Mr. President, don't salute the troops this 4th of July

By Michael C. Desch

The Fourth of July is one of the most patriotic of holidays and nothing arouses national passions more than the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces. The urge to do so is especially ardent given that the country has been at war continuously for the last ten years and these soldiers have made many sacrifices for the country, from spending long periods of time away from their families in less-than-hospitable climes to the ultimate sacrifice of their health and even their lives. 

Gratitude for their service is also tinged by a sub-text of guilt, given that fewer and fewer of us have joined them around the colors. This is true not only for Americans in general, but even for our elected leaders. Where once, veterans of military service were over-represented in elected office, today they are under-represented, as William T. Bianco and Jamie Markham document.

This trend is also manifest at the very highest level of the executive branch. For much of the Cold War, there was an unbroken line of presidents who served in uniform, (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush) but the post-Cold War era has seen one president whose state-side Vietnam-era military service was questioned and two presidents with no military service whatsoever. No matter what the outcome in November, our next commander-in-chief will not be a veteran.

Ironically, now that we are increasingly electing individuals with little or no military service these presidents are returning the hand salute of members of the armed services more often. While one can find pictures of presidents before Ronald Reagan (who perfected it) returning the hand salute, an admittedly unscientific Google image search turns up relatively few examples of them doing so, and often it is not always clear whether they are actually "throwing the high-ball," as my late father-in-law a career air force officer used to put it, or just waving.

Conversely, after Reagan it has become de rigueur for presidents to return the hand salute. Bill Clinton, who "loathed" the military and avoided serving in it during the Vietnam War, got off to a rocky start, saluting like Hawkeye Pierce in a M*A*S*H* rerun. Conversely, Barack Obama, who also did not serve in uniform, but was obviously a quicker study, or at least coached sooner, rendered a snappy salute from the get-go. George W. Bush, whose Vietnam-era service was shaky, not surprisingly returned some pretty shaky salutes. Still, it seems that the "militarization" of the presidency is accelerating precisely at the time in which its occupants have the flimsier military credentials. The cynic in me wonders whether they aren't related? 

The real question is whether this emerging custom is appropriate? The salute, according to The Air Force Officer's Guide is "an exchange of greeting" among "men of arms." No one knows for sure how it began but many believe that it originated in the need for armor-clad knights to have a reliable means of recognizing their comrades. According to lore, upon meeting a comrade, a knight would use his right hand -- with which he might otherwise wield a sword -- and lift his visor, simultaneously making a friendly gesture and also revealing his identity. In the post-armor world, the custom continued of using the hand that might otherwise use a weapon to greet other friendly soldiers. Today this custom reinforces the hierarchy of the chain of command, with lower ranking officers and enlisted rendering the salute, which is then returned by the more senior officer. 

It is certainly befitting that all uniform members of the military to render a salute to the president by virtue of his (or her) role as commander-in-chief. But I find the trend among presidents -- either bona fide war heroes like Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush -- or those with less distinguished war records, or none at all, of returning hand salutes discomfiting. My reservations are grounded in military custom and the constitutional role of our presidents as Commander-in-Chief.

In terms of military protocol, while it is true that the practice of rendering and returning salutes while not in uniform is not completely absent among the services, it is pretty rare. The air force advises officers in civilian clothes to use a different form of salute, "placing the right hand (and hat) over ‘the left breast'" when the occasion demands a sign of respect. The army also stipulates that "salutes are not required to be rendered or returned when the senior and subordinate are both in civilian attire." The navy's (and presumably also the marine corps) usage is similar: Salutes "received when in uniform and covered shall be returned." If the senior officer is not in uniform, the expectation is that he or she "shall not salute" but rather acknowledge the salute in some other appropriate fashion.

One issue in terms of military protocol, which is admittedly not fully dispositive on this question, is whether the commander-in-chief is in uniform or not? But unless we are prepared to regard the president's dark suit, white shirt, and blue or read tie as a "uniform," it is hard to argue that the C-of-C is required to return the salute on that basis. 

Another concern is, as the navy puts it, would a president's failure to return a salute "cause embarrassment or misunderstanding"? By my, again unscientific, investigation of this question (mostly gleaned from discussions of civilian protocol while visiting military installations over the years), many (but not all) officers I spoken to find the practice of presidents returning salutes unnatural. In other words, I am not alone in my discomfort. 

