President Barack Obama address the group of soldiers at US Central Command (CentCom) at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., on Sept. 17, 2014.
James Borchuck/AP

The difference between military commanders and the Commander in Chief

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The Washington Post reported overnight that when it comes to U.S. efforts to combat Islamic State terrorists, President Obama and military leaders aren’t necessarily on the same page.
Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship.
 
Even as the administration has received congressional backing for its strategy, with the Senate voting Thursday to approve a plan to arm and train Syrian rebels, a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.
It’s hard to say with confidence just how widespread the disagreements really are. For that matter, even among those military leaders voicing disagreement, there’s a variety of opinions.
 
For his part, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that Pentagon leaders are in “full alignment” and in “complete agreement with every component of the president’s strategy.”
 
And that’s fine, but let’s not forget that it’s not really their call. Pentagon leaders don’t actually have to be in “complete agreement with every component of the president’s strategy.”
 
NBC’s First Read noted yesterday, “Remember the battle cry of some Democrats during some of the darkest days of the Iraq war – that Bush and Cheney were not listening to the commanders? Well, given where all the military leadership is on this strategy, it is now Obama, the Democrat, who is open to criticism that he is not listening to his commanders.”
 
But there’s no reason to necessarily see that as “criticism.”
 
I understand the political dynamic. In theory, many may like the idea of military decisions being made by military leaders with military expertise.
 
But the American system is designed a specific way for a reason. As NBC’s First Read went on to say, “Of course, again, it is Obama that is commander-in-chief. Not anyone at the Pentagon.”
 
That’s exactly right. The fact that the president and some military leaders disagree is fine. The fact that elements of this debate are unfolding in public is healthy in a democracy. The fact that Congress has heard different positions from various officials within the executive branch is valuable as part of a broader debate.
 
All of this should be seen as a feature, not a bug, of a nation exploring the possibility of war. Military leaders can bring the president options, and in response, the president will give those leaders orders. When our system is working well and as intended, the scope of those orders will be shaped in part by Congress, which is supposed to be directly involved in authorizing the use of military force.
 
The fact that some military leaders may disagree with Obama is not a sign that Obama is wrong – or right. The president in this case may not be listening to his commanders, but in our system, they’re required to listen to him.
 
As Rachel explained on Tuesday’s show, “The military makes military recommendations to the president and the president decides whether to accept them or not. That is not a scandal. If they recommend something to him and he says no to that, that’s not a scandal. That’s actually a America. That is our system of government. It’s one of the best things about it. That’s sort of a whole civilian-control-of-the-military thing and how that works…. This is like first day of What’s America Class.”
 
It’s a fair point to say Democrats were critical of the Bush/Cheney White House for failing to listen to commanders during the height of the crises in Iraq, but it seems to me those criticisms were based on (a) the fact that some of these military were giving the White House good advice that wasn’t being followed; and (b) the fact that Bush said he was listening to his commanders, even when he wasn’t.
 

Barack Obama, ISIS and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

The difference between military commanders and the Commander in Chief

Updated