JFK and LBJ Redux

Corporeality XV: JFK and LBJ Redux -The Difficulties of Separation


Howard Adelman

In the light of the brief examination of each of President John F. Kennedy’s and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s practices and efforts to operate as both America’s political leader and Commander-in-Chief, let’s recap on the general problem even if the account is not much more than that of a high school civics class. In the American system, the President is both the executive leader of the polity as well as the Commander-in-Chief. In a parliamentary system, the Governor-General, not the Prime Minister, is both Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, two responsibilities assigned to the president in the American system of government and not to a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system.

The American constitution also provides that the military command role be subservient to the political agenda. That means, there is an inherent tension between the two responsibilities, such with radically different agendas and purposes. This tension even exists, though at a far lower level, in a parliamentary system where the responsibilities of the political leader, the Prime Minister, are always completely subject to the will and consent of the legislature and the Prime Minister does not carry the responsibilities and obligations of Commander-in-Chief.

Like a President, the Prime Minister has responsibilities as Chief Executive Officer (appointment of chief justices, head of the military forces and a host of other appointments) and custodian of the economy. Further, though Canada has a Foreign Minister and the United States has a Secretary of State, Canada and the United States may be far more similar in this area than the difference in name implies. For in both countries, the Prime Minster and the President are the chief diplomats and key determiners of foreign policy.

Unlike a President, however, the Prime Minister is responsible for introducing all legislation in Parliament and ensuring passage of all government bills. In the U.S. presidential system, the President may propose legislation and use his influence to obtain passage, but he does not control Congress. He may veto bills passed by Congress, subject to override, and Congress may refuse to pass his proposals. The President’s lack of command and control over legislation while having command and control in the military arena, already creates a propensity for a President to shift the prime emphasis of his office away from domestic legislation towards foreign policy and command of the military where, on appearances, he is not as boxed-in.

In a democratic monarchy (often called a republican form of government), where the head of state is elected and caries both independent executive as well as Commander-in-Chief responsibilities, there is a specific dilemma. For the key issues for a military leader are command and control. The Latin imperium applies. But the key issue for a civilian political leader is exercising influence on Congress. Power entails an ability to coerce. Influence entails an ability to persuade. In a parliamentary system, responsibilities for coercion are delegated, subject to the civilian authority establishing the objectives and norms under which coercive power operates. It seems that, with some exceptions, when the two responsibilities are not assigned to the same person, both the division of responsibilities and the ability of the civilian leadership to ensure that military operations are subordinate to civilian political will, are less difficult. When embodied in the same person, enormous tensions arise both within the political leader and between him/her and the military.

The dilemmas go both ways. Military leaders are used to exercising imperial powers and, in a state with imperial responsibilities, the military brass dislike limitations on those powers when operating in overseas theatres, whether those limitations come from local politicians or from domestic bosses back home. At the same time, if the President as Commander-in-Chief is to exercise his civilian powers, s/he must of necessity place parameters around the use of those military powers. The military leadership has a built-in propensity to test those limits, both because they do not like being trammeled and because they carry the ball on the ground in foreign situations and dislike having their freedom of movement managed from afar, especially if it is by an “amateur.”

Dwight Eisenhower was a great success in this regard for two very different reasons. First, he carried the prestige of a highly decorated military leader of the highest rank. Secondly, and much more importantly, he understood and articulated the general principles in terms of which both bodies within the President must conduct themselves.

The portrait of JFK that finally emerged was not of a leader who was “saved” and who bought into the beliefs of the peace movement. He remained a Cold War proponent. He remained the same person who knowingly promulgated the fabricated “missile gap.” As such, he felt he had to back a plan approved by Eisenhower, but radically revised and made much riskier once he was elected President. But he did not want to appear weak before his military personnel – the military chiefs, the CIA Director, his own Secretary of Defense. How was the bridge constructed and maintained between his military functions and his civilian responsibilities domestically and as a leader of the free world?

The simple answer – they were not reconciled. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, as a Commander-in-Chief, he operated in the hidden and internationally illegal world of covert operations. In the open, he promulgated such doctrines as the Alliance for Progress. His guiding principle with respect to covert operations was that lying and condoning risky and highly illegal breaches of another country’s sovereignty were okay as long as his role and that of the United States could be protected by plausible deniability. Given that guiding principle, he developed into a leader more concerned with public image and public relations, with his legacy rather than with good policy to secure the well-being of Americans and that the U.S. remained loyal to its allies. JFK remained two-faced, but in the case of the Bay of Pigs, his secret self was exposed and he was actually “saved,” not by conversion in what he believed, but by his exposure to the actual performance of the military (CIA and Chiefs of Staff) who were not only willing to keep information hidden, but concocted policies to trap him in a direction and policy he did not want to follow – a direct conquest eventually by American troops of the island of Cuba.

Ironically, the exposure through the Bay of Pigs operation made Kennedy much more wary of advice from his military. He was not willing to become the “macho man” as his military chiefs advised and resort first and foremost and almost exclusively to exhibitions of overwhelming force. Force had to be used to support diplomacy and used in a way both proportionate to the real danger but sufficient to foster and enhance the diplomatic agenda. Only in the Cuban missile crisis did Kennedy demonstrate that he had learned to subordinate his military responsibilities to his domestic ones.

We do not know how Kennedy would have applied what he learned to Vietnam when covert operations became exposed and America’s military role could no longer be hidden and, for both effectiveness and the impossibility of disguise, had to evolve into an open war not just backed, but driven by the American military, or, alternatively, scaled back and eventually abandoned, the course as we shall see that eventually took place, but only after enormous cost to both the Indochinese and to young Americans.. We do know that LBJ did not learn from the Bay of Pigs about the perfidy of his own military commanders, but instead enhanced the role of deception and misrepresentation by participating in the concoction of the Gulf of Tonkin fabrication to obtain from Congress unfettered room to use the military for open and more aggressive war. Johnson was inherently a bully, a trait he used to good effect in passing an enormous amount of excellent domestic legislation, but one which did him in when he became an accomplice to military goals no longer determined by and subordinated to diplomatic foreign policy.

The tension was replicated within the military. On the one hand, if a military commander was dedicated to the art of covert counter-insurgency warfare, he or she became suspect in the eyes of colleagues dedicated to and trained in the principles and practices of conventional warfare, for covert operations require deception, but only in dealing with enemies. However, covert counter-insurgency warfare seemed to entail deception in dealing with one’s own superiors as well. So the two forms of warfare were inherently at odds and, during Kennedy’s term of office, the responsibilities were relegated to a different organization than the traditional military, the CIA. But the CIA had to rely on the armed forces for backup and logistics, especially when it overlapped with military functions and became for a period the driver of covert operations. On the other hand, within the military, “The whole field of guerrilla operations was the burial place for the future of any officer who was sincerely interested in the development and application of guerrilla war. The conventionally trained officer appears to feel that guerrilla operations are beneath his dignity.”

When the armed forces took over that responsibility in the Vietnam War after JFK replaced his CIA chief and limited the role of the CIA, it became impossible for the political goals of winning hearts and minds to retain supremacy in competition with narrower military objectives. Instead of becoming the main military objective, “winning hearts and minds” became not only subordinate but peripheral to military agendas. The precedent would influence future behaviour long into the future affecting the relationship between the State Department and the Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the second Iraq War, Rumsfeld kicked two civilians from the State Department off the plane taking personnel to Iraq to supervise the polity after the initial military victory. Thus, tossed overboard were State Department plans for resurrecting civilian control in Iraq, along with accurate prognostications of what would happen if they did not. Forty years earlier, the Defence Department combined with the Joint Chiefs of Staff took umbrage with and were incensed by the October 1963 report prepared by the State Department that the war, rather than being won, was at best at a stalemate and that any statistical analysis would show diminishing Viet Cong casualties and losses while their armed attacks kept increasing, When truth confronted power, power squelched the truth.

A number of norms emerge to complement those put forth by President Eisenhower.

  1. The conduct of counter insurgency war deserves equal respect with conventional warfare.
  2. In both types of warfare, the battle for “hearts and minds,” the corollary of the pre-eminence of the civilian over the military, must always trump mere military goals.
  3. War in whatever form is a science as well as an art and reverence for factual accuracy is not only basic, but needs to be revered even more when the “military” are engaged in counter-insurgency and covert warfare; the breach of this guiding principle became obvious when General Maxwell prevented Lt. Col. John Paul Vann reporting that the casualty figures claimed for the Viet Cong were grossly distorted because most of the dead were non-combatants.
  4. As a corollary, delusion must be avoided and critical thought deeply embedded in operational planning, as it was clearly not in the Bay of Pigs fiasco or when General Harkins was promising victory within a year and the ability to reduce American troops on the ground in six months or in the report of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, and Maxwell Taylor, then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reassured JFK in October of 1963 that the military task of the U.S. in Vietnam would be completed within fifteen months with only some residual cleaning up to do.
  5. Truth must never be sold out for “good” public relations. Piling lie upon lie is always bad public relations. CIA Director John A. McCone rejected pessimistic reports in favour of “sugaring the pill,” deleting lines from a report such as, “The struggle in South Vietnam will be protracted and costly [because] very great weaknesses remain and will be difficult to surmount.” The South Vietnamese government lacked “aggressive and firm leadership at all levels of command, poor morale among the troops, lack of trust between peasant and soldier, poor tactical use of available forces, a very inadequate intelligence system, and obvious Communist penetration of the South Vietnamese military organization.” Instead, the principal directive was, as distributed by the army in Vietnam to personnel was as follows: “Your approach to the questions of the press should emphasize the positive aspects of your activities and avoid gratuitous criticism. Emphasize the feeling of achievement, the hopes for the future, and instances of outstanding individual or personal credibility by gilding the lily. As songwriter Johnny Mercer put it, ‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative’.”
  6. Pluralism of input before final decisions are made is critical. Competing advice from other perspectives must receive a full and fair hearing. This was not the case when Senator Mike Mansfield, the Senate’s leading expert on Southeast Asia, advised LBJ to give serious consideration to the North Vietnamese feelers offering to guarantee a neutral South Vietnam in return for U.S. withdrawal, for the war cannot be won with “a limited expenditure of American lives and resources somewhere commensurate with our national interests in south Viet Nam,” contrary to Robert McNamara’s insistence that the U.S. would have to expend whatever it took to ensure a communist defeat.
  7. Tolerance along with pluralism must vanquish enforced unity and its twin, repression, and cannot make situations acceptable and tolerable, such as the treatment of Buddhists by the Catholic-dominated leadership in Saigon, especially when soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam poured liquid chemicals from tear gas grenades onto the heads of praying Buddhists in Huế. Recall the iconic picture of the Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in Saigon in protest against President Diem’s policies. Recall also the almost as famous cold and cruel response of Madame Nhu, President Diệm’s sister-in-law: “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others.” In the meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, David Cabot Lodge Jr., was organizing the plot with American military commanders, ARVN officers and White House backing, the overthrow of the House of Diem.
  8. Ensure your allies and alleged friends treat other allies and friends with the respect they deserve, in contrast with the way the Saigon Military Dictatorship treated the Montagnards (disarming the very civil self-defence forces the Americans had armed and trained, thereby undermining Operation Buan Enao. (This bears parallels with Erdogan’s Turkey bombing America’s armed and trained (and most effective) Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, in Iraq.)

The role of political leader and the role of Commander-in-Chief present in the same person inherently rest on a fundamental tension that is not only difficult but almost insurmountable to overcome. The tension introduces grave deformities in anyone who tries to fulfill both roles. More importantly, as we shall see, the office attracts both those who are inherently schizophrenic in some fundamental way as well as eager to assume the role of a Warrior Hero.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Obama in the Shadow of Truman and Eisenhower

Corporeality X: Obama in the Shadow of Truman and Eisenhower


Howard Adelman

The Obama Presidency has been marked by the strenuous efforts of Barack Obama to leave a legacy as a peace president. George W. Bush wanted to be a domestic president but was manipulated by his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, into becoming mired in two long wars – Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama started as an activist president intent on getting out of foreign military adventures, specifically in Iraq, to forge a breakthrough towards peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians, to set relations with Iran on a new course and end the threat of Iran as a nuclear power, and to recalibrate relations with Cuba. Where military action was not a prime option and where resolving disputes was mostly under his control and a matter of skillful diplomacy – Iran and Cuba – he was successful. In the case of Israel-Palestine, he and John Kerry spectacularly failed, not for want of trying, nor even for lack of skill, but, because the “partners,” each for his own reasons, were unwilling to resolve differences in ways that would be too much of a compromise as far as each was concerned.

Obama’s greatest failures have been where his powers as Commander-in-Chief have come into play – in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Admittedly each of these conflicts was wrought with tremendous difficulties. But Obama has not been able to manipulate those difficulties to the advantage of the United States. When it came to the intelligent use of military power either to extricate the U.S. from wars overseas or to remain involved in wars overseas in ways that advanced American interests, Obama, thus far, has proven to be a failure as a war president. This is particularly true in Syria where a war has gone on for five years, where the side he backed is being bombed by the Russians and forced to retreat in the face of an assault by Iranian proxies, where the common enemy of both Russia and the West, Daesh or ISIS, has been forced back, but only to the advantage of Putin and his allies, and where the costs of the Syrian war to Syrians has been enormous – a country left in large part in ruins, huge number of casualties, half the population displaced and with large numbers of refugees flowing into Europe in disarray.

My argument here is that a good part of the responsibility rests in the way the Office of the President is structured, where the President must be both a political leader and a Commander-in-Chief. Dubya Bush tried the fusion approach where his Office took the path of a coup and civilians seized control of the military. Obama has taken the opposite course, not of consolidation of his powers as both a political leader and the top military commander, but by reverting to the separation of the two powers as much as possible. But, as I will explain in future blogs, Barack Obama has been trapped by the structure of his own office where he has not been able to leave the conduct of war in the hands of his military, but had to involve himself too deeply in command and control responsibilities which compromised and undermined his role as leader of the American polity.

Would the Americans have been better off originally constituting the office so that the President only had responsibilities as a political leader and where military matters, other than overall considerations of political goals and policies, were left exclusively in the hands of military commanders? We do not know. Speculations of a “what if….” variety do not help when the real issue is playing well with the cards that you have been dealt. But Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau were left with a structure of an office where separation of powers was unequivocal. Harper engaged in token military involvement and sacrificed any Canadian diplomatic role. Justin Trudeau seems to be following a course of cutting back on military involvement where it might compromise Canada returning to the international stage as a diplomatic peace broker. I suggest that, under current conditions, the resurrection of this old option will no longer work. But that is a separate subject. Suffice to say that an alternative structure to the American one, a formal separation of powers instead of marrying them in the one office is no guarantee of success, especially when a country has been handed the responsibilities of leadership for the democratic side. But the separation of powers within the one body, while now unavoidable in the U.S., needs proper management. And proper management requires adequate understanding.

The question then is, given the combination of political and military leadership in one office, given the principle that civilian leadership must take precedence over the role of military leadership, and given the prior efforts of political leadership to enact a coup over the military and assume absolute control under George W. Bush, and given that the chances of a reverse coup of the military over civilian authority, which the founding fathers most feared, is a remote possibility, how can one strike a reasonable relationship between the two roles that neither fosters military adventurism nor, on the other hand, sentences the President of the United States to tripping over the enormous military capacity of the United States?

I pose the question in its starkest way to suggest that a resolution of the dilemma is virtually impossible. What is needed, as in most conflicts, whether external or internal, is the ability to manage the problem. And that requires first recognizing that there is a problem, attempting to put one’s finger on symptoms indicating that the tension between the two roles has gone awry, tracing how and why the relationship has become unbalanced, and determining what tools are available to set the relationship between the role of the President as a political leader and his role as a Commander-in-Chief on a positive synergistic path rather than one destructive in advancing the interests of the United States and the world. Non-citizens of the United States are impacted by an improper resolution but can only try to influence the situation given their advantage as outsiders.

Let us review the anatomy of the situation. The United States President is the elected political leader of the United States and the unelected leader of the free world. His political powers at home are fenced in by the division of political responsibilities between the executive, the legislative and the judicial branches, and externally because the American leader operates in a world of independent nation states. This is a given. But the President also operates within a strong presidential system that includes the role of Commander-in-Chief in charge of the various branches of the military, including state militias. He is a two-in-one president.

