Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Supreme Command:
Who Should Be In Charge Of Operation Iraqi Freedom?


Friday, Mar. 28, 2003

Article Two of the U.S. Constitution states that "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States." This is rather thin, as a job description. In Federalist No. 69 Alexander Hamilton explains further, by stating the president's authority under this clause "[is] nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and Admiral of the Confederacy."

Supreme command, of course, assures civilian control of the nation's military. But the exercise of this civilian command authority has been as varied as our presidents.

Early Precedents Of Supreme Command

George Washington was the first president to command federal troops. When doing so, he literally assumed the role of first general, by riding with the 15,000 militia men to Western Pennsylvania to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in the summer of 1794.

Once in camp, Washington made certain the men understood their task and "labored incessantly" to assure that they recognized "the rights of their fellow citizens," and that they would be "exemplary for decorum, regularity, and moderation."

When he was satisfied, President Washington left his Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (who had been his top military aide during the Revolutionary War) in charge, and returned to Philadelphia for the opening of Congress. The Whiskey Rebellion ended without a fight.

The United States had its first war in 1812. Following Congress' declaration of war with Great Britain, the leading newspaper the National Intelligencer reported that President James Madison "visited in person - a thing never known before - all the offices of the departments of war and navy, stimulating everything in a manner worthy of a little commander-in-chief, with his little round hat and huge cockade."

Madison did not possess the physique, or emotional makeup (gunfire made him jump), to mount a steed and take charge of the federal troops as Washington had. Thus, as America's first wartime president, while he maintained control of major decisions during the twenty-month war, Madison relied on his generals and admirals for the day-to-day conduct of the war.

Washington and Madison represent both ends of the spectrum of supreme command. Washington was hands-on, and Madison was hands-off. Their successors run the gamut in their relationship with the military. History has not resolved the question whether our presidents or our generals should deal with the nitty gritty of war, although the recent trend has been for presidents to largely defer to their generals.

Cohen's timely study is reported in Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership In Wartime (Free Press, 2002). The book has been influential: Most importantly, President George Bush told a reporter who accompanied him while clearing brush on his ranch last summer that he was reading it. Cohen's counsel may thus play a significant role in influencing the President's thinking during Operation Iraqi Freedom

Who Should Make The Decisions: Presidents Or Generals?

Supreme Command challenges what has become the orthodox or "normal" theory of civil versus military command. As Cohen summarizes it, the theory "holds that the healthiest and most effective form of civilian control of the military is that which maximizes professionalism by isolating soldiers from politics, and giving them as free a hand as possible in military matters."

What Cohen deems the normal approach might be viewed at what I've labeled the Madisonian end of the spectrum of presidential command. This has been the approach of all the recent presidents, particularly since Vietnam.

It was certainly the approach of the president's father, George H.W. Bush , in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Indeed, Cohen uses that war as a case study of the failure of a president to exercise proper command control over his generals: Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf.

Indeed, had then-President Bush not relinquished decisionmaking to his generals, Cohen suggests provocatively, Saddam Hussein might have been disposed of a decade ago.

Role Models For Wartime Statesmen

To make the case that the politicians who head democracies should make the decisions in times of war, Supreme Command examines the wartime leadership of four eminently successful war leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Georges Clemenceau, Winston Churchill, and David Ben Gurion.

With these examples, Cohen makes a powerful case that the politicians had a much better feel for the larger picture than their generals - and, indeed, that they were the ones who had ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of their wars.

Lincoln, for example, did not go through one general after another until he found one who would fight - Ulysses S. Grant - and then turn the war over to Grant. Rather, once Lincoln found Grant, he continued to question and prod his general about strategy and tactics, keeping himself informed by either personal observation or having his personal agent (assistant secretary of war Charles Dana) quietly observe the conduct of the war.

Churchill, who was intimately familiar with America's Civil War, was like Lincoln in that he became deeply involved in the details of World War II. Like Lincoln, Churchill used highly perceptive questions to nudge his generals and admirals. Actually, he nearly drove his militarily commanders to distraction with his questions.

