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. Jeff

    This is another example of Tea Bagger candidates just plain lying. They didn't misunderstand or mis-speak. They lied. They lied to stir up emotions, make their supporters mad and to get votes. If you understand the issues and you really have a better plan, you shouldn't need to lie to get support.

    March 29, 2011 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  2. James Brooklyn N.Y.

    Once again the right spewing lies just to score point with the uneducated right wing base. Anyone who listens to Fox news it a stupid ignorant person.

    March 29, 2011 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  3. liberalevang!

    What I still don't understand is how any christian can with conscious vote for a republican. They lie at will and are extremely mean spirited

    March 29, 2011 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  4. Tony in Maine

    Huckabee becomes less relevant each time he opens his mouth and spews.

    March 29, 2011 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  5. ReallY!!?

    Not only did BUSH had a coalition going into IRAQ he had the approval of Congress. Did we forget the slaughtering of the Kurds at the hand of Saddam? It seems Obama wishes to rewrite history or show just how ignorant he is. If "humanitarian" effort to stop slaughtering of innocent civilians then we need to go into, Iran, Sudan Bahrain, and most of Africa!
    "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."– Then-Sen. Barack Obama answering a December 2007 question by the Boston Globe

    March 29, 2011 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  6. Former Republican, but never again!

    Palin's an idiot! I'd rather hand over control of our forces to NATO than to her any day!

    March 29, 2011 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  7. Steven Colo

    The folks who sold the civilian side of the country to China object to having the military report to anyone else? WTF?

    March 29, 2011 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  8. Jim Johnson

    Huckabee is a nincompoop. American military men have served under foreign offiicers since the revolution starting with Gen Lafayette, Marshall Foch in WWI, Gen. Montgomery and Admiral Mountbatten in WWII, etc. Conservative = ignorant.

    March 29, 2011 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  9. dan

    Obama is by far the worst President I've ever seen. They spend and spend and people are out of work for years. Their biggest concern is whether two same sex people can tie the knot, not if people are losing their homes and out of work. If he was the President durning the great depression America would have been lost forever. VOTE HIM OUT!!!

    March 29, 2011 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  10. Inmyopinion

    I think most countries by now have figured out that Obama was taught to always please everyone and be admired for being mister easy going, don't take everything so serious, turn the other cheek, be happy, even if another country gives our troops orders. I think President Obama truly sees the world through rose-colored glasses.

    March 29, 2011 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  11. BobJ

    Wow!!! The entire CNN web site has not ONE story on the "Fast and Furious" gun walking program that was approved by the DOJ (Eric Holder loser). This allowed 1700 high-powered weapons to be bought by Mexican drug cartels. The gun shops alerted the ATF and were told to allow it to happen!!! But not one story from CNN – Communist News Network.

    March 29, 2011 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  12. PD.

    Are you kidding me! Is this what the Republican Party is reduced too? I think the Republicans are tying themselves in knots because Obama is doing this WITHOUT boots on the ground. If this were a Republican President, they would be cheering. Give me a break.

    March 29, 2011 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  13. ReallY!!?

    US attacked Libya along with French etc. That is an act of war and Obama did not get approval of Congress. Who r these rebel? Why r we blindly supporting a group that could turn on us. Obama justification was arrogant, angry and baseless. U can make the case for Syria as well. Why r we going into Syria, Bahrain, & Sudan? People are getting slaughtered there too. To lash out at Bush when he is doing same thing is the poster child for hyprocrisy and only his kool aid drinkers would believe. Face it we are in another war! Obama's war. If it was wrong for Bush to do it, it is wrong for him to do it! Obama answers to the Constitution, Congress & citizen. Not the UN or NATO!!!

    March 29, 2011 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  14. Republicans Are The American Taliban

    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?”

    Who has command and control of your children Sarah, as you go for weeks at a time pandering for the Republicans? When WILL you return to take control back over your own children?Why are you a self proclaimed "hockey mom" when none of your children play hockey??

    March 29, 2011 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  15. Greg in Arkansas

    Once again, Palin and Huckabe demonstrate their lack of understanding of American History and the military chain of command.....but it translates to votes from other folks that also didn't pay attention in history class.....GOP motto: Say anything to win.

    March 29, 2011 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  16. Just Sayin

    President Obama is supposed to be the Comander In Chief of all US forces. The authority to command those forces stems directly from him and no other. The President gets his authority from congress (representatives of the people).

    It gets sticky from here forward.... What involvement does the administration and congress have since control ot the troops have been/will be turned over to NATO. What is the name of the official appointed by the president, and approved by congress that represents US intrests in this endevour? Is it the president himself? I believe that we are on questionable ground at this point and calrification is required. If it can't be clarified then we need to fix it.

    March 29, 2011 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  17. MikeMazzla

    One of those dopey Republican comments that really is baseless....typical..especially for Palin.

    March 29, 2011 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  18. Tim

    The GOP contenders are going to criticize everything that our President does, irrespective of how ridiculous they sound. They do not take the time to find our what is really going on; to the contrary, they jump at the first opportunity to criticize using empty-headed sarcasm and innuendo. I just hope that more and more people see this blithering folderol for what it is.

    March 29, 2011 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  19. GOP = Greed Over People

    Three GOP "candidate" caught in lies and once again they know nothing of what they speak?

    This is a daily occurrence for these 3.

    Props to CNN for actually calling the 3 Lying Mushrooms out on their "version of history".

    March 29, 2011 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  20. WB

    The more Palin speaks, the more she show that she is a moron. But it seems this strategy is working; so now another two, usually smart people, are joining the morons parade: Barbour and Huckabee. Do they have any idea that we are part of Nato and how Nato forces operate???? It has been the same thing in Afghanistan for the last 9 years.....

    March 29, 2011 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  21. Jay

    Once again, Palin shows her ignorance. Enough already.

    March 29, 2011 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  22. Russ

    Republicans, bless their stupid little hearts. How many different ways can they twist the truth to make headlines? Well the answer is an infinite number of ways. Sad part is, CNN takes time to print their stupidity on these pages. To start with if it comes from Fox News, it isn't worth reading unless you like fiction. Please spare us from further attempts by these morons to distort the truth.

    March 29, 2011 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  23. elly

    You just lost another voter,you are a "Flip Flop Mr. Hucklberry. Keep going with your "Statements" though. You help our President and sensible "Clear Thinkers" in this country with our second term in office. Stay your coarse, Mr. President,and thank you Sec.Clinton for improving our Image to the world.

    March 29, 2011 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  24. OneMoreTime

    So, if you ever needed solid proof that Huckabee, Palin, et al are not qualified to be President of the United States,
    read this article. This shoot from the hip and ask questions later mentality demonstrates the total lack of interest
    these people have in knowing the facts and the truth before mouthing off. They have absolutely zero knowledge of
    how the military works, what options the Commander in Chief has, and how he will protect the military and it's mission regardless of "coalitions". What is worse, they apparently don't want to know. I think we can legitimately call them

    March 29, 2011 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  25. marty

    It's 'unconscionable' that the Huckabees and the Palins let corporations, the Fox media and persons of great personal wealth actually control their activities and, much worse, control their verbal comments and critiques against the present administration or any American who disagrees with their ideology. It's incredible that the Rev Huckabee and perennial quitter Palin hold any credence re: national politics. It's obvious that each would sell their soul and agree to be manipulated by the greediest among us to gain power and enable the demise of the middle class in these United States.

    March 29, 2011 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
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