Further, he is a two-in-one president in which the possibility of a military coup is remote and the fear of one even more distant. But the possibility of a civilian coup over the military is readily apparent. However, there is a real danger that, in and effort to restore a reasonable separation of powers, both the adequate execution of responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief will be undercut while, at the same time, proponents of a civilian coup will be re-strengthened for they will have the backing of a disenchanted public. The fusion advocates, those who want civilians not simply to supervise, oversee, monitor and provide political direction and parameters for the military, but to run the military, will once again attempt to actually engage in command and control functions in an even more extensive way than Cheney and Rumsfeld ever attempted. In that way, America is open to dictatorship through the back door, not by the military seizing civilian power, but by civilians seizing compete control over the military as a means to engage America once again in adventurism abroad.

lt is important to emphasize what functions the President can and should perform if the responsibilities of supervising and monitoring the military are to be carried out without engaging in military operations. Briefly, the President should maintain but not exercise authority by setting forth policy directions and parameters without attempting to manage. It is a governing and executive function without management responsibilities. At the same time, the President must not apply military powers to matters of political concern – such as the treatment of prisoners of war. This is easier said than done when the major conflicts are irregular wars rather than wars between states and when the major enemies are terrorists and not other political states. Basically, the Commander-in-Chief must ensure that the military, in carrying out its independent functions, follows executive direction and operates within the rule of law.

Though difficult, it was far easier for Harry Truman to fire General MacArthur when the latter wanted to carry the Korean War into confrontation with the Chinese at the Yalu River and not simply cross the 38th parallel and sbring the North Korean government to its knees. Confronting the Chinese militarily could escalate the war and risked war with China and even the USSR. As the UN troops marched north and captured Pyongyang, China massed four armies and three artillery divisions along the Yalu River and even sent some probes across the river. When Truman awarded MacArthur his fifth Distinguished Service Medal at Wake Island and authorized the military operation north of the 38th parallel, he also insisted that risk of any conflict with China be avoided.

MacArthur could have avoided that risk instead of carrying the war to the Yalu River and even appearing willing, and perhaps eager, to cross it. He could have stopped 100 miles south of the Yalu River at the easily defensible narrow neck of the Korean peninsula only 100 miles wide between Angu on the west coast just in from the Yellow Sea linking up to the Taedong River and then over to Hamhung on the Sea of Japan to the east.

Instead, China was now directly threatened. Truman’s parameters had been breached. Truman had no choice if civilian power was to be maintained over the military but to fire MacArthur. The advance of UN forces toward the Yalu River had not been authorized.  Lest the Americans try to topple the Communist regime, as MacArthur had expressed a desire to do (already going well beyond his responsibilities as a military commander), a reluctant Mao Zedong crossed the Yalu River and pushed the UN troops back, first a long ways into South Korea and then retreating back to the 38th parallel.

So do you have to ensure military commanders do not exceed political boundaries at the same time as you have to prevent civilians from seizing management of as well as policy direction for the military? This has been a continuing conundrum, particularly in the aftermath of Korea. The one side of the coin is not preventing a military coup, but preventing the military from seizing control of political policy by the way operations are executed on the ground. General Eisenhower assiduously drew a heavy line between his responsibilities as President and responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief, in good part by leaving the operations of the military in the hands of his military chiefs, but also, because he had been a much decorated military officer, he understood where the military should not exceed its authority.

When General Dwight D. Eisenhower became President, he was acutely aware of these tensions and risks. When he was about to leave office, he articulated very clearly how that tension must be managed, directions often overlooked because of the huge publicity given to the use of the phrase military-industrial complex. That reference echoed historic American political anxieties resulting from the fears of the founding fathers of the dangers of a huge standing army, but with the addition of even larger fears that emerged after WWII over an ever-increasing arms industry acquiring unwarranted influence.

This was especially true in light of Eisenhower’s own famous 1957 doctrine that cast an even larger shadow, the policy that a country could request American economic assistance and/or aid from U.S. military forces if it was being threatened by armed aggression from another state. However, the real core of his final speech given three days before he stepped down was not a celebration of the Eisenhower Doctrine or his warnings about the industrial-military complex that was partially a consequence of that Doctrine, but rather his advice on managing the dual faces of the presidency.

