very different to ours?

President Obama seems to have forgotten that President Eisenhower warned us about "the military/industrial complex" as long ago as 1960. Does the president not recognize the danger of appointing an Army general to head the CIA and appointing the former director of the CIA to become Secretary of Defense? Is Obama not tying himself ever more closely to the military-industrial complex? Is this naivete? Is it lack of experience? Neither is an appropriate excuse for a president who should be acting as commander-in-chief.

In essence, the president does not seem to be in charge. And that is a serious charge.

Curtis Roosevelt

Curtis Roosevelt, born in New York City in 1930, spent much of his childhood in the White House when his grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, lived there. He received an M.A. from Columbia University’s School of Government and Public Law and held various civil service positions in the United Nations from 1964 to 1983. He is currently retired, living in the South of France, and was recently appointed as a visiting professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Affairs. In the last 15 years Roosevelt has participated in a dozen or more documentary film for the BBC, US Public Television, and the History Channel, and in 2008, he published a memoir, Too Close to the Sun: Growing Up in the Shadow of My Grandparents Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

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