The Militarization Of The Presidency

Garry Wills writes in today’s New York Times about the disturbing way in which the President’s role has Commander in Chief of the military has expanded as the Imperial Presidency has grown in power:

WE hear constantly now about “our commander in chief.” The word has become a synonym for “president.” It is said that we “elect a commander in chief.” It is asked whether this or that candidate is “worthy to be our commander in chief.”

But the president is not our commander in chief. He certainly is not mine. I am not in the Army.

As Wills points out, the fact that President is now referred to as “our Commander in Chief” reflects not just a debasement of the language, but the fact that the Presidency itself has taken on a much more militaristic aura than it had when the nation was founded:

When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken “for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.

But we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and “the duration” has become the norm. World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than ever — more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now the cold war has modulated into the war on terrorism.

It’s the idea of the permanent crisis, of course, that leads to the idea of the Imperial Presidency. If we are constantly under threat, whether its from the Communists, or the terrorists, or the drug runners, then, the argument goes, we’ve got to have one man with enough power to “protect” us. The fact that we’ve given that power to the branch of government most identified with the King we revolted from is both ironic and sad.

One consequence of the militarized Presidency is the suggestion that his actions are above criticism:

There has never been an executive branch more fetishistic about secrecy than the Bush-Cheney one. The secrecy has been used to throw a veil over detentions, “renditions,” suspension of the Geneva Conventions and of habeas corpus, torture and warrantless wiretaps. We hear again the refrain so common in the other wars — If you knew what we know, you would see how justified all our actions are.

But we can never know what they know. We do not have sufficient clearance.

When Adm. William Crowe, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized the gulf war under the first President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker said that the admiral was not qualified to speak on the matter since he no longer had the clearance to read classified reports. If he is not qualified, then no ordinary citizen is. We must simply trust our lords and obey the commander in chief.

That’s not what the Constitution provides, and it’s not what the Founders intended.

  • Xenos

    This was a great op-ed.