GOP contenders say foreigners in charge of American forces - What's true?
March 29th, 2011
09:26 AM ET
7 years ago

GOP contenders say foreigners in charge of American forces - What's true?

(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."

National Caveat

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."

Arab League

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.

Filed under: 2012 • Libya
soundoff (88 Responses)
  1. Redleg

    Maybe if these people had served instead of chickenhawking they would know what they are talking about.

    March 29, 2011 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  2. sheila rosa

    palin and huckabee why don't you shut up and stoop opening your stupid mouths..your going nowhere..

    March 29, 2011 09:29 am at 9:29 am |
  3. Rsprings

    Dudes it s now a UN mission. Thats what we signed up for when we joined he UN.

    March 29, 2011 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  4. insert sarcastic remark here

    “I don’t believe there was 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.

    So are you saying British General Bernard Montgomery never commanded all Allied forces, including American, during Operation Overlord during WWII?

    March 29, 2011 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  5. Al-NY,NY

    as usual, the wingnuts throw half-truths/innuendo out there hoping it will stick. Of course the sheep will lap it up like nobodies business but normal, thinking people will see it for what it is.....anything to discredit Obama

    March 29, 2011 09:33 am at 9:33 am |
  6. LovesIrony

    Geeze would these people stop lying and grandstanding? How do they continue to keep doing this with no consequences?

    March 29, 2011 09:34 am at 9:34 am |
  7. Steve From NH

    So what we're being told is that Sarah Palin, Haley Barbour, and Mike Huckabee are either ignorant, opportunistic liars, opportunistic lying politicians, ignorant opportunistic lying politicians, or all of the above. No suprises here...

    March 29, 2011 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  8. Yemi Mike

    Amazing how much misinformation the GOPs get out there. And to think Huckabee and Palin are eyeing the presidency. Its such a shame.

    March 29, 2011 09:35 am at 9:35 am |
  9. Debbie from Arizona

    As always, with these no clue Republican want-to-bes, President Obama is always wrong. It doesn't matter what he does. Dammed if you do, dammed if you don't. I'm just thankful that President Obama is in charge and not these idiots.

    March 29, 2011 09:36 am at 9:36 am |

    The lies of the GOP are limitless. I will hold my nose and vote for Obama, just to protest the new GOP.......the party of knownothingness.........Reagan is rolling over in his are Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln...........

    March 29, 2011 09:36 am at 9:36 am |
  11. Carmelle

    I knew they would find SOMETHING to criticize!!! Good Lord, those people are SHAMELESS! Wasn't it how it was supposed to be in Iraq???? Do you think that Nato command has to American commanders in it??

    Oh!! Hey you claimed to be "fiscal conservatives" - You want America to be in the forefront of this, but yet you support union busting to supposedly "balance the budget", you want to fire teachers and gvt employees, but yet you want to pour more money into a 3rd war!!!???

    I can see Obama 2012 from my house!!

    March 29, 2011 09:38 am at 9:38 am |
  12. Realistic

    So the pea brains in the republican party want to be president but doesn't even know how things work in NATO and so on. As stated above, the supreme commander in NATO is an American who is in charge of the mssion, get it. However, because one man cant be everywhere, he delegates operations to his subordinates, get it now pea brains? I bet its still to complicated so go ahead hold on to drocainian propaganda.

    March 29, 2011 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  13. Randy, San Francisco

    The Palin foot in the mouth disease runs rampant on FOX news. Everytime Palin and Huckabee talks nonsense it only demonstrates how unqualified they are to be president. Part of the blame falls on their staff for not educating them on issues they know nothing about. Thanks to FOX news for exposing their flaws.

    March 29, 2011 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  14. NancyRose

    Wow, the Alaska hag is NOT EVEN CLOSE to telling the truth about any part of this! Not that anyone should be surprised, given that this thing has proven over and over that she has NO understanding of anything in this world today. How does this beast look at herself in the mirror each day, knowing that all that spills out of that hole in her face are lies, lies, lies?

    March 29, 2011 09:39 am at 9:39 am |
  15. greg in jax

    Can someone please let the Huckabee, Palin, Barbour and the entire Right Clan know this information. They need to learn the truth before speaking, at least that it was rational people do. But then again, they are just trying to rile their base so they probably do know but are just lying. Its not like the pastor and other havnt lied before.

    March 29, 2011 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  16. vin

    Palin, Huck, et al = dumb as a box of rocks.

    March 29, 2011 09:40 am at 9:40 am |
  17. Nothing New

    It's nothing new – the GOP is just grasping at straws to try and find anything and everything wrong with the mission in Libya. They (the GOP) have to have something to get their base all stirred up – silly GOP!

    March 29, 2011 09:43 am at 9:43 am |
  18. John

    Such idiots the Republicans are. Don't they bother to check what the real story is before they run their mouths?

    March 29, 2011 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  19. Mark E

    The screams from the right are so sickening the tea party/repubs need to be booted so far from this land is closer for them to the moon. Whats up with these morons who know nothing but expect us to vote for them? You have to be kidding.

    March 29, 2011 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  20. chris

    This is why the Huckabee and Palin should continue to pursue the lime light of media entertainment and really stay away from politics!!! These guys don't have a clue. Both are nobody's who for whatever reason are still trying to be somebody's!!! They should both just take their ongoing 15mins of fame and shut up!!!

    March 29, 2011 09:44 am at 9:44 am |
  21. Not the point

    As an American who has fought under foreign commanders, I must say that whatever fears the GOP have are unfounded. Every foreigner I served along side of were some of the most professional and smart soldiers i have ever met. In a mission so highly scrutinized by media outlets around the world, it is highly, highly unlikely that any foreign leader would place an incompetent, non battle-tested leader in charge of anything. Besides, its not even our fight. Who are we as a country to decide what goes on over there?

    March 29, 2011 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  22. azmary

    Sounds like people who want to be CIC don't even know America's (or apparentely any other nation's) military command structure and history. Someone needs to hand them a history book and a bunch of military operations manuals.

    March 29, 2011 09:46 am at 9:46 am |
  23. kelsey's grammar

    The headline should be - "GOP Presidential hopefuls show they know nothing about foreign policy and NATO military operations."

    March 29, 2011 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  24. Jon in Rochester NY

    Far be it for these GOP wind bags to get the facts before they start shooting off their mouths. They will only be happy if the US gets into an all out and out war with ground troops. Maybe they would have been happier if Obama trumped up some unfounded "weapons of mass destruction" charges. Obama has done the right thing by keeping our involvement at a minimum.

    March 29, 2011 09:48 am at 9:48 am |
  25. Amercaneedsrealists

    Kimmit 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." This is the same as taking orders from a non American commander. I realize that the US commander could refuse but in actuality we are taking orders from a foreign commander; why can't the press just state the facts.

    March 29, 2011 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
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