Don’t Forget Who Is The Commander-In-Chief

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a national security consultant at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

gibson.JPGAt last night’s Democratic debate in Philadelphia, ABC News anchor Charles Gibson seemed confused as to who sets American policy in Iraq. On similar questions poseed to Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, Gibson strongly implied that military commanders, not the president, should set American policy in Iraq. Both Clinton and Obama had to remind Gibson that the president sets strategy and policy, and that the military executes it.

But it shouldn’t be surprising that Gibson’s confused about who sets policy in Iraq – both President Bush and Senator John McCain apparently believe the buck stops with General David Petraeus, commander of American forces in Iraq, and not with the commander-in-chief.

In his April 10 speech on Iraq, President Bush portrayed himself as someone who merely accepts the recommendations of General Petraeus. Bush further abdicated his policy-making responsibility by stating Petraeus would “have all the time he needs.” As he made clear in an address to the nation seven months earlier, Bush views his role as one of supporting Petraeus, not acting as commander-in-chief.

John McCain has made clear he would cede his authority as commander-in-chief to Petraeus. At the annual meeting of the Associated Press, McCain was asked if he would divert troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. His reply: “I would not do that unless General Petraeus said that the situation called for it.” McCain, who has touted his national security credentials on the campaign trail, has preemptively avoided the responsibility for making hard strategic choices about America’s broader national security strategy.

For his part, General Petraeus has not made such far-reaching claims for his own authority. He correctly noted in his Congressional testimony that questions of overall American strategy and policy are outside his bailiwick as commander of American forces in Iraq. As he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I’ve been sort of focused on another task.”

Both President Bush and Senator McCain have sought to hide their unpopular Iraq policy behind the four stars of General Petraeus. They have passed the buck on their real and potential responsibilities to set American strategy as commander-in-chief.