Perhaps the most frustrating thing about trying to follow, understand, and analyze the presidency of Donald Trump is the overwhelming volume of problematic behaviors that stem from the chief executive. What’s the most disturbing thing? Is it the 836 false or misleading claims he’s uttered since taking office? His scorn for the rule of law evidenced by his attacks on the judiciary and those investigating the connections between the Trump campaign and Russia? The interviews that paint him as a barely coherent babbling idiot? (Seriously…I challenge anyone to read the recent interview with the New York Times and explain to me how this man is fit to run the country.) It’s like drinking from a fire hose…every day brings more outrageous acts that threaten to drown us in a sea of lies and moronicism.
Even scarier than the things we see and hear are the things that happen behind closed doors. And while we rarely have the curtain pulled back for us, occasionally someone reveals the goings-on inside the White House that should truly shock and terrify us.
For example, last week, Senator Lindsay Graham was at a PAC meeting, largely focused on the issue of health care reform, designed to attract new members and donors to the GOP. Graham acknowledged that there are some serious issues for Republicans today and that things between the party’s congresspeople and the president are rocky, but that he had recently developed a better personal and working relationship with Trump. In an attempt to illustrate this improved relationship, he began talking about what he likes about President Trump:
“So me and the Donald, we have our issues. I don’t know how to say that in French,” he said. “But the thing I like most…is he gets his limitations when it comes to the military.”
Graham entertained the crowd with a story about an early-morning phone call with Trump during which the President relayed a conversation he’d had with Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“We’re asking permission to send 50 of our soldiers into a village outside Raqqa,” Mattis told Trump, according to Graham. “Why are you calling me?” Trump replied. “I don’t know where this village is at.” Mattis told him, “Well, that’s what we’ve done for the last 8 years.”
Trump, Graham said, then asked, “Who’s asking to go into that village?” Mattis told him, “A major, first in his class at West Point.”
“’Why do you think I know more about that than he does?’” Graham said Trump asked. “And then he hung up.”
Graham said Trump’s habit of deferring to Pentagon officials on military operations “is gonna win this war”.
Graham of course tells this story to paint the president in a favorable light: He knows his limitations, he defers to the professionals, he doesn’t micromanage the military. But to my eyes–and to those of many others who think about US foreign policy and war–this is one more example of not simply incompetence but rather a dangerous tendency to cede the responsibilities and duties of leadership.
One of the critical aspect of a liberal democracy is civilian control of the military. Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is politics by other means” meaning that war is a means of accomplishing the political goals of a state that cannot be obtained through traditional political avenues. Thus, while the conduct of military operations should be left to those who know it best–military officers–the overall conduct of military operations–the goals–should be determined by the political leaders. The military must always serve the state and never the other way around.
The US has several mechanisms to ensure civilian control of the military. First and foremost, the president is commander-in-chief of the military, putting, in the words of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #69, “the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first general and admiral of the confederacy.” The entire military chain of command, therefore, answers to an popularly elected official. Second, Congress has the power to declare war, to fund (or not fund) the military, and to make all laws and rules necessary for the organization and conduct of the armed forces. Third, the National Security Act of 1947 stipulates that the Secretary of Defense must be a civilian with at least seven years of separation from any active service in the armed forces.
The last of these is why James Mattis needed a waiver from Congress to serve as Secretary of Defense. I happened to support the nomination of Mattis as I believe him to be smart, principled, and strong enough to both command the respect and to stand up to our easily impressionable and highly distractable president. However, the law was implemented for a reason and the nomination did cause some concern, especially given Trump’s lack of experience in foreign policy and his overweening love of military officers, over how putting such a strong leader only recently removed from active duty would impact civilian control of the military. Those concerns are only growing, and Graham’s comment reinforces them.
In Graham’s story, Trump dismisses the request by US soldiers for permission to enter a Syrian village, stating that he doesn’t even know where the village is and the requesting major knows more about the situation that he does. Where is the village? Who controls it? Where is it in relation to Syrian or Iranian forces? Why does the major want to send forces into it? How does holding the village advance US goals in Syria? These are the important questions and the major–or even the Secretary of Defense–might not be the right person to answer them. Of course, given the brevity of Graham’s story, we can’t know whether the request for presidential authorization was appropriate. And of course, micromanagement of the military by civilian leaders in Washington has been a problem in the past so it’s not an inherently terrible thing to delegate more decision making responsibility to military officers in the field. But, it’s not the specific example that matters but rather Trump’s blithe dismissal of the request as well as its place in the broader context of Trump’s leadership or lack thereof. That Trump hasn’t heard of the village means that he has no idea where it is, why it matters, and how it fits into the broader aims of the US. That Trump doesn’t even consider these things is what is truly troubling here; he doesn’t ask Mattis or any of his advisers about them but rather just dismisses the request.
Back in March, I blogged about Trump’s blaming of the military for the death of a SEAL team member during a raid into Yemen and a report that Trump was considering removing himself from the decision making process concerning military operations. As I wrote then:
The question here is whether Trump is “thinking carefully” about this question or whether the decision is a reaction to his being blamed for ordering the SEAL raid without proper consideration of the intelligence (regardless of whether that blame is deserved). The timing certainly makes it seem like it’s the latter.
But it seems like a bad idea to, as a rule, remove presidential approval from these kinds of operations and to rely solely on the judgment of the military or even former generals in political positions, like Secretary Mattis. Military operations outside of active war zones, like Yemen, are as much about the political effect as they are about military significance. An operation that yields tangible intelligence benefits can be a disaster if it draws the US into a war in which the US does not want to become involved or upsets a valuable ally and interferes with larger missions and plans (Yemen withdrawing permission for US counter-terror operations after the raid comes to mind).
These kinds of decisions cannot and should not be made based on their military feasibility or desirability. They can only be made by political actors with a sense of how any particular military operation does or does not fit into the larger concerns of US foreign policy. Worst case scenarios must be assessed (such as what happens if a US soldier gets captured?).
Rather than assuaging these concerns, Graham’s story reinforces them. Syria is a complex war zone where the US has to manage its own goals, however limited those might be, deal with the presence of foreign, and potentially hostile, militaries, try to make sure Iran and Hezbollah don’t turn Syria into a transit area for supply runs, reassure Israel, prevent Turkey from attacking the Kurdish mini-state while keeping them in NATO, and more. Perhaps the question of whether to go into a village near Raqqa didn’t implicate any of these issues. But at some point, a military decision will have the potential to advance or undermine the US’s strategic interests. And at that moment, it needs to be the president who decides what should be done. And I am less and less confident that it will be Trump who makes that decision. That just might be the scariest thing I’ve heard yet.