That’s what you’ll conclude if you read Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s War. (You can read excerpts of it here, here and here.) You thought you voted for change when you cast a ballot for Barack Obama? Um, not when it comes to America occupying countries that don’t begin with a “U” and an “S.”
In fact, after you read Woodward’s book, you’ll split a gut every time you hear a politician or a government teacher talk about “civilian control over the military.” The only people really making the decisions about America’s wars are across the river from Washington in the Pentagon. They wear uniforms. They have lots of weapons they bought from the corporations they will work for when they retire.
For everyone who supported Obama in 2008, it’s reassuring to find out he understands we have to get out of Afghanistan. But for everyone who’s worried about Obama in 2010, it’s scary to find out that what he thinks should be done may not actually matter. And that’s because he’s not willing to stand up to the people who actually run this country.
And here’s the part I don’t even want to write — and none of you really want to consider:
It matters not whom we elect. The Pentagon and the military contractors call the shots. The title “Commander in Chief” is ceremonial, like “Employee of the Month” at your local Burger King.
Everything you need to know can be found in just two paragraphs from Obama’s War. Here’s the scene: Obama is meeting with his National Security Council staff on the Saturday after Thanksgiving last year. He’s getting ready to give a big speech announcing his new strategy for Afghanistan. Except…the strategy isn’t set yet. The military has presented him with just one option: escalation. But at the last minute, Obama tells everyone, hold up — the door to a plan for withdrawal isn’t closed.
The brass isn’t having it:
“Mr. President,” [Army Col. John Tien] said, “I don’t see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell General McChrystal, ‘I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I’ve chosen to do something else,’ you’re going to probably have to replace him. You can’t tell him, ‘Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.’ And then where does that stop?”
The colonel did not have to elaborate. His implication was that not only McChrystal but the entire military high command might go in an unprecedented toppling — Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. Perhaps no president could weather that, especially a 48-year-old with four years in the U.S. Senate and 10 months as commander in chief.
But here’s the question Woodward doesn’t answer: Why, exactly, can’t a president weather ending a war, even if he has to fire all his generals to do it? It’s right there in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution: The President’s in charge of the military. And so is Congress: the army can’t just march over to the Treasury Department and steal the money for wars. Article I, Section 9 says Congress has to appropriate it.
In the real world, though, the Constitution’s just a piece of paper. In the real world, a President who fired his top military in order to stop a war would be ruined before you could say “bloodless coup.” The Washington Post (filled with ads from Boeing and Northrop Grumman) would scream about how he was the reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain. Fox and CNN (filled with “experts” who work for think tanks funded by Raytheon and General Dynamics) would say he was a girly-man who had to be impeached. And Congress (which experienced its own escalation in lobbying from defense contractors just as the Afghanistan escalation was being decided) might well do it. (By the way, if you want to listen to Lyndon Johnson talk in 1964 about how he might be impeached if he didn’t follow the military-industrial complex’s orders and escalate the war in Vietnam, just go here.)