The president is commander in chief? Yes, but it's complicated

In his campaign, Trump promised to kill family members of Islamic State and institute torture in interrogations. But presidents often find it tough to get the national security bureaucracy to carry out their programs.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Interpretive park ranger Caitlin Kostic speaks to Donald Trump as she gives him a tour of Gettysburg National Military Park in October. Compared with the Civil War, the military bureaucracy is vast, entrenched, and frustrating for presidents with their own national security agendas.

Along with his presidential victory, Donald Trump will also become the nation’s next commander in chief – a prospect viewed with equal parts alarm and fist-pumping anticipation by voters this week.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump promised to “take out” the family members of the Islamic State and “knock the hell out of” the terrorist group through mass bombing. “We’re fighting a very politically correct war,” he said in amping up his anti-ISIS rhetoric last December. The problem, he added, is that “We have a president that doesn’t know what he is doing.” 

He has also suggested that he’d order the Pentagon to institute interrogation techniques worse than waterboarding, which is itself widely considered torture. “Torture works,” Trump said. When US military officials responded they would refuse to carry out these orders, Trump added during a March debate,“They’re not going to refuse me. If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas reiterated this week that waterboarding would be fairly administered by Trump if necessary. “Waterboarding isn’t torture,” Senator Cotton told CNN.

The remarks give the impression that US national security policy is simply a matter of presidential will. In fact, the national security apparatus has become so big and entrenched that presidents often find it frustratingly tough to carry out their own national security agendas, despite campaign promises popular with their base.

While running for president in 2008, then Sen. Barack Obama vowed to wind down the nation’s wars. Pressured by US military advisers, however, President Obama ultimately decided to send 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan.

It has become Washington lore that as he convened his second-ever meeting with the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review group, Obama asked whether there was anyone among the 18 members gathered who thought the US should leave Afghanistan. No one raised a hand, as journalist Bob Woodward tells it.

“The dirty little secret here,” said Brad Berenson, former associate counsel to the Bush White House, “is that the United States government has enduring institutional interests that carry over from administration to administration and almost always dictate the position the government takes.”

Going along with bureacrats 

This is a recurring lament among modern-era presidents, notes Michael Glennon, former legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On the heels of Dwight Eisenhower’s election, his predecessor Harry Truman remarked that he might find himself surprised upon assuming office. 

“He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ and nothing will happen. Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating,” Mr. Glennon, now professor of international law at Tufts University, recounts in his book, “National Security and Double Government.”

That’s because career bureaucrats look upon elected officials as temporary occupants, especially in the realm of national security. “It has often happened in the War and Navy departments that the generals and the admirals instead of working for and under the secretaries, succeeded in having the secretaries act for and under them,” Truman said.

And the career bureaucrats can always wait out the political appointees, Mr. Glennon notes. Indeed, of the Department of Defense’s 668,000 civilian employees, for example, only 247 are appointed by the president.

This explains in large part why the national security policies of both Democratic and Republican presidents have been remarkably similar in the modern era, regardless of campaign trail promises.

Like his predecessor, President Obama took part in policies that he and his fellow Democrats previously criticized, for example, sending terror suspects overseas for detention and interrogation, and holding without trial US citizens accused of terrorism in military confinement. 

Trump has promised to end what he described as Obama administration leniency on immigrants, which could include Islamic State adherents, he argues. In fact, the Obama administration deported more illegal immigrants during its first six years than the Bush administration did over eight years, according to a recent Pew Research study. Pew found that between 2009 and 2014, 2.4 million people were deported from the US.

The National Security Agency under Obama engaged in warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, as it did during the Bush administration. 

Drone strikes, too, have escalated dramatically during his tenure. President Bush before him authorized some 50 drone strikes that killed 296 terrorist and an estimated 195 civilians in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. By contrast, President Obama has authorized 506 strikes that have killed 3,040 terrorists and some 400 civilians, according to a January analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The CIA gets what it wants,” Obama told his advisers when the CIA asked for authority to expand its drone program, according to New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti in his book, "The Way of the Knife."

Presidents retain control

Part of the dynamic might be that once the president is barraged by top-secret briefings, he is “scared straight” by top intelligence officials. “When they enter into office and are exposed to classified information that they didn’t have before, they can change their views,” says Eric Posner, professor at the University of Chicago Law School. 

Yet Mr. Posner argues that there are plenty of examples, too, including the Iraq War, where the president does what he wants. Since the end of World War II, presidential powers have been expanding, he notes. It was the first time that the US military didn’t almost completely demobilize, but instead maintained relatively large standing armies with bases all over the world.

“The president more or less had almost complete control over these forces, starting in the 1940s and continuing today,” Posner says. “Unless the president is weak-willed, there’s no particular reason why he might be intimidated by national security agencies.” 

What would happen if instead of stonewalling generals publicly defied a presidential order to, say, reinstitute water-boarding?

As the nation’s most respected institution, according to a number of surveys, the military could sway public opinion. But the prospect of officers disobeying the president and contravening the Constitution would set off alarm bells in many quarters.

In such an event, a president could seek backing from Congress and build public support for his views, Glennon notes. Faced with that, the generals would have little choice but to back down – or resign.

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