Donald Trump

Meeting of the Minds: How Presidents and Generals Stake out Their Territory

By Dan Maurer
Thursday, May 18, 2017, 3:00 PM

They shall have wars and pay for their presumption. —Shakespeare, Henry VI

Like many a new president before him, President Trump is opening his administration with bold—and sometimes contradictory—actions that have many wondering what to make of his relationships with his most senior admirals and generals.  The cost of such uncertainty, as Shakespeare might suggest, could be unbearably high. 

In an early blitzkrieg that offered some hints, the President quickly denied his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (by law, the nation’s senior ranking officer and primary military advisor to the president) his usual permanent seat in the National Security Council’s principals committee, though he later did an about-face.  He also broke tradition by appointing a recently-retired general as Secretary of Defense, then gave Secretary Jim Mattis carte blanche to determine Department of Defense doctrine and policy on the use of torture, despite Trump’s fundamental disagreement with Mattis on the issue.  President Trump has launched punitive missile strikes against Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons, a one hundred and eighty degree spin from his earlier aversion to military intervention.  He elevated Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a scholarly critic of dysfunctional civil-military relations during the early years of the Vietnam War, to National Security Advisor, ironically continuing to surround himself with military brass despite an early negative appraisal of such senior leaders (he referred to generals as “embarrassing” and “reduced to rubble” under the Obama Administration).  Much gnawing about these shifts as has already occurred.  With James Comey’s unusual dismissal from his position as FBI Director, the extent to which a political principal can or should demand loyalty from “career” officials is an open question.  

But as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun.  President Trump’s actions may be unprecedented, but a complicated relationship between the military and its commander-in-chief is not.  With Bill Clinton, the supposed civil-military crisis was the military’s cultural antipathy to his support for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law and the White House’s strategic aversion to fighting in Somalia, which rankled many in the Pentagon’s E-Ring.  One hundred and thirty years earlier, General George McClellan ignored and denigrated an inexperienced President Abraham Lincoln to his face for the premature use of the Union Army to “invade” the South and assimilate it by force, and later for having the strategic goal of ending slavery.  For their decisions, made in utterly different contexts, both presidents faced widespread censure for what their vocal critics in uniform called their tyrannical and unconstitutional sins.  In the face of these criticisms, both presidents had to learn, over time, how to structure, tweak, trim, and grow very complicated civil-military relationships in ways that suited their own strategic aims and particular case-by-case needs. 

Civil-military relationships at this strategic level implicate two separate, but allied, values.  First, the health of the relationship itself tells us something of how well matters of national security will be explained or evaluated by the subject matter experts, acting as agents of the civilian principal, and then how well they are digested, understood, or debated by the amateur authority legitimately elected to make those key decisions.  Second, and relatedly, the health of the relationship is a potential signal to the public about how much trust we ought to invest in the civilians and military leaders entangled in these relationships.  President Trump’s recent suggestive comments about loyalty among his senior advisors highlights potential problem areas plaguing all strategic civil-military relationships, not just those between a president and federal law enforcement.

Perhaps nothing speaks more to the complex nature of the civil-military relationship than the outsized significance of certain words. When it comes to using American military force, verbs like “authorize” and nouns like “authorization” carry real and painful implications.  Not unlike the words “I love you” in a personal relationship, these words must be used with extreme caution lest they be too casually uttered and the landmine tripped.  Presidential carelessness in using these words puts both the political principal and the military agent (to use Professor Peter Feaver’s analogy) at risk, and degrades the public’s trust in the government’s ability to wage war responsibly.

President Trump’s comments last month in the wake of the United States’ use of the so-called “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan offers a great teaching point for students of this dynamic. When asked by a reporter if he, as commander-in-chief, personally authorized the use of the most powerful single piece of ordnance short of a nuclear warhead on a remote mountain enclave held by ISIS, the president inadvertently hinted at his style of managing the delicate American strategic civil-military relationship.  “Everyone knows exactly what happened, so…” He added, “what I do is I authorize my military—we have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done a job as usual so we have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing.” 

Words matter—those a president says and those he doesn’t. What, exactly, does President Trump mean by “total authorization?”  Not only is it unclear when he gave such authorization, and to whom, but we don’t really know what “total” means: is it referring to the parameters emplaced around “authorization?”  Importantly, we don’t know if this grant of authority implied that no political-military discussion or debate occurred in this specific case (or, for that matter, in any others).  Phrases like these are too loaded: they can just as easily mean that the President Trump gave military commanders complete discretion in attacking particular objectives—to decide when and how to attack them—or complete discretion in determining the strategic goals behind the tactical objectives as well. Taken at face value, “total authorization” suggests a lack of civilian oversight, indicating a significant risk that military decisions will be unmoored to political necessity.  That’s a problem because military actions disconnected from political objectives place military commanders in the pilot’s seat of an aircraft intended, by the public, to be flown by elected officials.  It is axiomatic that generals and admirals do not decide what wars to fight and have only limited discretion (entirely reined in by civilian authority) on how, when, and were to fight them.  If the commander-in-chief and political utility do not impose such checks, a fundamental element of our constitutional order is out of whack.

The root of the predicament is not what kind of bomb we drop, or how many missiles we fling at airfields.  Rather, it is the nature of a president’s relationship with his or her military commanders, the “agents” in the field.   When that strategic civil-military relationship is testy and perceived from below as overly constricting, as it certainly was in the early days of Clinton’s first term, troop morale can suffer and missions seem to lack focus.  Alternatively, when that relationship is laissez faire and presidents do not interfere or engage at all, it is reasonable for the public to fear that an overly assertive military, unshackled by parental rules and free to roam around town after curfew, will dictate the terms of national security unconcerned with and unchecked by public will.

Either end of this spectrum is potentially unhealthy.  Common sense (and many scholars, like Eliot Cohen) would suggest the happy medium is not to be found at the middle of the spectrum. Rather, each relationship—indeed each event—should be evaluated contextually.  At appropriate times, the president gives more responsibility and discretion to his military (as Kennedy tried to do with his Joint Chiefs after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and as Lincoln did when he finally found U.S. Grant).  At other times, the president is more parsimonious with operational discretion (as Lincoln was with McClellan). 

The dangerous part of this complicated shuffling of authority is not the shuffling itself, but the risk that neither the president nor his chief military advisors and commanders will know exactly where they stand when the shuffling has stopped.  In other words, when the parties don’t have a clear grasp and mutual understanding of each side’s scope of authority, both parties can be hampered by indecision and hamstrung by blaming.  Without openly demarcating the bounds of expectations and the military agent’s authority, the benefits of candor, trust, commitment, and diligence become harder to vest. 

Ultimately, without that clear division—and mutual acknowledgment of who does what and why—public accountability for performance is all but lost.  Presumptions, usually unhelpful ones, end up clouding their ability to work together in what Cohen calls the “unequal dialogue.”  The peril is that it leads to no dialogue at all.  And our democracy will be poorer for it.