UK paperback

Commander in Chief

Command and conquer

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent discussion about references to George W Bush, by himself and others, as the, or “our”, “Commander-in-Chief”. The phrase as used in that fashion is already Unspeak, since it conveniently leaves out the fact that, according to the Constitution, Bush is “Commander-in-Chief” only of the armed forces, while generating an alternative picture of him commanding the country as a whole, irrespective of the whims of the other branches of government – rather in the manner, you might say, of a military dictator. (On Friday, to the prospect of Congress challenging his plan to send “reinforcements” to Iraq, he retorted: “I’m the decision-maker”.) Of course, regular appeals in Bush’s legislative signing statements to his status as “Commander-in-Chief” and to the “unitary executive doctrine” notwithstanding, he does not, at least according to the Constitution that still obtains, command the country as a whole. Every American who is not a soldier may reply: You are not the Commander-in-Chief of me.

A propos of which, via hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, this article claims that Bush was already fantasizing about starting a war and glorying in the role of “Commander-in-Chief” back in 1999:

“He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. “It was on his mind. He said to me: ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.’ He said, ‘If I have a chance to invade·.if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

If I have a chance to invade… So the point of the long-dreamed-of war in Iraq was primarily for Bush to “be seen as a commander-in-chief” and acquire the “political capital” he needed to do anything he wanted domestically. On that score, the war may after all be accounted a great success.

  1. 1  Alex Higgins  January 29, 2007, 11:25 pm 

    “On that score, the war may after all be accounted a great success.”

    Except, even that dismal dream of unchecked Republican exploitation of war-fever at home seems less and less likely.

    There was an interesting piece in Vanity Fair a little while ago about Bush’s penchant for dressing up in military uniform (the obvious comparison being with Eisenhower, an actual general who pointedly refused to wear military dress while in civilian office).

    Bush represents a kind of pinnacle for the combination of power and military worship that is a major driving force of the modern American conservative movement.

    Appropriately, this leader-worship is focused on a man who exercised class privilege to avoid fighting in an atrocious war he supported, who abandoned his position on September 11th and fled to a bunker in Nebraska because he felt threatened, who couldn’t be bothered to read actionable intelligence prior to 9/11 but who loved to cite random scraps afterwards for his warlike purpose and whose every influence on military decisions taken in the course of the Iraq War has been catastrophic.

    It’s hard to imagine a less impressive individual demanding special deference as commander-in-chief. And it’s hard to top the petulance of “I’m the decider”, an argument first developed to end discussion of his decision to retain Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, a decision since undecided by this determined Decider of decisions.

    Also curious is how anyone can spend as much time obssessing over their legacy, as he and Blair clearly do, and yet so wilfully persist in policies that virtually guarantee that history will do a squat over his head and perform an almighty dump.

    Mind you, given the eulogies for Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, there is hope (What’s your favourite memory of the Reagan era? Is it genocide in Guatemala? The lease of life for Apartheid? Or giving air traffic controllers a kicking and thus bring morning to America? Ah, the nostalgia for a simpler, more brutal time.) In Ford’s case pundits fell over themselves not to ignore but to praise Ford’s courage in slate-wiping his friend’s criminality and thus healing the nation, sparing it the agony of the rule of law.

    Maybe Bush is right – in the future the easily impressed guardians of suck-up punditry will declare him a great leader of men.

    But I still think not.

  2. 2  Steven  January 30, 2007, 12:12 am 

    You know, there are still thoughtful people who insist that Bush cannot be dismissed as merely stupid or vicious. After reading what he is reported as having said in 1999, my remaining vestiges of patience with this view are being sorely tried. The benefit of the doubt is not a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card.

    Meanwhile, Garry Wills in the NYRB nailed the “Commander-in-Chief” topic already in 1991:

    In accordance with the war mentality adopted in 1947, the presidential title of “Commander in Chief” received a sudden and vast inflation. During last fall’s debate on the Gulf, member after member rose in Congress to say “we must support our Commander in Chief.” He is not their Commander in Chief. That short title is itself a distortion. The President is Commander in Chief of the armed forces in active service. The full constitutional title is 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 (Article II, Section 2, italics added).

    The President is not even Commander in Chief of the Militia except when two conditions are fulfilled. That is: he is not even the Commander in Chief of those in Congress who belong to the reserves—much less of those who have no military connection at all. It is a sign of our willingness to submit to wartime discipline in peace that the President is now widely considered to be the Commander in Chief of the American people. John Kennedy used the term that way, and so does Clark Clifford in his book. (He speaks, for instance, of civilian guests’ conduct toward “their Commander in Chief” while visiting Lyndon Johnson’s ranch.)

    This is not a harmless locution—it can harden to a demand for military obedience, as when Alexander Haig, executing Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” told Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus: “Your Commander in Chief has given you an order. You have no alternative [but to obey].” Advocates of a presidential war-making power now rely on the Commander in Chief clause, confident that people feel the president has the power to commit the whole citizenry to following his lead.

  3. 3  dsquared  January 30, 2007, 9:04 am 

    I had always thought that people referred to “our Commander-in-Chief” in the same way as one might refer to “our head janitor” – implying that he was in charge of the troops, and that we in turn were in charge of him. I think this ambiguity has helped Bush get away with the commander-in-chief stunt for longer than he should have been allowed to.

    JK Galbraith said that the essence of leadership was “willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time”, on which criterion Bush actually scores pretty well. An uncharacteristic oversight on the part of the great man to omit “and not fuck it up”.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts