Sunday, May 15, 2016

The US President as "Commander-in-Chief" and the ghost of Old Right isolationism in the Trump campaign

Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute writes about The Creeping Militarization of American Culture The National Interest 05/13/2016.

I try to be very cautious about work from people associated with the "libertarian" Cato Institute even when I find some of their arguments about the problematic nature of US military interventions. Because the Old Right isolationism that informs much of the libertarian and "paleo-conservative" foreign policy viewpoint generally if founded on a narrowly nationalistic view that is at best dismissive of international law and disarmament agreements.

But this part of Carpenter's post is on the mark and addresses one of my pet peeves about the militarization of foreign policy and the political in the United States:

Yet another sign [of the militarization of political language] is the growing tendency to misapply the term “commander-in-chief.” The Constitution makes it clear that the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. There were two reasons for that provision. One was to assure undisputed civilian control of the military. The other was to prevent congressional interference with the chain of command.

One thing, however, is abundantly clear. The Constitution did not make the president commander-in-chief of the country. Unfortunately, that is a distinction that is increasingly lost on politicians, pundits, and ordinary Americans[.] The notion that the president is a national commander who can direct the country and it is our obligation as subordinates to salute and follow his lead is an alien and profoundly un-American concept. It also implicitly ratifies the perverse doctrine of the imperial presidency — that the president alone (our commander-in-chief) gets to decide when the nation goes to war. Both are thoroughly unconstitutional, ahistorical, and unhealthy attitudes. Yet they have become common, if not dominant, attitudes in late twentieth century and early twenty-first century America. And that is frightening. Viewing the president as the commander-in-chief of the nation is the epitome of a mentally militarized society. [emphasis in original]
The specific language of the Constitution is, "The President shall be the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United Sates, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States."

The Commander-in-Chief clause is the source of much of the expansion of the war powers of the Executive Branch since 1789, a development which is highly problematic but, for better or worse, generally accepted by both major parties in the US. Instances of Congress overriding the President on war policy during the Cold War or afterward have been few and far between.

The other side of the Commander-in-Chief power is that it establishes clearly the critical democratic principle of civilian control over the military. But that principle too has been undermined in practice in various ways. Andrew Bacevich wrote in Civilian Control? Surely, You Jest. The New Republic 08/18/2010:

Reality turns out to be considerably more complicated. In practice, civilian control—expectations that the brass, having rendered advice, will then loyally execute whatever decision the commander-in-chief makes—is at best a useful fiction.

In front of the curtain, the generals and admirals defer; behind the curtain, on all but the smallest of issues, the military’s collective leadership pursue their own agenda informed by their own convictions of what is good for the country and, by extension, for the institutions over which they preside. In this regard, the Pentagon’s behavior does not differ from that of automakers, labor unions, the movie business, environmental groups, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Israel lobby, or the NAACP.

In Washington, only one decision is considered really final—and that’s the one that goes your way. Senior military officers understand these rules and play by them. When the president or secretary of defense acts in ways not to their liking—killing some sought-after weapons program, for example—they treat that decision as subject to review and revision.
On the war powers issue, I'm very much in favor of Congress using its authority to put prudent limits on Executive power. More specifically, they should be trying to reduce the number of wars we get involved in.

Our real existing Congress, though, is happy to demand more wars and more aggressive foreign policy. That fact doesn't get to the Constitutional issues. But Congress' own frequently irresponsible attitude toward war and peace makes it convenient for them to avoid restrictions of Presidential warmaking.

Gary Wills also addressed the careless use of the Commander-in-Chief title in At Ease, Mr. President New York Times 01/27/2007:

I first cringed at the misuse in 1973, during the “Saturday Night Massacre” (as it was called). President Richard Nixon, angered at the Watergate inquiry being conducted by the special prosecutor Archibald Cox, dispatched his chief of staff, Al Haig, to arrange for Mr. Cox’s firing. Mr. Haig told the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to dismiss Mr. Cox. Mr. Richardson refused, and resigned. Then Mr. Haig told the second in line at the Justice Department, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. Mr. Ruckelshaus refused, and accepted his dismissal. The third in line, Robert Bork, finally did the deed.

What struck me was what Mr. Haig told Mr. Ruckelshaus, “You know what it means when an order comes down from the commander in chief and a member of his team cannot execute it.” This was as great a constitutional faux pas as Mr. Haig’s later claim, when President Reagan was wounded, that “Constitutionally ... I’m in control.”

President Nixon was not Mr. Ruckelshaus’s commander in chief. The president is not the commander in chief of civilians. He is not even commander in chief of National Guard troops unless and until they are federalized. The Constitution is clear on this: “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.”
Wills agrees with Ted Galen Carpenter on this semantic usage reflecting a militarization of US politics. "This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics," Wills wrote.

What do Old Right isolationists have in mind when they make similar points? Some of it is undoubtedly the stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day phenomenon. Or, ask Rick Perry famously put it last year, "A broken clock is right once a day."

But Old Right isolationism is not only fundamentally nationalist and even xenophobic. It's also Old Right as in anti-New Deal and pro-segregation, meaning that it opposes federal "overreach" in matters like labor law, enforcing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution's guarantee of voting rights, requiring billionaires to pay taxes to support their country, etc. And expansive federal powers are indeed closely related historically and practically to a broad view of Executive warmaking powers. And to a foreign policy of global hegemony.

