The Buck Stops Elsewhere?
The Pentagon is reportedly considering a change in policy that would allow Generals and field commanders to undertake some raids connected to the War On Terror to be undertaken without direct authorization by the President of the United States:
Military commanders are discussing speeding up the authorization of counterterrorism missions by allowing the Pentagon or even field commanders to approve some of them rather than the White House, US defense officials told CNN.
As CNN first reported Tuesday, the military is seeking to increase US intelligence-gathering raids in Yemen similar to one undertaken in the first week of the Trump presidency. It’s not yet clear if this adjustment in the approval process could be used for those operations.
“It is a philosophy more than a change in policy,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday of the discussions about the authorization process. President Donald Trump “believes these are the experts in this field.”
At the same time, Spicer said that “the protocol is not changing in terms of what has to be signed off,” and that “there are certain decisions that have to be signed off by the President,” so that the degree of change might not end up being that sizeable.
A senior defense official emphasized that this does not mean that the President would not be briefed. Defense Secretary James Mattis and senior military commanders could brief the President at any time and seek his specific approval.
Since these are fundamentally judgement questions, the senior defense official said, the goal is to see if there could be a more efficient approval process for time-sensitive missions.
Military analysts warned, though, that pushing decision-making authority below the President for high-risk missions could create problems.
“The risk in greenlighting missions at a lower level than the President is one where the President assumes all the responsibility if something goes wrong, and he would really find it difficult to do that if in fact he was not part of the approval process,” retired Col. Cedric Leighton said. “That element of decentralized control — which the military loves in many cases, and in theory that the President loves — but the problem that you have with that is, if something goes terribly wrong, you are going to end up with a lot of political fallout for something you didn’t really approve or understand the minute details of.”
He continued, “From a political standpoint it may be good for somebody who wants to wash their hands of it or something, but from a military standpoint it really abrogates the authority that the commander in chief has inherent in his position.”
Leighton said that authority can be particularly essential for difficult operations: “What you really need is a commander in chief who is involved in the approval process, especially for politically sensitive missions like Yemen.
On some level, this change in policy makes some sense. History has shown us the dangers of a President who micromanages a war to the point of approving and monitoring every military mission on a personal basis. President Johnson, and to some extent President Nixon, became so obsessed with the success or failure of every bombing run and battle during the Vietnam War, for example, that he allowed it to overwhelm his Presidency and ultimately lead him to decide not to run for re-election in 1968. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln monitored the status of battles so closely that it often seemed like he was his own Commanding General, although given the nature of the military leaders he was forced to choose from prior to his selection of Generals Grant and Sherman to lead the war effort in the war’s final years that may have been a wise decision. On the other hand, history has also shown us the dangers of Presidents who become disengaged, either by choice or inadvertently by application of policy, from important military and diplomatic decisions only to pay the price when those decisions blow up in their face. Examples in this area include things such as the Iran/Contra scandal during the Reagan Administration and the decisions regarding security at diplomatic compounds in Libya that were apparently made at lower levels in the State Department without significant consultation with either the President or the Secretary of State. Ideally, then, there ought to be some middle ground between the President as the micromanager of a war and a President who is either deliberately or accidentally shielded from decision making that later results in what later turn out to be serious consequences such as civilian casualties or serious political blowback.
The most important principle that ought to be kept in mind in evaluating an idea like this, though, is the fact that the President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces and the United States has a tradition of civilian control and oversight of the military that goes back to the nation’s founding. Anything that detracts from that principle ought to be viewed with suspicion. It’s arguably not necessary for the President to pre-authorize every air strike or cruise missile launch, or for the military to forgo a target of opportunity because they have to wait until approval goes up the chain of command. At the same time, it strikes me that Constitutional principles and general common sense require that the President be fully briefed on what’s going on, and that major military operations, such as the recent raid in Yemen that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, be authorized by the President before being executed. The alternative would be to turn far more regarding war-planning over to the military than seems healthy or proper. In any case, we’ll have to wait to see the details of these new procedures to see exactly what the Pentagon has in mind, but any change in procedure that puts undue discretion in the hands of field commanders that could result in actions that have significant international blowback should be avoided.