It was a similar act of insubordination on the part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that effectively destroyed the Clinton administration almost from day one. Recall that one of President Clinton’s first acts following his inauguration was to make good on a campaign promise to end discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military. His initial order was to simply end the ban on homosexuality in the military. But the Joint Chiefs publicly rebelled, and Clinton caved, coming up with the ridiculous and unworkable “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, under which gays and lesbians could serve in the military, but had to hide their sexual orientation or face ouster.
When Clinton, as commander in chief of the armed forces, allowed his generals to defy his orders, and, instead of sacking them all for insubordination and stripping off their stars, left them in their offices and surrendered to their objections, he didn’t just cave in to the military. He also alerted the Republican opposition that he was a political pushover.
Obama, on a much more serious issue—the conduct of and termination of a war—is now apparently being more or less openly defied by his top generals, who after all get their glory and power by having troops in battle, and who are also worried that a collapse of the puppet regime in Iraq could leave them looking like losers. They are thus opposing a pullout from Iraq (and a hardly precipitous one at that!) out of self-interest and self-preservation.
If Commander in Chief Obama allows this insubordination and political opposition to exist among his senior generals, his presidency is toast. He will be a prisoner to a militarist policy in Iraq and Afghanistan that will drag down his presidency in the same way that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was destroyed by the generals running the Vietnam War. Furthermore, just as Republicans in Congress saw Clinton’s weakness in his dealings with the Joint Chiefs and began dogging his every more, they, and Obama’s opponents among the Blue Dog Democrats in Congress, will see weakness and move against him.
There is only one answer to this challenge to presidential authority: President Obama must sack both Petraeus and Odierno, and any other general who tries—openly or behind the scenes--to move politically against his military strategy and orders. The model for this action is President Harry Truman—widely viewed, whatever his faults, as a forceful leader—who fired the popular Gen. Douglas McArthur when McArthur went behind his back to Republicans in Congress to push for a wider war in Korea.
This is not just a matter of salvaging an Obama presidency. It is also a profound constitutional issue. There is no greater threat to democratic freedom than a military that refuses to accept, or that actively works to undermine civilian authority. Generals and admirals certainly have a right to object to the decisions made by their commander in chief, but they cannot act in defiance or those decisions while in uniform. Admiral William Fallon took the right course of action. Opposed to Bush/Cheney administration plans to attack Iran, he chose to resign his post as CentCom Commander and to resign from the military. If Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno oppose Obama’s plan for a pullout from Iraq, they should do the same and then speak out if they wish.
For the past eight years, the biggest threat to American democracy was that a president and vice president attempted to convert the office of president into a military dictatorship, with the position of commander in chief subsuming and replacing the position of president. Now the danger is that the nation’s top generals are trying to eliminate or emasculate the president’s role as commander in chief, making the generals the leaders of the nation’s military. Both dangers are equally threatening to constitutional government.
About the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
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