While Churchill was not always correct himself, what is important is that more times than not, his questioning showed the military was wrong. Had Churchill not paid such close attention, many mistakes would have gone unremedied.

In reading, in Cohen's excellent book, of the intuitive military genius of Lincoln, Churchill, Clemenceau, and Ben Gurion I found myself wondering if lesser men could hope to emulate these exceptional statesmen as supreme commanders. And, aware that Bush had read this book, I could not but wonder what impact it has had on him, if any.

Supreme Command itself addresses my first question. To find the answer to my second question, I exchanged emails with Cohen (through the good offices of his editor, who is also my editor at Free Press/Simon & Schuster).

Can Lesser Statesmen Succeed By Imitating Great Statesmen?

Supreme Command shows how the traditional orthodoxy of turning a war over to the generals, with the civilian leader merely setting the goals and defining the general nature of the encounter, only invites failure. But I am not sure every wartime president will be able to follow the command styles that Supreme Command relies upon when it endeavors to show there is a better way.

To make the point, I have drastically compressed many of the techniques of the great wartime statesmen that Supreme Command spells out in detail. For the sake of brevity, I've labeled and highlighted only a few.

To be blunt about my point, I have serious doubts that Bush Junior either possesses, or can quickly acquire, any of these skills.

The first skill of supreme command is self-confident intuition. With Henry Adams' acerbic observation in mind - that "in all great emergencies ... everyone is more or less wrong" - Cohen found that his successful civilian supreme commanders had an intuitive sense that others were, at least, more wrong than they themselves were.

The supreme commander, second, must also have the ability to assimilate and understand information. Quoting Isaiah Berlin, Cohen describes in his protagonists "a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labeled like so many butterflies." Following Berlin's thoughts further, Cohen adds the civilian leader must have "the ability to synthesize, to comprehend how a multiplicity of forces and conditions are interacting."

And yet, this broad synthetic ability must be combined with a narrow, careful attention to detail. Effective supreme command, according to Cohen, calls for an "eye for - indeed, the fascination with - detail." Mastery of detail includes mastering the way the military itself thinks about such details. In short, the supreme commander must keep himself highly informed.

Another skill of the supreme commander is the talent to probe their generals with relevant questions. Cohen's case studies show that great military leaders not only ask questions, they ask the right questions. They examine not merely the forest, but specific trees in the forest, "integrating details with the grand themes."

For example, President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara immersed themselves into the details of Vietnam. But they "looked at the wrong details and drew the wrong conclusions from them." Had they focused on other details, their command would have dramatically improved.

Yet another crucial skill is the statesman's ability to see, embedded in the details, what is new and different. Cohen mentions, specifically, the ability to understand and appreciate new technology. Lincoln, for instance personally tested new rifles, and pushed the Army to acquire them. The ability to grasp new and novel strategic conditions is also crucial. Cohen cites the example of Lincoln's directing the Army of the Potomac to defeat General Robert E. Lee's army, rather than capturing the Confederacy capital at Richmond.

In addition, Cohen observes, to be an effective supreme commander, a leader must be articulate. "Nations are led and ruled by words," Cohen reasons, and thus it is no surprise that each of his models were men "deeply read in history, politics, and literature" who "had mastered the arts of speech and writing."

Finally, a supreme commander, according to Cohen, must be prepared to engage in "unequal dialogue." Indeed, this type of dialogue appears to be one of the most important elements of supreme command as Cohen envisions it.

By definition, dialogue is an exchange of information, a conversation. But Cohen describes such dialogue with a president (prime minister or other civilian leader) as "unequal" because in the end "the final authority of the civilian leader [is] unambiguous and unquestioned."

Frankly, if all these skills - or even a large subset of them - are essentials to effective supreme command, I think it best that Bush Junior proceed as his father did, and let the military handle the war.