  1. Recognize that the President and Congress are mutually interdependent and seek cooperation in managing the business of the Nation, especially on issues of great moment where agreement is essential, in order to serve the national good rather than mere partisanship. On this rule, Barack Obama has bent over backwards, an effort not matched over the last five years by the Republican-controlled Congress.
  2. Maintain America as the strongest, most influential and most productive nation in the world. On this, Barack Obama has had mixed results, but largely on the positive side.
  3. Recognize that America’s leadership and prestige depends, “not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.” Barack Obama deserves high marks on the goal of attempting to move the world closer to permanent peace and human betterment.
  4. Be modest in the use of one’s strengths and never arrogant, be comprehensive and deep in the understanding of issues, and be ready to engage in sacrifice in the face of enemies eager to inflict grievous harm on America and its allies, whether abroad or domestically.
  5. Be persistent, steady and sure in direction, especially in the face of ideologies which are hostile in both intent and practice, global in scope, ruthless in purpose and insidious in method. (Eisenhower added “atheistic in character, but I have omitted that phrase.) It is unclear whether Obama has succeeded in this regard.
  6. Emphasize multiple small steps across a spectrum of fields rather than surrendering to the recurrent temptation of betting on some spectacular, costly and purportedly miraculous action to confront current difficulties. Very high marks for Barack Obama in this regard.
  7. Delegate authority and responsibilities to farseeing and responsible officials; Eisenhower increased the size of the White House staff, not to take away power from departments and the civil service as Stephen Harper did in his efforts at micro-management, but to enhance the professionalism and the expertise of advice as in creating the office of national security advisor. I believe Obama has done this, but I am unsure.
  8. Institutionalize cooperation, coordination and especially the expression, articulation and exchanges of different viewpoints and perspectives as in Eisenhower’s weekly meetings with and use of the National Security Council. Obama has continued this legacy.
  9. Make balance the byword in good judgement in making policy: balance between dealing with specific issues and broader considerations; balance in and among national programs; balance between the private and the public economy (as distinct from the recent Republican overemphasis on relying increasingly on the private sector); balance between cost and hoped for advantage; balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.
  10. Respect independent and free research (Harper should have heeded Eisenhower’s words) while ensuring that public policy is not captured by a scientific/technological elite. (Already in 1960, Eisenhower noted that the blackboard had been replaced by hundreds of computers.) I do not believe that this has emerged as a powerful imminent danger.
  11. Do not surrender to the “impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.” Heed these words, as Barack Obama does and the climate change deniers do not.
  12. Always engage with allies in a “confederation of mutual trust and respect” among equals no matter how weak an ally may be, and never abandon the continuing imperative in pursuit of perpetual peace and, wherever possible, the avoidance of the certain agonies of war. To that end, the pursuit of disarmament had to remain a continuing imperative as “we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” Eisenhower confessed that in this area he had failed to make progress and Barack Obama can justifiably boast that he has made some.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Indivisibility and Divisibility within the U.S. Presidency

Corporeality IX: Indivisibility and Divisibility within the U.S. Presidency


Howard Adelman

Tomorrow, President’s Day, is on Monday, the 15th of February this year. George Washington’s birthday is on the 22nd of February. In fact, the holiday, for almost fifty years has been celebrated on the third Thursday of February to accommodate a public enamored with long weekends and retail outlets in love with scheduling great sales on such days. This year, President’s Day falls only two days after Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on the 13th of February. Anticipating such a fluctuation when the holiday was set for the third Monday in February, the day was renamed President’s Day from Washington’s birthday to celebrate both presidents. In reality, the day is now widely understood as celebrating the Office of the President and all its occupants rather than just one or two presidents.

President’s Day is now more akin to Victoria Day except that, in Canada, the day that used to be celebrated just as Queen Victoria’s birthday is now celebrated as the birthday of the current monarch as well, even though Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday falls on 21 April. The shift of one celebration to honouring the Office (U.S.) to the practice in Canada of celebrating the current monarch is telling. In Canada, the monarch is supposed to be a symbol of unity, but has become the symbol of Canada’s political fault line. The day that was once known in Quebec as Fête de la Reine became unofficially Fête de Dollard after the Quiet Revolution in the sixties and in 2003 officially became National Patriot’s Day. Our focus, however, is the United States presidency and the Canadian example will be used only as a foil.

So it is appropriate at this time to write about the nature of the office of the U.S. President and its current occupant. It is not as if all the occupants are worthy of celebration. I cite just one example, George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor in that high office. He ranks among the worst presidents in American history. Hence, the understanding is that President’s Day honours the high office much more than all its occupants. In contrast, there are no celebrations of the birthdays of any Prime Minister of Canada or the office. One of the essential features of the American presidential office, as distinct from the Canadian Prime Minister’s office, is that the person who is president is both the political leader of the U.S.A. as well as Commander-in-Chief of the American armed forces. Two positions are embodied in one person. In America, we find the dilemma of the elected king’s two opposite functions. The issue in the U.S. throughout its history has been whether those two powers are separable or inseparable in the one person, and, if separable, which part rules the other. If it is the civilian part, how is control over the military role exercised or, surprisingly since unanticipated, a coup of the military by civilians prevented?

The George W. Bush presidency can correctly be viewed as the embodiment of the doctrine both of the indivisibility of the office of the U.S. President and the infallibility of the actions performed by that office when it comes to military matters when indivisibility becomes the order of the day. The President can do no wrong. Ironically, this doctrine was enunciated at a time when George W. Bush delegated all his Commander-in-Chief responsibilities to a small coterie of officials around him. He never engaged in any substantive discussions of military policy himself. Robert Blackwill, for example, who was the coordinator for strategic planning for Iraq in the National Security Council in 2004, was never asked anything about Iraq even as he traveled with Bush daily in the 2004 elections. The exclusive focus was re-election. Further, as everyone who has written on the subject acknowledges, advisory meetings of top officials were exercises in silent hostility – whether between Richard Armitage and Doug Feith or Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. There were presentations but no substantive exchanges or discussions about policy decisions, thereby allowing Dick Cheney to determine policy by his control of the President. Condoleezza Rice tried but failed to facilitate such debates. George W. Bush was a Commander-in-Chief, but without the dignity such an office should have as he dithered and shook his legs up and down under the table in recognition that he was involved in discussions over and above his mental capacities.

Dick Cheney is usually viewed as the Rasputin influencing, exercising and, most importantly, defending that doctrine of presidential power. Not for George W. Bush, but for himself. George W. Bush is often, and, I believe, correctly seen as Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist dummy for Dick Cheney, Bush’s Edgar Bergen when it comes to foreign affairs. After all, George W. Bush consulted with only two officials before deciding o go to war in Iraq. Neither Dick Cheney nor Donald Rumsfeld were military officers, but policy advisers determined to use the military for their own political purposes. This was a case of the civilians seizing absolute control of the military for strictly political purposes.

