(CNN) - In a recent interview on Fox Business Network, potential Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called it “unconscionable” that President Obama would allow American servicemen and women to serve in a NATO mission helmed by a non-American.
“I don’t believe there was (sic) ever a point at which U.S. troops should be getting their orders from someone who is not sworn to uphold the same Constitution,” the former Arkansas governor said.
Sarah Palin seemed to second that, telling Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, “Are we really going to turn over command and control to the Arab League and to the British and the French? And when do we reclaim our command and control over our troops?”
We asked a handful of experts if American service members are taking orders from non-Americans.
“There is an unbroken chain of command from the soldier on ground to the President of the United States,” said retired Brigadier Gen. Mark Kimmitt, who served in multinational commands overseas. "Legally it can't be done any other way."
A senior Defense Department official added, “At the unit level, Americans always take orders from Americans.”
Canadian Heads Libya Mission
Currently the head of the NATO mission in Libya is a Canadian, Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard. So are Americans taking orders from him?
CNN Pentagon Correspondent Chris Lawrence explained, “Allies like the British and Canadians will have positions of authority within what's called a Combined Forces Air Component. But no nation just "hands over" their troops.
Lawrence added, “When U.S. pilots fly these strike missions, they’re reporting directly to American squadron commanders.”
American Supreme Commander
Max Boot, Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, also pointed out that the person in charge of the whole mission is an American, Adm. James Stavridis of the U.S. Navy.
CNN’s Lawrence said Stavridis “is the NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. So even the Canadian general who is running ‘Operation Unified Protector’ ultimately reports up to the American Admiral Stavridis.”
Lines of Authority
So how does Adm. Stavridis' office explain allied vs. American command? Col. Greg Julian, Chief of Public Affairs for Allied Command Operations, told CNN that in a NATO mission there are "always at least two distinct chains of command: a national command and a multinational chain of command."
He explained foreign officers might have "operational control,” "tactical control," or support responsibilities. But American commanders retain direct control over U.S. troops. And Col. Julian said, "As Commander and Chief, the president always retains and cannot relinquish national command authority over U.S. forces."
Kimmitt broke it down further: “A foreign officer can direct U.S. forces to conduct missions and operations but doesn't take command of these units." He added that "coalition forces must follow the orders of their home countries ahead of the orders of the coalition." He also noted that "this is not unique to the U.S."
What if a foreign commander orders an American battalion to do something that goes beyond the president's mission or is outside the U.S. Rules of Engagement? The American can refuse the order.
It's called a "national caveat," which Kimmitt described as "routine." He said "the U.S. commander must inform the foreign commander that the U.S. will not allow the unit to conduct that mission." He added this opt-out national caveat "is fully accepted among coalition partners."
In a recent interview, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour – like Sarah Palin – seemed to suggest that the Arab League may be among those directing American forces. Barbour told an interviewer with the American Family Association last Friday, “We can’t let American military power be controlled by the Arab League, controlled by NATO, controlled by whatever the E.U. And that is what Obama’s policy seems to be.”
But the Arab League is not involved in command of the military mission in Libya.
The organization called for a no-fly zone, a diplomatic development that signaled Arab public support. But the Arab League does not command NATO or American forces. Some of the Arab League's member nations – the United Arab Emirates and Qatar - have offered military support for the mission. NATO's Col. Julian said, "We are in coordination with them and other international partners."
First Time Ever?
Sarah Palin also told Fox’s Susteren, “We're going to hand over command and control to a steering committee. I don’t think that this has ever been a part of foreign policy, a military mission in the U.S. before.”
Actually, foreign officers have had operational control of U.S. troops many times before. The Council on Foreign Relation’s Boot points out that during World War II the British had operational control of some U.S. troops. A senior Defense Department official offered more recent examples, including the mission in Bosnia and currently in Southern Afghanistan.
Kimmitt concluded, “U.S. troops must always, first, answer to their own chain of command before they answer to the operational requirements of a foreign commander.”
CNN’s Lawrence said, “There’s some foreign commanders in the hierarchy, like when a British General rotated into command of military operations in southern Afghanistan two years ago. But to say American troops are simply ‘taking orders from foreigners’ is simplistic."
And Col. Julian noted, "the president also has the authority to terminate U.S. participation in multinational operations at any time."
– CNN's Kevin Bohn contributed to this report
Follow Jessica Yellin on twitter @yellincnn.