Perhaps no single aspect of American politics is as revealing as the persistent question, “Does Barack Obama have what it takes to be Commander-in-Chief?” Step back for a moment and think about what that question says about the role of an American president. Commander-in-Chief, leader of the armed forces, in charge of military engagements anywhere and everywhere in the world. It is now widely believed that Obama’s lead in the polls is being held back because voters are unsure of his readiness to command the American military machine. Last week Obama took the bait, journeying to Afghanistan to proclaim his willingness to escalate the fighting there. Isn’t that what a good Commander-in-Chief does, decide where to send the troops?
Hillary Clinton’s whole campaign was based on her perceived readiness to be Commander-in-Chief. Remember the ringing telephone ad, “Its 3 a.m., somewhere in the world, something is happening” breathes an excited voice. Couldn’t you just see Hillary leaping out of bed and launching cruise missles in her presidential pajamas? The sad thing is that the ad helped her win the Ohio and Texas primaries. According to the Wall Street Journal , by a 57% to 40% margin, Ohio voters felt Mrs. Clinton would be a better Commander-in Chief. So it isn’t just the power mad neo-conservatives or the hard-nosed realists who are looking for a Commander-in-Chief, a significant portion of Democratic voters are, too.
All of these individuals, journalists, academics, military leaders, Republicans, and Democrats are assuming the empire. We assume a President’s main job is to use our massive military machine to the run the world for our benefit. Do the British or the Germans or the Japanese debate whether their candidates for high office will make a good Commander-in-Chief? Of course not, they don’t assume that their country has the power to get involved in every conflict, assume it has the right to impose its will on other countries, in short, the right to act with imperial pretentions. Oh, there were times when they did, and all three countries suffered in the 20th century because of those pretentions. Perhaps that is why they are so wary when Americans point our cruise missles at another “enemy of freedom.” While we claim to be coming to help, what we are really doing is meddling in someone else’s business.
There is an ancient parallel to our Commander-in-Chief syndrome. Voters in the Roman Republic elected two consuls each year. In addition to presiding over meetings of the Senate, the consuls were literally the generals in charge of Rome’s armies. Voters, knowing that their consuls would also be generals, usually elected political leaders with good military credentials to both minor and major political offices. As a result, ambitious men sought opportunities to enhance their military reputations, sought opportunities to incite warfare with neighboring tribes and peoples. Politics in Rome became a viscious cycle, seeking military glory, individuals went out and provoked wars and clashes with other nations; those who were most successful at this bloody game won election to higher office. Is it any wonder that the Roman Republic ended up beseiged, with an unruly empire, plagued by revolts by conquered peoples and demands from her generals for more soldiers, more money, and more power. Ultimately, the political system collapsed into civil war and the elections and civil liberties that had distinguished the Roman Republic were sacrificed for the efficiency and order of an Emperor.
Read more about this dynamic in my new book – Perils of Empire: the Roman Republic and the American Republic, just click on the golden book cover to your right and order it from Algora Publishing (algora.com) or Amazon.com.