David Graham in an article in The Atlantic (5 November 2015) reinforces this interpretation based on his interview with former President George H.W. Bush in anticipation of the latter’s forthcoming biography, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. The elder 91-year-old former President, George H.W. Bush, criticized the dominating Dick Cheney and the arrogant Ronald Rumsfeld for entrapping his son in initiating a foolish war for their own nefarious purposes. He referred to Cheney as, “Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East,” to advance their own imperial agenda.

Cheney’s belief in the untrammelled power of the Commander-in-Chief went back to his days as George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defence. In the 1990 lead-up to the first Gulf War, President Bush overruled Cheney’s advice that the administration should go to war without Senate approval, not because the approval was in doubt, but because Cheney was committed to the doctrine of the indivisible and absolute power in matters of war of the Commander-in-Chief. Bush père criticized his son for being a patsy in the hands of those two manipulators. Over time, but too late, Bush-son became disenchanted, first with Rumsfeld and then even with Cheney. After the Republicans were whipped badly in the 2006 elections, Bush fired Rumsfeld. He also gradually became sceptical of the advice he was receiving from his Rasputin.

The exercise of supreme and unchallenged authority, ostensibly by the President, but, in reality, by Cheney, extended into legal matters as well as military ones. The U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps (the JAGs) operates a court system dealing with civil litigation, tort claims, labour law, the application of just war principles and international law, but Cheney was primarily concerned with suborning the Judge Advocates, the licensed attorneys representing military service personnel. The dictates of civilian lawyers in the Defense Department, who are political appointees more than individuals with high standards of professionalism, were to determine what JAGs could or could not do. This was another area in which there was an effort to make the rulings of the Commander-in-Chief unaccountable to the rule of law.  But the most heinous example was the rules for interrogating captured alleged terrorists and not permitting them to have independent counsel.

Obama’s presidency can be viewed as the embodiment of the doctrine both of the divisibility of the office of the U.S. President and the fallibility of the actions performed by that office.

The American Constitution insists that the highest military authority belongs to the highest civilian authority; the President is the First Admiral, the First Chief-of-Staff and Commander of the Air Force. David Luban called this “fused dominion” characteristic not only of the American presidential system, but of warlords and military dictators, ancient hero-rulers and feudal Western kings. In the fusion, could the Commander-in-Chief suborn the civilian head of state or would the civilian head of state ensure that the military remained subordinate to civilian rule as the writers of the Constitution intended? If he did the latter, could he interpret that principle of domestic rule over the military from a supervisory role and ensuring military actions were governed by civilian-set goals? Or could and would he, in effect, engage in a military coup, not of the military over civilian office, but of civilians over military professionals by seizing absolute control over the military unaccountable to any other political institution?

In Jay Bybee’s torture memo, under the George W. Bush administration, the indivisibility of the office is cited to justify the presidential exercise of untrammeled power in the area of security matters. “The Framers understood the Clause as investing the President with the fullest range of power understood at the time of the ratification of the Constitution as belonging to the military commander.” What I call the indivisibility of the highest office, David Luvan calls the interpretation, as forged by the Bush administration, the consolidationist theory as distinct from separationist doctrine. The consolidationist view is summarized in the briefing of the Justice Department Lawyer to Congress, “The President Is Always Right,” what I call the indivisibility doctrine is upheld. In this interpretation of Article 2 of the Constitution, in the global war on terror, Congress cannot second guess the President. The President is entitled to use any form of interrogation for enemy combatants deemed appropriate without Congressional oversight.

So Abu Ghraib is not just about the rights of enemy combatants in captivity; the issue goes to the very heart of the meaning of the American Constitution. In the consolidationist view, courts that generally oversee the protection of such rights must also defer to the Presidency because courts lack the requisite competence of the Commander-in-Chief and cannot and should not tie the hands of the President, even by applying a criterion forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment.” More expansively, that doctrine invades limitations on the courts even in domestic matters, for the doctrine includes an absence of geographical limits to its application since global terrorists can be found within America itself. (Cf. Padilla v. Bush) In this interpretation of the battlefield, the military, not the judiciary, determine the status of the individual as an enemy combatant. In other words, using the indivisibility principle, qua Commander-in-Chief, the powers of the President in military matters were unlimited.

Barack Obama, a former Professor of Constitutional Law, opposed the indivisibility principle for interpreting the powers of the President. Though both powers were consolidated in a single person, the doctrine of separation of powers still applied and the responsibilities of a President as the highest civilian authority in the land entailed that civilian responsibilities, and responsibilities to the democratic polity, overrode any of his military responsibilities. Though I certainly support Obama’s interpretation, it is not as a legal scholar, but as a philosopher. However, my interest here is not even defending the divisibility and separation of powers doctrine, as much as indicating that this is an issue in contention in the United States because historically the Americans copied British developments at the time where the king was both head of government and Commander-in-Chief. It would trap Obama in a paradox from which he could not escape. (Read tomorrow’s blog.) In Canada, where the system was forged a hundred years later, the divisibility of military and civilian power became the dominant conception without any equivocation.

No matter which position one takes in the United States, given the consolidation of powers in the same office, there will always be an inherent debate on the “broad substantive war powers” conferred on the President, a virtually non-exiting debate in Canada. Why in the U.S. does Barack Obama personally decide who will be the target of drone assassinations? Is this an exercise in machismo? If it were, then Obama would be directly undercutting his belief in the divisibility of powers and the subordination of military to civilian authority in the Office of the President. From my review of the literature, I am convinced that Obama does it, not to usurp the skills and prowess of the military in selecting targets, but because of the danger of the military exceeding their areas of competence and using their resources to eliminate political leaders with serious political consequences internationally. The separation of military and civilian decisions even extends to the battlefield and the requisite just war norm that civilians are not to be targeted intentionally and only may be unintentionally killed in proportion to the importance of the military target. However, as another unintended consequence, such a premise relies on making the CIA another branch of the military.

