jimsleeper.com » Obama: Commander-in-What?

Obama: Commander-in-What?

By Jim SleeperTPM Cafe December 10, 2009,

If you’re worried that this country is drifting inexorably, even under Barack Obama, from a republic to a national-security state with a President/Decider, you may have worried about his comment in Oslo that “I am the commander in chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.”

He is, indeed. But how did the nation get into those two wars – and an endless war on terror – when, Constitutionally, the nation is the President’s commander-in-chief?

Didn’t the 2008 election decide that one reason we got into that endless war on terror was the Constitutional overreaching of a certain president (or vice-president) bent on being a Decider who could reverse the balance of power at will?

We can keep on parsing the meanings of “commander” until bankers and brokers become honest; we can claim that Reinhold Niebuhr would have understood the necessity of the way we are fighting now (I doubt it); and we can blame our ambitious counterinsurgency strategy on the harsh, new imperatives of terrorism itself.

But I wonder if Obama wasn’t being just a tad defensive in invoking his duties as commander-in-chief while receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I wonder if he hasn’t been hearing a few many trumpet fanfares too many since taking office.

He has spent 11 months using his presidential powers to shore up America’s other big concentrations of power –bailing out some a little too easily, approving the dubious surveillance protocols of others, and leaving it to Congress to accommodate still others he doesn’t want to be seen to be coddling, from health-insurers to the biggest power concentration of all — the military-industrial-academic complex that even Dwight Eisenhower, that former general, cautioned the republic against in his presidential farewell address.

Whether Obama was being defensive or commendably candid in styling himself the commander-in-chief of a nation at war, our obligation as citizens of the republic is to be vigilant and to call him on his presumption in linking America’s heroic sacrifices against Hitler to its less-heroic and manifestly self-debilitating strategies against today’s terrorists.

Yale Law Professors Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway have called all of us to be vigilant in a Slate post about the strategy Obama defended in his Oslo remarks.

Whatever might be said for that strategy (Ackerman and Hathaway are scathing, on the Constitutional grounds I mentioned at the outset), we do have to be vigilant enough to insist on remaining — through a Congress worthy of the one that stood up to Richard Nixon in Watergate — the ultimate Deciders, even if not the commanders. It shouldn’t take a Watergate to give Congress a backbone; a dubious and debilitating war strategy ought to do it, too, but that will depend, even more, on the rest of us.

(Note: Some TPM readers may have noticed that I posted a version of this yesterday, only to withdraw it after an hour. The reason was that I had relied on a New York Times’ misquotation of Obama’s Oslo speech in a story that had led the paper’s online edition for hours. The misquotation had Obama saying, “I am the commander-in-chief of a nation” at war, rather than what he actually said — “I am the commander-in-chief of the military of a nation….” It was the first version that prompted me to insist that no president is the commander-in-chief of the whole nation; it’s the other way ’round. Obama had covered himself against making that claim — but not against the substance of cautions like Ackerman’s and Hathaway’s, which I urge everyone to read. My thanks to Terry Michael of the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism for alerting me to the Times’ error.)