by JONATHAN STEVENSON · July 28, 2017
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
During a recent conference in Singapore, someone asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis whether, given President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement, we were “present at the destruction” of the America-led postwar order. In a twist on a remark by Abba Eban (often attributed to Churchill), the former general answered: “Bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”
It was vintage Mattis: witty, learned and confident in his country’s future. But it was also dispiriting, suggesting that he disagreed with President Trump, but was unable to do much about it.
We should all be a bit dispirited these days. At the beginning of the administration, most Democrats (myself included), and even a few Republicans, publicly hoped that a cadre of generals and former generals — Mr. Mattis, John Kelly at Homeland Security, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster at the National Security Council (who replaced retired Gen. Michael Flynn, a Trump loyalist) — would check Mr. Trump’s worse instincts. On Friday, Mr. Trump moved Mr. Kelly into the White House to serve as his chief of staff, replacing Reince Priebus, asserting that his military background would bring order to a tumultuous executive.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general. Roslan Rahman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But six months later, it seems that hope was misplaced. The generals have done little to curb Mr. Trump, let alone give some shape to a dangerously incoherent foreign policy.
Consider North Korea: As Pyongyang defiantly ignored Mr. Trump’s martial strutting, he indicated that the United States was counting on the Chinese to bring financial pressure; praised the skills of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader; and offered to negotiate. A few months later, Mr. Trump has already ditched that approach, closing the door on the Chinese and going back to military threats.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Mr. Trump has sown confusion about American policy toward Syria; incited regional isolation of Qatar, home to an important American military base; and encouraged a destabilizing confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
During Mr. Trump’s maladroit visit to Europe, he declined to affirm the country’s commitment to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — the linchpin of Europe’s collective security — and hectored European NATO members to spend more on defense. Although he has walked back the gaffe, trans-Atlantic relations remain shaky.
Most recently, Mr. Trump last week announced that transgender Americans would be barred from military service — catching the Pentagon by surprise and upending a long-running internal review process. After each of these episodes, stories leak about how the generals were either outgunned by advisers like Stephen Bannon or, more often, just left out of the loop.
At the margins, the generals may dial back their boss’s impulses, and occasionally stand up to Mr. Trump in small ways, as Mr. Mattis did when he declined to praise Mr. Trump in a televised cabinet meeting in June. And there are small victories: Last week, General McMaster managed to remove the Flynn holdover Derek Harvey, the Middle East senior adviser and an Iran hawk, from the security council.
John Kelly at a Pentagon briefing in 2016. Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press
But it’s unlikely that the generals will consistently rein in Mr. Trump at the strategic level. Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and therefore, on paper at least, the president’s primary military liaison and adviser, rarely has one-on-one meetings with Mr. Trump. Mr. Kelly, a former Marine general who had served as his secretary of homeland security and whom many had hoped would temper the president on immigration, apparently shares Mr. Trump’s policy views and seems disinclined to challenge him. It’s unlikely he will change now that he’s chief of staff.
Relying on the generals was always a dubious, ad hoc plan prompted by Mr. Trump’s uniquely troubling peculiarities. Generals aren’t supposed to make policy, let alone get involved in politics.
In the mid-1950s, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington observed that American military officers had evolved into a disciplined and largely apolitical group of professionals. He outlined a separation of roles: military obedience to civilian leaders in areas of strategic or political discretion, and civilian deference to the military on operational matters.
This was the norm until after Vietnam, when numerous scholars conducting post-mortems on the war — including, coincidentally, General McMaster in his book “Dereliction of Duty” — concluded that military commanders should have challenged civilian leaders more aggressively.
And over time, that’s what happened. As the Pentagon gained a broader post-Sept. 11 mandate, branching into what were once considered law enforcement and diplomatic arenas, the line between the civilian and military division blurred. Combatant commanders’ assertiveness peaked when a beleaguered President George W. Bush looked to Gen. David Petraeus to extricate the United States from the Iraq quagmire by way of the “surge” in 2007.
President Barack Obama reasserted civilian control when he fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2010 and pulled the military out of Iraq in 2012.
Civilian control remains more or less intact, but the civilian leadership has changed. Unlike Mr. Obama, who took responsibility for his administration’s military actions, Mr. Trump has publicly scapegoated the military for politically damaging episodes, such as the errant February raid in Yemen in which one Navy SEAL and up to 30 civilians died. He has also been openly at odds with Mr. Mattis over torture, budget cuts at the State Department and climate change.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster Al Drago/The New York Times
Still, there was an expectation that, given Mr. Trump’s apparent affection for all things martial, the generals would eventually take at least some control of foreign policy, especially after General McMaster replaced the wayward Mr. Flynn at the National Security Council.
This has not happened. Instead, Mr. Trump has simply sidelined the security council and its role in coordinating foreign policy, relegating it to on-the-fly improvisation. The generals in the Trump administration still sit outside the president’s inner circle. General McMaster admitted that Mr. Trump went into his private meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at last month’s G-20 meeting without an agenda — indeed, without General McMaster.
The generals have failed because for all their experience and insight, they’re not suited to the job. They’re military men, not statesmen. This isn’t a slight; it’s a rare officer who can move from operations to policy and strategy, as Eliot Cohen noted in his book “Supreme Command.” Officers lack the sound civilian leader’s worldly acumen, and the good ones know it. (Obviously Mr. Cohen — one of Mr. Trump’s most vehement Republican critics — did not have the current president in mind in positing the ideal civilian leader.)
Furthermore, most generals — Douglas MacArthur being the rare exception — are acutely aware of the chain of command, and uncomfortable directly challenging the commander in chief. That’s what makes Mr. Mattis’s comment in Singapore so surprising — and it’s unlikely we’ll hear more in that vein. Mr. Kelly, as chief of staff, might marginally upgrade communication and coordination between Trump and the security council, but he is unlikely to improve the substantive quality of foreign and security policy.
So where will the check on Mr. Trump’s incompetent foreign policy come from? Not the State Department, under siege and led, for now, by the underqualified Rex Tillerson. Only Congress, on a bipartisan basis, can constrain Mr. Trump’s recklessness and ineptitude.
And, slowly but surely, that constraint is materializing. Congress is using its power of the purse to reject Mr. Trump’s drastic cuts in the foreign assistance budget and resist his substantially defunding the State Department. More significantly and unconventionally, it is countering Trump administration policy stances it considers unsound, having passed a resolution reaffirming the American commitment to NATO and voted overwhelmingly to impose new sanctions on Russia.
But even on its best days, Congress is an unreliable and unwieldy mechanism for managing foreign policy, and no substitute for a wise and engaged chief executive and a nimble security council.
Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was the National Security Council’s director for political-military affairs in the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2013.