When it is unequivocal that a Canadian Prime Minister is not the Commander-in-Chief, the rule of civilian authority over military power is unambiguous. But when the two functions reside in the same one body, even when the President wants to reinforce the principle of the divisibility of powers and the supremacy of civilian over military rule, he is trapped by his responsibilities and has to stay up late deciding whether it is appropriate to target this person or that person with a drone strike. He becomes the number one assassin on the world stage. It is almost as if an American who becomes President cannot avoid becoming an imperial President to some degree.


With the Help of Alex Zisman

Justin Trudeau is not the Commander-in-Chief

Corporeality VIII: An Undivided Prime Minister and the Division of Powers


Howard Adelman

David Bercuson, a noted military historian at the University of Calgary and Director of its Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, is also the Director of Programs of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute also based in Calgary. He wrote an op-ed two days ago in The Globe and Mail entitled, “Remind us, why are we pulling out of the IS mission?http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/remind-us-why-are-we-pulling-out-of-the-is-mission/article28663570/

The op-ed began, “The Trudeau government announced its intention to withdraw from direct combat against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the CF-18 bombing campaign) just two days after a major national poll revealed a majority of Canadians still support that very mission. To be sure, Canada’s efforts against IS will continue – we will train more anti-IS troops, we will provide more humanitarian aid, we will help our coalition partners with aircraft that can refuel their fighter jets and point them in the direction they need to kill IS and to destroy its governance and logistical centres, but we won’t be shooting IS ourselves. That’s not what Canadians want and the action taken by this government begs explanation from the Prime Minister himself.”

Not likely, at least in terms of an acceptable explanation. Instead others will have to provide one. Bercuson offers a sarcastic critical one, suggesting that the decision “possibly stems from his juvenile comment almost a year ago that his predecessor wanted to ‘whip out his CF-18s’ to meet the crisis, and nothing more. Unless that is, the Prime Minister himself is a pacifist…” There is a bit of insight in that off-the-cuff remark and even more in the book by the Canadian military historian who wrote, Canada’s Soldiers: The Military History of an Unmilitary People. We live in a peaceable kingdom but, as Bercuson says, when our soldiers “believe great evil is loose, directed against them or their allies (9/11 and IS), they do not shy away.” So why is Trudeau backing out of the air war, leaving behind refueling and guidance aircraft and reinforcing the training mission?

I have no inside knowledge, but I offer the following explanation. But first a brief review of the powers assigned to the Prime Minister for making (or not making) war. No matter which position one takes in the United States, given the consolidation of powers in the same office of both civilian leader and Commander-in-Chief, there will always be an inherent debate on the “broad substantive war powers’ conferred on the President, a virtually non-exiting debate in Canada. Canadians do not have that discussion because, in Canada, the armed forces are “Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.” David Johnson, the current Governor General, is authorized to exercise the powers and responsibilities belonging to the sovereign. He has been bestowed with the title, Commander-in-Chief, though the title has varied depending on how the armed forces have been organized.

Thus, all executive power as Commander-in-Chief is legally reposed in the Canadian sovereign. The only constitutional means by which decisions are made to declare war and who can command the deployment and disposition of the Canadian Armed Forces is the Commander-in-Chief. However, Canada has a system of responsible government. Declarations of war are issued with the approval, and in the name, of the Governor General on the advice of the federal cabinet. Further, formally, the Governor General appoints the Chief of the Defence Staff and distributes awards and honours.

There is almost no possibility constitutionally of the civilian head of the military, as commander-in-chief, that is, of the Governor General, engaging in overstretch. The GG’s functions are only formal. The resort to the use of the military is inherently a last resort by civilian authorities, making the danger of applying militarist principles to civilian life highly unlikely, but not altogether impossible as we shall see. The Prime Minister by definition is a Moses not an Aaron. He is exclusively a civilian political leader. Americans have to continually fight and argue to ensure that the President acts only in a supervisory way over the military and does not exceed his powers as Commander-in-Chief.

Military adventurism and a military coup are remote possibilities in Canada. However, the use of military measures in domestic politics has not been. This was evidenced when Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, while he was Prime Minister, invoked the perfectly appropriately titled “War Measures Act” to round up and imprison 500 or so Canadian citizens when homegrown separatist terrorists in the FLQ kidnapped and killed a provincial minister. They were arrested under the principle of état de siège fictif (a constructed state of siege).

Emergency degrees exist in the vast majority of democratic constitutions and a great deal of ink has been spilled on defining a state of exception. However, in the FLQ crisis, even the most fundamental premise of democratic government was suspended, namely Habeas Corpus. Further, it was done for the flimsiest of security reasons when there was absolutely no danger to the security of the state. Of course, coups take place in times of tumult, but replacing the fundamentals of domestic law should be reserved, if it takes place ever, only for a truly very extreme state of emergency, only then should the possibility of the suspension of the normal prevalence of civilian legal norms and invoking martial law be considered. As it were, in this case, the War Measures Act was invoked less for any “military” reasons to counteract a perceived threat than as a political maneuver to allow separatists to be branded as potential terrorists. This was the symbolic importance of invoking the War Measures Act, not civilian protection from a physical threat, but rather the political threat of separatism.

