One of the most fundamental principles of the American constitutional system is the institution of civilian dominance and control of the military. The Founders, concerned with so many possibilities of the usurpation of liberty by an aggrandizing central government, had strong views on the subject. Thomas Jefferson, whose duties in Europe kept him from being a direct participant at the Constitutional Convention, abhorred even the idea of a standing military. But he found, alas!, its necessity when in his own presidency an issue he personally had struggled with diplomatically for a decade, piracy along the Barbary Coast, necessitated he order military action by the young Republic.
As with most fundamental constitutional issues, implementation of a lofty however beneficent concept has not always been easy. The power to go to war resides with The Congress. But fighting any conflict, now excruciatingly if less than perfectly laid out in repeated legislation, is left to the President as head of the executive and therefore commander in chief of the armed forces.
In more recent times, crises have developed over differences between what the professional military see as threats to the Republic and the Oval Office’s estimate, granted, a wider view of U.S. interests. The line between bringing their point of view not only to the President, but to the people/electorate, has also been a difficult one to tread since the essence of military evaluations and strategy is secrecy.
When the famous war hero Gen. Douglas Macarthur argued during the stalemated Korean War that only confrontation with Communist China would win the day, Pres. Harry Truman demurred – not the least because he feared a nuclear confrontation. Macarthur was forced to step down, honored in the breach by the public through a dramatic farewell to the Congress, but losing his argument as he began “to fade away” in his own famous phrase despite his own and his well-wishers’ presidential ambitions. Geopoliticians and historians will argue forever whether Truman’s policy which prevailed did not, in fact, create a permanent threat to world peace as Macarthur had argued but on the other hand avoided a catastrophic war with Communist China.
Another less flamboyant but equally important crisis arose when Pres. Jimmy Carter moved to withdraw American forces on that same Peninsular in order to defuse the continuing provocations from Communist North Korea. The consensus among American military was then – as now – that Korea was “a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan”, and that American military presence there was an essential part of the Cold War strategy. No one, either on the military or the civilian side of any postwar Administration has questioned Japan’s keystone role in any Asian or world strategy. But when John K. Singlaub, a highly-decorated former OSS officer, a founding member of Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], criticized Carter’s position in a Washington Post interview, he was recalled as U.S. Commander in South Korea. Singlaub, drummed out of military service, continued campaigning for the eventual successful reversing of Carter’s original initiative.
There is growing evidence that a similar crisis is brewing now between the American military and Pres. Obama and his closest advisers. Major concessions to the Iranians at the Lausanne negotiations in an effort to head off an Iranian nuclear weapon is seen by the Obama Administration as a cardinal foreign policy goal. But the exclusion of such critical elements as the Mullahs’ sponsorship of Hizbollah and Hamas as well as other worldwide terrorism from those negotiations obviously sticks in the craw of those charged with worldwide military strategy.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, although virtually ignored by the mainstream media put it forthrightly while visiting Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in Israel on June 9th: “[If current sanctions were removed] I think they [the Iranians] will invest in their surrogates; I think they will invest in additional military capability.” That clashes violently with Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew’s claim a bit earlier that “most of the money Iran receives from sanctions relief will not [emphasis in original] be used to support those activities.”
Dempsey, reappointed to a second term as Obama’s chairman of the joint chiefs in 2013, will be retiring shortly. Obviously, there is speculation about his refusal to tackle these issues more publicly in the U.S. Giving him the benefit of the doubt about his motivations, it is likely that old conundrum of a dissident public servant, whether to remain inside the magic circle to work against current policy, or create the kind of scandal Macarthur and Singlaub felt was necessary to change policy. But it seems unlikely that whatever Dempsey decides to do in his last few months, this issue will continue to be batted back and forth across the policy/strategy gap between 1600 Pennsylvania and The Pentagon for the year and a half remaining of the Obama Administration. And it is too important an issue for The Congress to continue to ignore in its own deliberations.