“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” With that phrase, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States ensures civilian control over—and accountability for—the American military. While the power to declare war rests with Congress, responsibility for America’s global vision, its foreign policy and national security objectives, the military strategies to achieve them, the operational plans they entail and, most solemn of all, putting the lives of servicemen and women in harm’s way, rest with the president alone.
But what if the occupant of the White House fails to fulfill his constitutionally-mandated role as commander in chief? How would U.S. allies and enemies alike react to the strategic confusion and policy-making void left by the president’s abdication of his or her most important job? What should the American people believe—what should their 1.5 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines do—when the Pentagon’s mission is a mystery?
Sadly, these questions are not hypothetical. As his decision this week to delegate Afghanistan strategy and force levels to the secretary of defense once again showed, commander in chief Donald Trump is absent without leave.
President Trump’s decision to delegate authority to the Pentagon to set troop levels in Afghanistan has raised concerns that a few thousand additional troops expected to deploy soon could be just the beginning of a new surge in the country after 15 years of war.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis assured lawmakers Wednesday that a large increase in deployed forced will not happen, but some experts and former battlefield commanders warned the White House and Congress should be careful not to give the Pentagon a blank check.
Those experts are right to be worried
During the election, candidate Trump and his team struggled with the basics of the U.S. fight against the Taliban forces, Al Qaeda remnants, and ISIS forces in Afghanistan. Trump himself initially called the U.S. response there to the September 11, 2001 attacks “a mistake.” His spokesperson Katrina Pierson comically blamed the 44th president, declaring in August that “Barack Obama went into Afghanistan creating another problem.” With the U.S. spending more than $3 billion a year even as President Obama reduced its military mission and troop footprint to 8,500, the Los Angeles Times pondered on January 19, 2017, “How Trump will deal with America's longest war is anyone's guess.”
Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman John McCain is among those still guessing. As explained to Sec. Mattis:
“We’re now six months into this administration. We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan. It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy.”
To be sure, a re-examination of which outcome is desirable—or even possible—in Afghanistan is overdue. Despite training some 300,000 Afghan security forces, the Taliban is resurgent. Government forces control just 60 percent of the country’s 407 districts. During his final months in office, Obama delayed further troop reductions and expanded his authorization for the U.S. to launch raids and air strikes in support of the government in Kabul. While Mattis told senators this week that “I have been given some carte blanche,” the question remains: towards what end? As the Post explained:
Some critics see delegation of troop level decisions as a way for Trump to abdicate responsibility for decisions on America’s longest war, one that has cost the lives of more than 2,000 troops.
“Even though he doesn’t take direct ownership by delegating some authorities, he still takes all the risk,” said Andrew Exum, a former undersecretary of Defense under President Obama. “You can’t deny that the Obama administration had a very thorough process, and at the end the president owned his decision.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who beginning in late 2003 led the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan for 18 months, similarly highlighted that Trump was punting on accountability when it comes to telling Americans what his objectives and strategies are.
“He [Mattis] does have some pretty obvious limits on this in my mind. I think it’s probably something under 5,000 – and maybe quite a bit under. I think the bigger question is what degree of strategy change are we considering? What’s your end game that you’re trying to achieve?”
What’s even more disconcerting is that Trump has shown that this buck-passing wasn’t a one-off.
After the bungled Yemen raid in January, the Trump administration began signaling that the president would give the Pentagon “more independent authority to conduct counterterrorism raids as part of an effort to accelerate the fight against the Islamic State and other militant organizations.” By mid-March, Trump’s deference to the military was official policy. As the New York Times detailed on March 19:
The new approach to managing military operations was evident this month when a Marine artillery battery and a team of Army Rangers — some 400 troops in all — arrived in northern Syria. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis signed off on the deployments and notified the White House. But General McMaster neither convened a meeting at the White House to discuss whether to send the forces nor presented the Pentagon with questions about where, precisely, the troops would operate or what risks they might confront.
And that’s the rub. While some commanders praised their new flexibility to act quickly without securing the approval process required by the Obama White House, others worried that “it could raise questions about whether Mr. Trump, who has drawn heavily from current and former generals to fill key jobs in his administration, is exercising sufficient oversight.” Strategic questions, such as whether the United States should embroil itself in the complex, multi-sided conflict in Yemen or risk American lives against ISIS in their Syrian “capital” of Raqqa, are political ones which require the full weight of presidential commitment. Instead, Trump is seeking to duck the tough decisions and dodge paternity for mistakes:
It could also leave the Pentagon to take the blame when things go wrong. But one Defense Department official pointed to comments by President Trump about the Yemen raid as a sign that military commanders would be held responsible for botched operations whether the president signed off on them or not.
Defense officials have good reason for concern. After the botched January 29 Yemen raid left one member of SEAL Team 6 and two dozen civilians dead, the White House went into “CTA” (cover Trump’s ass) mode. It was bad enough that Trump and his press secretary Sean Spicer insisted the mission was a “success” and declared that “who would suggest it's not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.” As the supposed commander n chief told Fox and Friends:
“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” he said. “They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
The contrast with JFK’s reaction after the disastrous April 1961 Bay of Pigs operation hatched by the Eisenhower administration could not be more stark. Kennedy assumed total responsibility for the Cuban catastrophe, acknowledging, "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Almost 50 years later, the Yemen defeat had a thousand fathers, and none of them were named Donald Trump.
Now, the surest sign a CEO doesn’t have a strategy is when he announces a date by which someone else will present one. When it comes to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Donald Trump was no exception. He pledged that “my generals” would produce an ISIS strategy within 30 days of his inauguration. Hopefully, no one was holding their breath. After all, the same man who in October proclaimed the Iraqi assault against ISIS in Mosul “a disaster” used his trip to Saudi Arabia to side with Sunni leaders against Shiite Iran.
Choosing sides in the region’s sectarian conflicts won’t end well. Even as U.S. forces allied with Baghdad, Tehran-backed Shiite militias were fighting to retake Mosul. Meanwhile, the new commander in chief instituted his Muslim ban blocking travelers from Iraq and Syria from coming to the United States. His short-lived National Security Adviser and Turkish government consultant Michael Flynn in January vetoed an Obama administration plan to arm Kurdish forces for the final push on Raqqa. It’s no wonder, as Kimberly Dozier (“Who Invented Trump’s ISIS Plan? Obama.”) put it on February 27:
Trump ordered up a whole new plan to beat ISIS. Instead he got a rough sketch that strongly resembles what was drawn up under Obama.
With his symbolic 59-missile fusillade at a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians and subsequent U.S. strikes on Assad-backed forces in the northwestern province of Idlib, President Trump may have put American troops on a collision course with regime units and their Russian benefactors in Damascus.
No one should be really surprised that, as Foreign Policy lamented, “Trump isn’t being a CEO, he’s just AWOL.” He’s been appropriating credit and deflecting blame for his entire career. And as a candidate and as a president, Donald Trump has shown he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and has little interest in finding out.
Candidate Trump was blissfully unaware that land-based missiles, strategic bombers, and submarines constituted the “nuclear triad.” (He probably thought the term referred to the situation where he’s having affairs with a mother and her two daughters.) Promising to “bomb the sh*t” out of ISIS, to torture terror suspects and to kill their families, Trump wondered out loud why the United States doesn’t use it nuclear weapons. In a matter of just a few months, he gymnastically flip-flopped on ending America’s “One China” policy to praising the “friendship” he shares with Beijing’s Xi Jinping and the history lesson he provided on North Korea. None of this stopped Trump’s very public saber rattling, which sadly included revealing the locations of American nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers.
As his shameful abdication on Afghanistan shows, commander in chief Trump loves to either talk tough or not talk at all. But when it comes to anything involving Russia, this American president apparently doesn’t defer to his military but to Moscow. Vladimir Putin’s top two foreign policy objectives—ending U.S.-led economic sanctions now and undermining the NATO alliance—seem to have been well-received in the Trump White House. Despite a bipartisan Congressional consensus to maintain sanctions on Russia as punishment for its occupation of Crimea, intrusion in Ukraine, and proven interference in the 2016 election, Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continue to weigh unilaterally lifting the economic restrictions on Moscow.
Worse still, Trump’s continued bashing of NATO has alienated America’s closest allies in Europe and forced National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense Mattis to do damage control—even as U.S. troops engage in exercises with NATO partners in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland. When it comes to Russia, Donald Trump is just fine with the president leading from behind—just as long as the president is Putin and the behind is Trump’s.
Now, no president of the United States is immune to criticism over his performance as commander in chief. Many argued that President Obama was too cautious in his policy of “off-shore balancing” that sought to pursue U.S. interests without the actual commitment of U.S. boots on the ground. His support for the intervention in Libya raised expectations for humanitarian action in Syria that were not (or could not have been) met. But as the Bin Laden raid, his controversial policy on drone strikes, and patient campaign against ISIS all revealed, commander in chief Obama made the tough calls and was accountable for the results.
Afghanistan was no exception. In 2007 and 2008, Sen. Obama campaigned on dramatically increasing the American effort in Afghanistan. In 2009 he began ramping up U.S. forces there, as promised. And in 2011, President Obama rejected those like John McCain, Mitt Romney, and George W. Bush who had mocked his pledge to launch unilateral American strikes to take out high-level al-Qaida targets in Pakistan—targets like Osama Bin Laden.
But the new commander in chief is a departure from any that came before. His policies and positions are alternately incoherent, incomprehensible, and in conflict. The only certainty is that American national security is at risk under Donald Trump. Among all the questions surrounding his leadership, the most disturbing may be: When it comes to Trump’s demented declarations and his dereliction of duty, which is more dangerous?