Finally, opinion about presidents saluting seems to wax and wane depending upon who is in office. I heard fewer objections when Reagan and W. saluted and more grumbling about it when Clinton and Obama emulated the Gipper. One might argue that the former served and the latter did not and that explains the different reactions. This is true but hardly settles the issue as the debate ought to center on the nature of the presidency in our system, not the personal history of its current incumbent.We certainly don't want respect for the commander-in-chief to be a partisan issue.

But it is the constitutional issue that is ultimately dispositive for me. America's Founders took deliberate steps to ensure civilian control of the military. One was to split the war powers -- the power to declare war and the conduct of the war itself -- between the legislative and executive branches. Their aim was to prevent the president from becoming a king. But they were also careful to specify, as the participants in debate at the Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 framed it, that the president was a "civil," not a military, officer. As one participant observed, George Washington was not president when he was a general and not a general when he became our first president. Civilian control of the military was at the core of how the Founders thought about the institution of commander-in-chief and I worry that we are losing sight of that when we treat it as just another military rank.

I am also troubled that the related trends of presidents not only returning salutes but also adorning themselves in various forms of military accoutrement (flight suits, pilot's jackets, unit or ship baseball caps, etc.) represent more manifestations of what historian (and former army officer) Andy Bacevich characterizes as the "new American militarism." This concern that the fundamental distinction between the military institution and the rest of civilian society is eroding is not the exclusive preoccupation of Left-wing college professors. After all, President Dwight Eisenhower, another army veteran and a political conservative by all but today's extreme definition, warned in his famous "Farewell Address" of the growing influence of the military in our society through its increasing interpenetration with ostensibly civilian institutions. It seems to me that my reservations on this score naturally follow from Ike's.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that presidents should ignore the respect paid to them when members of the military salute them. I am simply saying that there is a more appropriate civilian way for them to acknowledge that salute, and thereby honor the service those individuals render to the country. President Truman, for example, was content to simply remove his hat. Since President Kennedy, few presidents have worn hats in public (another deplorable trend, in my humble opinion) so we need other means for them to acknowledge a military salute. I'd argue that a nod in the direction of the individual saluting, a quite word of thanks, and perhaps a handshake would be sufficient. Presidents should, of course, honor the troops -- they just should not salute them.

Michael C. Desch is the co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Program.


Stephen M. Walt

Arab secularism and its discontents

I am pleased to offer the following guest post by Nasser Rabbat of MIT:

Nasser Rabbat writes:

The euphoria sparked by the 2011 Arab uprisings has settled into realpolitik. The youth who initiated the protest movements split into myriad organizations or withdrew in despair. The Islamists, disciplined through decades of clandestine political action, took over in Tunisia and Libya, and are poised to wrestle power from a recalcitrant army in Egypt. The secularists, assumed to be the natural allies of the West, are weak and divided. In Tunisia and Egypt, they garnered fewer votes in the elections than predicted. In Libya, they retreated from the National Transitional Council, leaving the Islamists to occupy its most powerful positions. In Syria, still struggling against a belligerent and criminal regime that is proving hard to nudge, the secularists in the opposition are constantly bickering, whereas the Islamists are organized and goal-oriented. Arab secularism, the events seem to suggest, is a spent force. The United States and other Western governments, claiming to be responding to the realities on the ground, are engaging the Islamic parties as the defining new paradigm of Arab politics.

Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no. To begin with, the record of the West in the Arab world is patently not pro-secularist. Indeed, if we are to limit our assessment to the regimes that have been consistently backed by the U.S. in the last fifty years, we will find on the top of the list Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Morocco, all avowedly Islamic regimes, at least in their claims to legitimacy or their application of Islamic law. Conversely, some of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. have been the secular regimes of the Baath party in Syria and Iraq, though their secularism proved skin-deep and opportunistic. Moreover, when the United States decided to avenge the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated as they were by an extremist Islamist militancy, its most decisive act was to destroy the secular regime of Iraq. Eight years later, when the Americans finally withdrew from Iraq, they left behind not only a flagrantly sectarian regime, but also a political class composed largely of religious movements umbilically linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Nor does history show much Western support for the budding secular tendencies in the early twentieth century, which coincided with the colonization of most of the Arab world. Pragmatism may explain why colonial powers, Britain and France in particular, preferred to deal with traditional leaders. They had political influence, economic clout, and a wide base of clients. That they adhered to conservative forms of piety added to their usefulness: They understood the mechanisms of religious authority and could manipulate them to appease potential popular unrest. The few Arab secularists, on the other hand, even though thoroughly westernized and belonging to the social elite, were seen as troublemakers. Having been profoundly influenced by the principles of the Enlightenment, they formulated strong demands for liberation, democratization, and modernization. Many clashed with the colonial authorities and paid a heavy price of imprisonment or exile.

Independence, when it finally came, fell smack at the height of the Cold War. The West, which was eventually reduced to the United States, was seeking to build alliances of nations committed to countering the Communist threat. Conservative regimes, such as those of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, were obviously the most promising allies. So the West supported them regardless of their religious agendas. When military regimes came to power in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq after the defeat of these countries in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, they first toyed with accepting Western tutelage. Their subsequent turning to the USSR as a patron more sympathetic to their national causes, however, did not translate into espousing communism or rejecting religion. Ungodly these military regimes certainly were, but they were not secular. They neither believed in nor practiced the separation of religion and politics. They in fact heavily relied on religious symbolism to frame the image of their one inspired despot and his family or clan. This was the case of Anwar al-Sadat after Camp David and his successor Hosni Mubarak, as well as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Fundamentalism and its defiant social expressions actually grew under their watch, even if they had been relentlessly suppressing all Islamic political organizations, or any other political activism for that matter.

Secularists had no place in such a system. Those who dared to speak out against it found themselves dismissed from their jobs, jailed, or forced to leave their countries. Some, who persisted in their criticism of the dictators or of the rigid views of the growing Islamist extremists, like the journalists Salim al-Lawzi and Samir Kassir in Lebanon, Hidaya Sultan Al-Salem in Kuwait, Farag Foda in Egypt, and Mohammed Taha in Sudan, were assassinated. Others, unable to cobble together a political structure to unite them like the Islamists had, channeled their political activism into more intellectual and artistic pursuits. Secularism, already accused of elitism because of the social background of its proponents, became even more rarefied as it migrated either away from the pulse of the street and into the confines of academia and art or out of the country altogether.

The 2011 uprisings seemed at first to bring secularism back to the forefront as a vociferous political force. Fueled by a new breed of activists -- young, globally networked, and unbothered by considerations of class, religion or gender -- the uprisings wielded the same principles that earlier Arab secularists have advocated. But like those earlier Arab secularists, the youth did not translate their secularist rallying cries into framers of political parties able to compete for the post-revolutionary governments. Some movements, notably the 6th of April Movement in Egypt, simply declared after the fall of Mubarak's regime that it had no plan to become a political party, then lived to regret that impulsive decision. The prominent and reasonably popular candidate for the presidency in Egypt, Mohammad el-Baradei, withdrew from the race before it began, citing as a reason the reprehensible way politics was conducted by his detractors. The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.

Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.

In February 2011, after the victory of the Egyptian revolution in which they played no significant role, some of the most famous Islamic preachers gloated that the next government will be Islamic. Secularism, they contended, should be put to rest because it reigned for fifty years and failed. But true secularism has never had a chance to rule in the modern Arab world, except perhaps in Tunisia under al-Habib Bourguiba (1957-87). Otherwise, religion was always enshrined in the fiat constitutions of all the Arab kingdoms and republics, even those that were ferociously hunting down Islamists. Moreover, Arab rulers who hid behind secular masks, whether they were civilian or military, never separated religion from their politics. Many enlisted docile forms of religion and compliant sheiks as parts of their arsenal of control. In that, they were following in the footsteps of a long tradition of inglorious religion-based rule in the Arab world, which did not really end until the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. It is thus more accurate to question what Islamic rule of the kind imagined by the vocal Islamist organizations will bring that was not tried before during the long centuries of what they themselves believe was an Arab decline.

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of the History of Islamic Architecture at MIT.