GOP contenders say foreigners in charge of American forces - What's true?
March 29th, 2011
09:26 AM ET
11 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. Terry in Iowa

    Just more lies and propaganda from republicans; they ignore facts and truth, because they know their base will eat it up without thought or worry. They’ll use Fox news and the rest of the Murdock/Koch brothers’ propaganda machine to ensure all the ditto heads hear the misinformation, which most will adopt it as fact, though all evidence shows that it is false.

    This is how these people work; power and wealth at the expense of all that is right about America. Make no mistake, these are evil people.

    March 29, 2011 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  2. jean

    To other nations America is a foreign country. Every man is created eqal. Perhaps if more Americans realize that we are no better or worse than other people, we may begin to see a more peaceful world.

    March 29, 2011 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  3. Vern

    That's just like the republicans to talk wnat they don't know or just plain lies! Why? Just simple tell the truth, do your research before you comment. Is that so hard???!!!

    March 29, 2011 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  4. Name Jeremy from Dallas

    These so called presidential material need to sober up. I swear these are the most stupid candidates in recent history. Their whole political agenda is peddling lies and fear.
    I am a retired Major and worked for United Nations on active military duty for 4yrs. All people interviewed above are correct. Palin and Hucks need to coil down. They got nothing to offer. Did they forget the role of NATO and command structure?

    March 29, 2011 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  5. Rick McDaniel

    Someone has to be in charge of any multi-national military organization, and that CANNOT ALWAYS be the US.

    Get over it!

    March 29, 2011 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  6. Rick James B----

    So we should go it alone again? Someone has to be in charge, you don't see other countries questioning US leadership when we're leading a Coalition. Oh BTW i'm currently Active Duty Military, trust me it doesn't really bother us military folks.

    March 29, 2011 10:43 am at 10:43 am |
  7. curzen

    Who cares, this is part of working together in an alliance as the NATO, you don't have to always run the whole show yourself which I appreciate. Keep US involvement brief under the lead of NATO and let them sort out the mess locally among themselves – Europe, Africa, Arab League. It's nice of the US to get involved and help out.

    March 29, 2011 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  8. Tom

    This is just another case of republicans going for Obama. They should do their homework every once in awhile, before just spewing accusations.!!

    March 29, 2011 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  9. Bill

    More right wing rhetoric trying to paint Obama as weak on national defense. No matter what Obama does the right wing will object. It is disgusting. It is not about what is best for the troops, the mission, or the country. It is just a matter of defy Obama and take him down. These pathetic losers on the right are such hypocrites. Frankly, neither I nor the rest of the country should give a rats ass about what quitter, money monger Palin thinks (if that is possible) or says.

    March 29, 2011 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  10. Jonathan

    Well, it just goes to show how naive, and uniformed most of these GOP candidates are. Their arguement just doesn't all. Its completely laughable! I am sorry, but with statements like these being made, how can they actually be taken seriously.

    March 29, 2011 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  11. TC

    For these right wingers it's just anything to bring down the President. They don't care about national security.. and idiots like Sara Palin don't even understand National Security. But Barbour does and he is clearly pandering to the Obama hates America crowd. It is really sad. What ever happened to the right screaming about not being critical of the President during time of war... I guess that rule does not apply if the President is Black and a democrat... Yeah I said it.. he is BLACK.. stop acting like President Obama's race is not an issue because you know it is!!!!!!!!

    March 29, 2011 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  12. mf

    palin is dumb as ever and time and time again she keeps proving it. sarah palin will never be allowed to run for president as the GOP needs a mouth piece to talk their talking points of degrading Obama because it wont look nice for the repub candidates to talk against obama so here comes palin who will do their dirty job. Secondly she will not run because she knows she will not win and she doesnt want two failures one as VP and second as President candidate. i cant bet she will never run she is preparing herself to pour out attacks at the OBAMAS. BUT THE PRESIDENT AND HIS FAMILY HAS MY BLESSINGS AND IN THE END GOOD PREVAILS

    March 29, 2011 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  13. Name king

    Just lome the repugs to pull crap out their a... Throw it on the wall and hope the numskull follow their lies. Did they just come up with NATO, or is this the first time the united states worked with the other UN nation, some one have to be in charge, why do we have to be in charge all the time, won't this cause decention, then cause countries not to work together to better our world, or do these repugs want us to do this by ourselves, then bitch and blame Obama about budget deficit. Just like the did in Afghanistan by forcing the president to send an extra 30000 soldiers, costing billions of dollars, then immediately started bit hing that the president is spending too much. They then high jack the America again, forcing the president to spend billions of dollars in tax cut for the rich last January, and as soon as they did that, they start bitching that the president is spending too much and need to cut middle class and poor folks money. When is these people will stop forcing the president hand by high jacking the country, then when he cave in, they flip flop, bitching that he's spending and every thing they can do to sabotage

    March 29, 2011 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
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