Donald Trump is injecting a little more old-fashioned isolationism into the Presidential race than we're accustomed to hearing. Andrew Bacevich has been emphasizing for years that "isolationism" is most often used as a bogeyman to discredit criticism of interventionist foreign policy. For example, 70 Years of “New Isolationism” The American Conservative 10/24/2013

The abiding defect of U.S. foreign policy? It’s isolationism, my friend. Purporting to steer clear of war, isolationism fosters it. Isolationism impedes the spread of democracy. It inhibits trade and therefore prosperity. It allows evildoers to get away with murder. Isolationists prevent the United States from accomplishing its providentially assigned global mission. Wean the American people from their persistent inclination to look inward and who knows what wonders our leaders will accomplish. ...

Most of this, of course, qualifies as overheated malarkey. As a characterization of U.S. policy at any time in memory, isolationism is a fiction. Never really a tendency, it qualifies at most as a moment, referring to that period in the 1930s when large numbers of Americans balked at the prospect of entering another European war, the previous one having fallen well short of its “War To End All Wars” advance billing.

In fact, from the day of its founding down to the present, the United States has never turned its back on the world. Isolationism owes its storied history to its value as a rhetorical device, deployed to discredit anyone opposing an action or commitment (usually involving military forces) that others happen to favor. If I, a grandson of Lithuanian immigrants, favor deploying U.S. forces to Lithuania to keep that NATO ally out of Vladimir Putin’s clutches and you oppose that proposition, then you, sir or madam, are an “isolationist.” ...

For this very reason, the term isolationism is not likely to disappear from American political discourse anytime soon. It’s too useful. Indeed, employ this verbal cudgel to castigate your opponents and your chances of gaining entrée to the nation’s most prestigious publications improve appreciably. Warn about the revival of isolationism and your prospects of making the grade as a pundit or candidate for high office suddenly brighten. This is the great thing about using isolationists as punching bags: it makes actual thought unnecessary. All that’s required to posture as a font of wisdom is the brainless recycling of clichés, half-truths, and bromides.
While I basically agree with Bacevich's description of the isolationist bogeyman, there is, as he puts it, a "tendency" on the far right that traces it's lineage back to the isolationist, more-or-less pro-Nazi Old Right of the 1930s and 1940s. Professional anti-leftist-speaking-as-a-repentent-leftist Ron Radosh wrote about some of the post-World War II examples of this in his disturbingly admiring Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism (1975). Investigative reporter Avedis Derounian, publishing under the pseudonym John Roy Carlson, published two books on the Old Right isolationist political hardcores, Under Cover (1943) and The Plotters (1946).

The presumed Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has the dubious honor of having had Roy Cohn as one of his most important political mentors. (Michael Kruse, ‘He Brutalized For You’ Politico 04/08/2016; Olivia Nuzzi, Trump’s Mobbed Up, McCarthyite Mentor Roy Cohn Daily Beast 07/23/2015) So he has had access to the political sewer fed in no small part by Old Right isolationism.

And his foreign policy positioning for the general election may draw on that source quite a lot. Rania Khalek reports in Donald Trump Calls Hillary Clinton “Trigger Happy” as She Courts Neocons The Intercept 05/12/2016:

Hillary Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy record over the weekend, a glimpse into a potential general election strategy of casting Clinton as the more likely of the two to take the nation to war. ...

“On foreign policy, Hillary is trigger happy,” Trump told the crowd. “She is, she’s trigger happy. She’s got a bad temperament,” he said. “Her decisions in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya have cost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and have totally unleashed ISIS.”

And he expressed a rarely heard appreciation for the “other side to this story,” noting: “Thousands of lives yes, for us, but probably millions of lives in all fairness, folks” for the people of the Middle East.

Trump implied that casualties inflicted by the U.S. military were far higher than reported. “They bomb a city” and “it’s obliterated, obliterated,” he said. “They’ll say nobody was killed. I’ll bet you thousands and thousands of people were killed every time you see that television set.”

“If we would’ve done nothing,” Trump argued, “we would’ve been in much better shape.”
And she explains that such pitches scarcely make Trump a dove:

Of course, Trump is hardly the candidate of peace. Nor is he a credible messenger.

He’s advocated for killing the families of terrorists, endorses torture and in his tirade against Clinton he applauded Saddam Hussein for executing people without trial, saying, “He used to kill [terrorists] instantaneously. … they didn’t go through 15 years of a court case.”
And she warns that Trump could make this kind of political pitch:“'Donald Trump will be running to the left as we understand it against Hillary Clinton on national security issues,' Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said on MSNBC last week. 'And the candidate in the race most like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from a foreign policy perspective is in fact Hillary Clinton, not the Republican nominee.'”

It would be more accurate, I think, to say that in conventional pundit-speak, Trump with this pitch will try to run both to the left and to the right of the Democrats. If the likely Democratic nominee sticks closely to the hawkish positions she supported as Senator and Secretary of State, Trump could play well with many swing voters with that pitch.

Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks looks at this left-right approach by the Trump campaign in Will Trump Be More Liberal Than Hillary? 04/21/2016; he talks about the foreign policy version following 9:00:

No comments: