During Saturday night’s ABC/Yahoo! Republican presidential debate, former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman rapped former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on failing to recognize the chain-of-command of the U.S. military. By design, the military leadership is subservient to the president, a fact most GOP contenders have ignored throughout the campaign as they sought to portray Barack Obama as weak on national security.
Romney has, as on so many issues, flip-flopped on whether or not a president should defer to his generals in making decisions about war and peace. Initially, he said Obama should defer to military leaders, then walked his position back and said he would listen to the generals’ “input” and make his “own decision.” During Saturday’s debate, Romney didn’t quite return to his initial position, but he did punctuate his statement on a plan for Afghanistan by declaring that he would be “listening to the commanders on the ground.”
Asked to respond, Huntsman, who’s spoken out for a more speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan, lept at the opportunity:
MODERATOR: Governor Huntsman, you have a disagreement?
HUNTSMAN: Yes. I would have to tell Mitt that the president of the United States is the commander-in-chief. Of course you get input and — and advice from a lot of different corners of Washington, including the commanders on the ground.
But we also deferred to the commanders on the ground in about 1967, during the Vietnam War, and we didn’t get very good advice then.
Watch a video of the exchange:
The U.S.’s top military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin Dempsey, and other top generals agree with Huntsman. “I find some of those articles about divergence or control of the generals to be kind of offensive to me,” Dempsey recently said. “(A)t the end of the day, our system is built on the fact that it will be our civilian leaders who make that decision and I don’t find that in any way to challenge my manhood, nor my position. In fact, if it were the opposite, I think we should all be concerned.”
Huntsman concluded his comments on Saturday by declaring that “civil war is around the corner in Afghanistan.” He said he doesn’t want to spend more money or lose more troops in that scenario and the U.S. should “move on.”