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. rocky

    Why is the GOP so trivial about president Obama decisions they never seem to offer any solutions? Repulicans are such a hateful bunch it is so sad.

    March 29, 2011 09:49 am at 9:49 am |
  2. Ken in NC

    This is just further proof that Tea-Publicans don't have a clue about how our government functions and they want to fix what they don't even understand. Now I see why it got so screwed up between 2000 and 2008, stupidity.

    March 29, 2011 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  3. John in Brooklyn

    Fox and the Republicans apparently hate our allies in Canada and Europe. In a world that is becoming increasingly global, isolationists are so out of touch with reality that they are laughable. NATO has been a strong and effective alliance for the past 65 years...nothing new or clandestine, as Fox and the Republicans would have people believe. And, yes, NATO troop commanders do come from a wide spectrum of the 28 NATO member countries and, despite Fox and the Republicans' point of view, it is neither practical nor equitable to assume that Americans will always be in charge of American soldiers (or Brits in charge of Brits, Germans in charge of Germans, etc.)

    March 29, 2011 09:51 am at 9:51 am |
  4. leftcoastbue

    So, do you mean to tell me that Sarah Palin - along with the other GnOP morons - is shooting from the hip again, without knowing the ACTUAL FACTS in the matter? What a surprise...

    March 29, 2011 09:52 am at 9:52 am |
  5. Bob Ramos

    Although I have come to expect it by now, I very much resent how Palin, Haley, Huck and the rest of the Repub wantabees keep insulting the intelligence of the American people. The facts, as explained by the military experts, directly contradict what they claim to be fact.

    March 29, 2011 09:53 am at 9:53 am |
  6. tip

    I'm very pleased that CNN took the time to clarify the statements that were made by huchabee and palin. There are too many times that we allow politicians to make statements, which are never fact checked. A well informed person can make good decisions on what issues they support or are against. I would hope that you continue this type of journalism in the future.

    March 29, 2011 09:54 am at 9:54 am |
  7. diridi

    GOP is bunch of idiots....that's it....It is only a temporary mission for ground troops in Libya....o.k...No New Ground Troops....o.k, did they understand????????idiots...

    March 29, 2011 09:58 am at 9:58 am |
  8. Howard

    Whatta lotta hooey! What automatically makes an American the only choice for a multi-national command? What would happen if every nation took the same position regarding its own forces? It would mean there wouldn't be any multi-national military operations. Wouldn't Hitler have been overjoyed at that prospect?

    March 29, 2011 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  9. Doug

    And who cares if that is true? Really. Damn American ego will kills this country and all those we try and protect.

    March 29, 2011 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  10. Chaos

    Palin has her facts wrong yet again.

    March 29, 2011 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  11. FacebookPolitician

    So basically, Republicans are trying to score cheap political points by making things up.

    March 29, 2011 09:59 am at 9:59 am |
  12. Critical Thinker

    Palin and Huckabee are displaying their ignorance of military operations in plain view. People who do not know what they are talking about should be silent learners, not pot-stirrers.

    March 29, 2011 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  13. PalmReader

    "But to say American troops are simply ‘taking orders from foreigners’ is simplistic."

    Yes, well, suffice it to say that everything coming from this years GOPer *contenders-crowd* has been nothing but simplistic sound bites. Which says a great deal about this crop of GOPer Presidential wannabee's, all of whom lack leadership, sound ideals, problem solving solutions, decision making skills, or even the most basic of critical thinking skills. Doubtful any ONE of them actually want to become President . . . they'd rather just spend their time criticizing our current President. Good grief, not one of them has yet decided TO run, (although three - Bachmann, Pawlenty, Gingrich - have now begun their *exploratory* campaign, whatever that is), and instead spend all their limited campaign time in an indecisive - maybe, maybe not - game of limbo, sounding more like dithering idots than Presidential contenders.

    March 29, 2011 10:01 am at 10:01 am |
  14. atteloc716

    Talking stupid to their base, thats why independents will vote against this crowd and the right!

    March 29, 2011 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  15. PNWjim

    So with the same amount of time and intelligence, the three stooges could of had all the correct information to tell their supporters, but then that would not cause any up roar among the herds.Does it not make a difference that these people lie and yet they want to run this nation.

    March 29, 2011 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  16. SeattleMark

    If you want to clearly see why some of the idiots running around the US posing as "Leaders" are not worthy of that title, simply read this. Do they think WW2 was won by straight lines of authority. War is complicated, the world is complicated, and simple minded folks need to watch how it works, not try to run it themselves.

    March 29, 2011 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  17. kevin

    As a member of the military I am offended. These statements are so false it's criminal.

    March 29, 2011 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  18. Brian Nordin

    Great story except that the headline give credence to the GOP lies – the entire story refutes the idea that the American Military will be controlled by the Arab League, NATO or some other country like France or Great Britian in great detail by numerous knowledgeable sources. Shouldn't the headline be "GOP leaders clueless in acessment of how US Military command works" or something like that. If you read the entire article, you realize either how ignorant Palin, Huckabee and the others are, or how ignorant they think their listeners will be to believe the lies they say. Tell the truth CNN – in substance and in the headline!

    March 29, 2011 10:06 am at 10:06 am |
  19. Emerson

    Then I guess these GOP simplistic idiots do not believe in NATO? If the President had the US running the show then they would be complianing about us being involved in another foreign war (like the two fruitless ones that your party got us into). I guess there will always be peoplelike this who will do and say anything, no matter how hsitrionic, to get attention for their own power and money purposes.

    March 29, 2011 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  20. dave

    In other words, the GOP noise machine will say anything to confuse the American people and undermine the president. From death panels to birtherism, this is a sad state of affairs for the Republicans. Where did all of the adults go in their leadership?

    March 29, 2011 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  21. MBer

    So in other words, the Republicans who made these statements are just plain wrong, as usual. Is there anything they won't say just to hang on to thier ever-dwindling flock of informationaly-challenged syncophants?

    March 29, 2011 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  22. sonny chapman

    To understand a Repub., one must revert back to the Fifth Grade. Palin & Bachmann are there already, having never left that mind-set. Huck & the other "adult" Repubs. know better , but they pander to the lowest level of the once decent party with some good ideas.

    March 29, 2011 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  23. GOP-Tea Party IDIOTs

    I like the way GOP-Tea Party IDIOTs frame the argument on foreign policy....always makes Sarah Palin looks smarter than a fifth grader, NOT!!!

    And Huckabee?...well, im sure this bible-thumping turd believes that the worshiping of Jesus Christ who was born a Middle Easterner was “unconscionable”?! How dare he was Arab!!!

    March 29, 2011 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  24. Marian Atkinson

    You are nuts south of the Canadian border! NATO is a coalition of allies! If you don't want anyone but Americans, then get the h...ll out of NATO. You certainly wanted the Canadians in Afghanistan! The Palins and Gingrich's are NUTS!!! CNN you are nuts to be giving them so much coverage.
    Marian in Newfoundland, Canada

    March 29, 2011 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  25. Carol

    Neither one of these talking heads have ever been involved in a mulinational /Nato program. So why does anyone care what they say? They are experts at running their mouths only. Really ,they don't know enough about to even have an opinion. When did talking heads with no foreign expierence become experts at this I'd like to know.

    March 29, 2011 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
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