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Today's word on

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Those were the days:

"The way I had it is all gone now. The bars are
gone, the drinkers, gone. There remain the smartest, healthiest newspeople in the history of the business. And they are so boring that they kill the business right in front of you."

--Jimmy Breslin, newspaper columnist, 1996 (Thanks to alert WORDster Jim Doyle)


Why the president shouldn't be commander-in-chief

By Leon D'Souza

January 24, 2005 | By the time he ascended the Macedonian throne at the age of 20, Alexander III was already regarded as a formidable military mind.

No stranger to the rigors of command, he had tested his mettle in the hot seat at only 16, when his father, King Phillip II, vacated the throne to lead an attack on Byzantium. Four years later, as the new warrior-king of his father's flourishing empire, Alexander wasted no time: He ordered the execution of all of his potential rivals and steered his armies south in a campaign to solidify control of Greece and confront the Persian Empire.

This was a titan in the making. A legendary hero who, before his untimely death at 32, had conquered much of the known world, and through his resilient heroism, inspired a legacy of valor that spawned a long and glorious tradition of great leaders. Men like Napoleon I of France, George Washington, and more recently, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led their nations in battle and changed history -- from the frontlines.

These were men keenly perceptive of the nuances of leadership, especially in wartime. They were intuitive, self-confident, well-read, articulate, and in my view, most importantly, adept in military affairs. They had "been there, done that," so to speak. When their nations looked to them for statesmanship, they didn't disappoint. They understood the mechanics of war, and the importance of an effective dialogue with their top military leaders.

They refused to act impulsively, favoring decisive maneuvering over foolhardy flag-waving and unreasonably aggressive posturing. They were experts at calculated decision-making. Bottom line, when in the middle of a war, these men knew when to act and when to listen. They knew when to step up to the plate and when to defer command to those who better understood changing strategic conditions.

With their military backgrounds, these Commanders-in-Chief, or CINCs, were skilled in what Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies calls "unequal dialogue" -- a type of military conversation "in which the leader sets forth his own thinking, while at the same time probing and questioning his generals." This is certainly a skill the present American CINC (pronounced "sink") could learn a thing or two about.

To call President Bush "militarily inexperienced" would be to give the onetime below-average pilot for the Texas Air National Guard, whose military service continues to be the subject of coffee-table conversation, too much credit. Put plainly, the president is a military doofus. While the mass destruction and ongoing turmoil in Iraq is evidence of bad planning, there is something more fundamentally wrong with our bumbling supreme commander. He doesn't seem capable of learning the essentials of effective leadership.

Call it an aptitude deficit.

Take, for example, his comments to veteran journalist Bob Woodward in the latter's portrait of the president, the evocatively titled Bush at War. When asked about what he made of Cohen's concept of "unequal dialogue" and his role as "prober," Bush told Woodward he saw himself as more of a "provoker."

"One of my jobs is to be provocative . . . to provoke people into -- to force decisions," Bush said.

Furthermore, the president sees himself as having almost totalitarian power to play devil's advocate.

"I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain -- I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation," Bush bellowed.

Hardly the sensible words of a military chief -- especially one with so much power at his disposal.

Listen to John Dean, FindLaw columnist and former Counsel to the President of the United States: "Bush plainly does not engage in 'unequal dialogue.' Indeed, it appears that he engages in no dialogue whatsoever. Others explain their positions; he does not explain or suggest his own. . . . For example, Woodward reports that when disagreements arise within Bush's war council -- as they have, for example, between the CIA and the Defense Department -- Bush does not pursue the disagreement to settle it. Rather he turns to his able national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and instructs, 'Get this mess straightened out.'"

Without sounding like too much of a wiseacre, dare I suggest that the president is no more fit to command the military than he is to command a credible coalition of allies in this fierce new war on religiously-motivated global terrorism. His command is hurting, rather than helping, the cause he so zealously espouses. Left as is, the president's deficient leadership will lead to a drawn-out engagement of U.S. ground forces in a hostile and inherently dangerous environment.

Consider Novemberís disturbing casualty toll, with 109 U.S. troops being killed in battle, taking the Pentagon's official count to 1,230 U.S. military deaths.

And it only gets worse.

"November has been the second deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion, and the Pentagon is braced for rising violence ahead of crucial parliamentary elections set for Jan. 30," Reuters' Will Dunham reported last month.

Now would be a good time to reevaluate the president's military standing. Said Dean: "I think it best that Bush Junior proceed as his father did, and let the military handle the war."

I suggest we go a step further and reconsider the effectiveness of having civilians hold the weighty title of Commander-in-Chief during wartime. When all is said and done, not every White House occupant is endowed with the military aptitude of a Washington or an Eisenhower, and clearly, civilians with little or no military experience are ill-equipped to lead in times of armed conflict.

"For example, President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara immersed themselves into the details of Vietnam. But they 'looked at the wrong details and drew the wrong conclusions from them,'" Dean wrote in a piece for FindLaw's Writ, referencing Cohen's influential book, "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership In Wartime."

Wouldn't a system, such as the one in operation in India before 1948, when the "Commander-in-Chief in India" reported to the civilian "Governor-General of India," be more effective in streamlining decision-making authority and improving efficiency during war? This way, civilian and military leaders could serve as a check-and-balance on each other, bringing about an opportunity for needed scrutiny and accountability.

No commander would be able to say, as Bush did to Woodward, that he did not "owe anybody an explanation." Reckless misadventures could potentially be nipped in the bud.

It's worth a thought. After all, as the great American general George S. Patton once said, "No good decision was ever made in a swivel chair."


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