For this reason, I was curious if Cohen had any indication that Bush's reading of Cohen book might have tempted Bush, to the contrary, to exercise more direct control. From all I had been able to discern, Bush was proceeding under the "normal" approach. But had he considered the option of a more direct supreme command?

President George W. Bush As Supreme Commander

On March 23, 2003, The Washington Post ran a story by Mike Allen and Karen DeYoung, "Bush's Posture: A Leader Apart: Distance From Details May Reflect Bid to Insulate President From Any Early Setbacks."Not sure what to make of the article, I sent it to Cohen, to ask if he had "any information that [President Bush] might be following [his] counsel in Supreme Command; or any other comment about the Post story."

Cohen responded: "... my impression is that he is being a rather more active Commander in Chief than his father was. The scenes in the Bob Woodward book confirm that: so too does his role in the decision to launch the war early with a strike on Saddam's leadership group." As for the Post story, he said, "I think he's keeping his visible distance from the day to day commentary on the war, and that's right."

After a second reading of the Post story, Cohen added: "I'd again emphasize that it does not say he is out of touch - merely that he's not watching TV non-stop, and is not losing sleep. Smart moves, in both cases. I bet FDR was the same way, not that he's FDR."

I don't disagree with Cohen's reading of the Post story, which is ambiguous because of the story's lead paragraph: "The White House portrayed President Bush this week as a wartime CEO at a dignified remove from the twists and turns of the attack on Iraq, with his staff insisting that he pays little attention to the televised bombing." (Emphasis added.)

However, it was the story's second paragraph that had caught my attention: "Administration officials report that Bush vetted the war plan before handing off its execution to the Pentagon. That is consistent with Bush's longtime image as a delegator more concerned about the big picture than about details."

Only later, when I found the March 21, 2003 briefing by Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, was it clear that the White House has, in essence, stated that the president is not following the supreme command style recommended by Cohen. The following transcript excerpt aptly proves the point:

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President leaves these matters up to the military commanders. The President has signed off on the war plan. And the President leaves it to the members of the military, the leadership, to make the determinations about what the exact right time it is. They make those on a variety of military factors. And the President believes the best way to be successful in winning a war is to let the experts run the war. He will, of course, continue to supervise it, to oversee it, and to be deeply involved, but he believes that the military planners need to make those decisions.

A clearer repudiation of Cohen's prescription for supreme command could hardly be imagined. Clearly, the younger Bush is following his father's style - not Lincoln's.

Woodward's Portrayal Of Bush's Leadership During The Afghanistan War

Cohen's reading of Bob Woodward's Bush At War differs from mine. In fact, I think Woodward presents overwhelming evidence that Bush is employing none of the essentials of effective supreme command (a few of which I listed above).

Most glaringly, Woodward's portrait of the president in Bush At War is at odds with leaders who engage in "unequal dialogue." Bush told Woodward he did not see his role as that of a "prober" - rather, he sees it as that of a provoker. "One of my jobs in to be provocative ... to provoke people into -- to force decisions," Bush said.

When asked if others knew when he was provoking by playing devil's advocate, Bush replied: "Of course not. I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

If those are the words of effective supreme command, or if that was the mentality of Cohen's role models for supreme command, I have missed something. Bush plainly does not engage in "unequal dialogue." Indeed, it appears that he engages in no dialogue whatsoever. Others explain their positions; he does not explain or suggest his own.

For example, Woodward reports that when disagreements arise within Bush's war council - as they have, for example, between the CIA and the Defense Department - Bush does not pursue the disagreement to settle it. Rather he turns to his able national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and instructs, "Get this mess straightened out."

A Bottom Line For Supreme Command

Cohen selected a paragraph near the end of his narrative, where he explains that all four protagonists of his study exhibited one quality "without which they could not have succeeded: moderation." Of all these wartime leaders, Cohen says that Churchill has most vividly captured the essence of the necessary political moderation with his words: "A statesman in contact with the moving events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other."

This is especially appropriate advice for a president who has been steadily leaning starboard since he arrived in the Oval Office.

John Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former Counsel to the President of the United States.

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard