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Trump breaks these 3 rules about how U.S. presidents relate to the military

- August 23, 2017

Editors’ note: After President Trump’s announcement Monday night that the United States would expand the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, we asked Marquette University Associate Professor Risa Brooks to comment on the U.S. strategy shift, in light of her earlier analysis on the decisionmaking in the U.S. raid on Yemen in the early weeks of the Trump administration. Here are her insights:

Q: Does the Afghan strategy review differ from Trump’s decision on the Yemen raid?

Brooks: It certainly appears that the decision-making process was more systematic. As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put it, “the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous.” Trump is also reported to have been deeply engaged, sharply pushing back at his generals’ proposals and brashly criticizing them.

Unlike the situation in the Yemen raid, he publicly owned the strategy in his televised speech to Americans. Yet critics will undoubtedly ask whether Trump’s engagement was more optics than reality. The president shifted dramatically from his long-standing position on Afghanistan. Some will say that ultimately he deferred to his generals and approved their preferred strategy.

Q:  Do you see any changes to civil-military relations in the Trump administration since you wrote this March 2017 piece on Trump and the military for the Monkey Cage?

Brooks: Donald Trump’s unconventional relationship with the military continues. He persistently bucks the military’s tradition of apolitical professionalism — for example, when he recently urged a largely military audience to actively lobby Congress on defense spending and health care. He is also surrounded by a cohort of generals in top advisory positions in charge of security matters. These men have so far worked hard to maintain conventions of civilian control of the military, despite their unconventional commander in chief. Consider that Trump gave Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, but the Secretary chose not to act until after the president signed off on the larger strategy. Still, what remains to be seen is whether these dynamics will politicize the U.S. military in the long term.

[March 24, 2017] Donald Trump’s presidency has shown us that he likes to break political rules. This includes those for how presidents usually relate to the U.S. military and act as commander in chief. Right after being inaugurated, he showed us this when he authorized a Special Forces raid in Yemen.

U.S. civil-military relations 101

Civil-military relations in the United States are based on a particular organizing principle that reflects established theory and practice: The U.S. observes a kind of division of labor between civilian and military leaders.

Civilian presidents decide when to commit military forces and how to conduct them in war. Meanwhile, military officers engage in the “profession of arms” and train, equip and otherwise prepare for armed conflict. As professionals, they follow civilian decisions to employ force, while staying clear of politics. Those rules may at times be imperfectly followed, but both civilian leaders and military officers for the most part respect them.

Three rules for how presidents usually treat the military

In particular, presidents generally follow three unwritten “rules” in civil-military relations.

First, they carefully assess decisions involving the use of force and ask hard questions of their military chiefs. In the U.S. system, military leaders are obligated to offer presidents what the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff callsthe best military advice.” The president scrutinizes that advice, usually within some kind of systematic advisory process.

Presidents may vary in how much they delegate on-the-ground decisions in armed conflict to military commanders. But as commander in chief, most take seriously their obligation to analyze risky military operations — especially those with potentially major strategic or political consequences. The risks of failing to do so are considerable. As my research shows, when civil-military relations are flawed, strategic assessment suffers, sometimes with deadly results.

Second, presidents take the blame when the use of force goes poorly. This is true even when the military or other actors are guilty of the mistakes. George W. Bush, for example, took the blame for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Barack Obama claimed responsibility for the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, stating: “I’m the president. And I’m always responsible.”

Third, presidents traditionally respect the military’s apolitical professionalism. They don’t treat the military as just another constituency to be courted. They certainly do not make speeches to military audiences as if they were at political rallies. They do not try to use the military’s popularity to shield themselves from scrutiny.

In the Yemen raid, all three rules were broken

In less than two months in office, President Trump has bent, if not broken, all three of these rules. We can see how by looking closely at January’s U.S. Special Forces intelligence gathering raid in Yemen, in which a Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, and several civilians were killed.

The Yemen raid was the first U.S.-led ground operation in Yemen in more than two years. It also involved the risk of civilian casualties, which are often strategically damaging to counterterrorism efforts.

Let’s look first at how the decision was made to engage in the raid. According to accounts of what happened, including the administration’s own report, the president was first briefed on the plan Jan. 25. That night, he reviewed it in a dinner meeting with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense and a small group of top administration officials.

At the meal’s conclusion he gave his consent for the mission and formally approved it on either Jan. 26 or 27. Other than consultations and dinner with this group, the plan was not systematically reviewed by the president, in the Situation Room, or elsewhere.

Here it appears the president violated the first rule of civil-military relations — the one that requires that he carefully review military operations and draw his own conclusions as commander in chief.

One key piece of evidence is Trump’s own description of his decision. In comments to Fox News, the president said that the operation had already been fully vetted by the Obama administration — about which there is some dispute — and suggested that his role was primarily to sign off on the plan.

As he put it: “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do … and they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected.”

When the raid did not go as planned, Trump violated the second convention of civil-military relations. He blamed the generals, saying, “They lost Ryan.”

Then Trump broke a third rule when he relied on Americans’ respect for the military to deflect criticism about the raid’s possible flaws. Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, said, “Anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.”

And the Yemen raid is not all …

The Yemen raid is not the only time the president has used the military’s social esteem for political purposes, or violated its apolitical professionalism. In a February speech to service members at MacDill Air Force Base, Trump treated the military as a partisan actor. He said, “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” Then, apparently referring to figures showing Trump received a high percentage of military votes, he continued: “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me, and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”

Further, Trump periodically mentions that “respected generals” serve in his administration. He refers to his secretary of defense as “soldier” or “General” Mattis, despite the fact that Jim Mattis is now a civilian, as the law requires. Cumulatively, such comments make it seem that the president wants to use the military’s esteem to bolster his own popularity with the American people.

Perhaps none of this should surprise us given Trump’s inclination to break the rules of conventional politics. In U.S. civil-military relations, he seems poised to do just that.

Risa Brooks is Allis Chalmers Associate Professor of political science at Marquette University, and author of “Shaping Strategy: The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment” (Princeton University Press, 2008).