On 13 October 1970, just before Justin was born, and after Pierre Laporte’s’ body was found, that supposedly powerful proponent of civil liberties, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised drastic action. Three days after answering a reporter’s question of what he was going to do and, in response, replied, “Just watch me,” Trudeau delivered much more than drastic action; with the support of 87% of Canadians, he introduced the most extreme draconian curtailment of civil liberties in the history of Canada. (Cf. Larry Zolf (1984) Just Watch Me: Remembering Pierre Trudeau and the second volume of John English’s biography, Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, 1968-2000.)

When Justin Trudeau recycled the phrase in his campaign against Stephen Harper, the phrase did not mean, “I am as tough as nails.” It meant, I am my own man. Just watch me. I am not the keeper of my father’s flame. I am its antithesis with respect to war measures. I am not just a “chip off the old block” as Thomas Walkom claimed with respect to protecting human rights, easily cast aside in the face of a perceived threat. For Justin, diplomacy and witnessing would be the prime means of protecting human rights, both for Canadians and for those abroad. On the other hand, although Canadian political leaders are in a poor position to engage in adventurism abroad compared to American presidents, they are in a much stronger position to abuse human rights, especially when they have the backing of most Canadians.

Constitutionally, Canadian political leaders are predisposed towards the peaceful end of the spectrum in foreign policy but have few controls when it comes to the use of force domestically. The constitution reinforced his peaceful propensities abroad and the shaping of his psyche reinforced that predisposition so that, “Just watch me” signalled the very opposite message than the one Pierre Trudeau broadcast.

Beyond the psychological underpinnings of Justin Trudeau’s decision to withdraw the six Canadian CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft from the field of battle in Iraq and Syria, and contrary to any suggestions that the withdrawal was a measure to prevent “mission creep” or reduce the chances of Canada being targeted by Daesh, but consistent with his psyche as it has developed, Justin had four factors pushing such a response to extreme threats. First was an image. Justin wanted to project that he was not a Top Gun, that he was not macho. He was the very opposite of Putin. Though abandoned by his mother, he remained a mother’s boy with enormous sympathy for the plight of others – hence the powerful message about Canada taking in Syrian refugees.

But then why increase the advisers and trainers on the ground? Canada has a duty to its allies to participate in the fight, but without the stark macho imagery. Trudeau wanted to project an image of Canada as a peaceable kingdom, as a compassionate nation and as a member of the world community committed to combating man-made climate change. However, there were other reasons than the issue of media image.

Money is a second factor. In 1991, in the Kuwait War, over a much, much shorter period, Canada deployed four times as many jet fighter aircraft than in the current conflict in Iraq and Syria. The costs were enormous. Jason Kenney testified in the House of Commons that the deployment of the aircraft in Iraq and Syria would cost $403 million per year. The cost of the Syrian refugee resettlement program was estimated at $1.2 billion over six years, or $200 million per year. Even with leaving the non-combat aircraft in the theatre of war against Daesh, the saving in cancelling the CF-18 fighter aircraft would far more than offset the costs of the refugee resettlement program plus the increased training program. Then there is the capital cost of replacement of fighter aircraft. The cost of 65 new F-35 Lightnings to replace the CF-18 Hornets is now $30 billion over 30 years, or $1 billion per year or slightly more than $15 million per aircraft per year.

In addition to the issues of media image and money, there is also the issue of using a measured response to the danger posed and responding in a measured or proportional way. To assess the problem, just examine the use of the six Hornets at this time last year. They were either used to directly attack ISIL targets or in support of air operations. As I counted, there were roughly 14 missions in January last year. Typically, the jets would attack a few ISIL positions and destroy some military equipment. At the end of January last year, “On 29 January, Canadian CF-18s attacked two ISIL positions and two vehicles. Following that on 30 January, they bombed an ISIL position northwest of Baghdad.”

At what cost in human civilian lives, in compromising our sense of obligation towards civilians?  “An airstrike on an ISIL position along a highway northwest of Mosul …on 21 January in support of efforts to retake the road,” resulted in anywhere from 6 to 27 civilians dead. The next major target in the war will be Mosul. It has half a million inhabBercuson

Justin Trudeau is not Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian armed forces. He can make withdrawal decisions on non-military grounds far easier than Barack Obama. George W. Bush ran for office on a domestic agenda and a foreign policy based on disengagement. He ended up becoming a war president. Early in his presidency, Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Adviser, insisted that Bush had no interest any longer in America serving as the “world’s policeman.” Look where he ended up! Based on his foreign policy adventurism guided by a Svengali vice-president, Dick Cheney, George W. Bust became one of the worst presidents in American history. Barack Obama was elected to unify America, to restore its economy and to withdraw from undesirable wars like Iraq. He presides over a deeply divided America though with a recovered economy, but without benefitting most Americans. Most of all, to his personal great regret, America is once again deeply involved in Iraq.

When it is unequivocal that a Canadian Prime Minister is not the Commander-in-Chief, the rule of civilian authority over military power is unambiguous. But when the two functions reside in the same one person, even when the President wants to reinforce the principle of the divisibility of powers and the supremacy of civilian over military rule, he is trapped by his responsibilities and has to stay up late deciding whether it is appropriate to target this person or that person with a drone strike. He becomes the number one assassin on the world stage. It is almost as if an American who becomes president cannot avoid becoming an imperial president to some degree.

I do not know how valid this effort at an explanation is, but it behooves all of us to search deeper for explanations instead of simply serving as Justin Trudeau’s superego. I believe that strategic considerations alone do not come near to explaining Trudeau’s withdrawal from the field of battle of the six Hornets since the withdrawal makes too little strategic sense.


With the help of Alex Zisman