Troop Levels Are Too Important to be Left to the Generals
Congress’s shirking of its own responsibility for declaring war and specifying clearly the broad objectives of the overseas use of U.S. military forces is a background to all these problems. The problems entail not just troop levels in any one area of fighting but also whether U.S. troops should be involved at all in conflicts in certain other areas. Thus direct U.S. involvement in an internal war in a place such as Somalia hinges on arbitrary, and little understood by the public, presidential determinations about what should be defined as a combat zone or how relationships between certain terrorist groups ought to be labeled.
As for Donald Trump’s specific role, perhaps his handing off to the Pentagon what should be presidential decisions is a tacit acknowledgment of how poorly qualified he is—by experience, not to mention temperament—to make national security policy. But the alternative to the excessive delegation is not just armchair strategizing by a real estate developer. The proper alternative is for the president and his national security adviser to preside over a full policy process involving all relevant parts of the government, including a fully staffed State Department, and that starts with careful consideration of the U.S. interests that are to be advanced or protected.
As for the sort of political input that this president ought to provide in such a process, Trump should think about some of the expectations regarding war and peace that helped to win him votes last November. He seems determined to fulfill, or to be perceived as fulfilling, campaign promises when it comes to building walls, rejecting Muslims, tearing down Obamacare, or moving backward in relations with Cuba. Maybe he should reflect on how many voters who wanted less rather than more U.S. involvement in foreign wars saw him as the less hawkish candidate.
What he instead appears to be thinking about is avoiding accountability. Sloughing off decisions to “his generals” means then blaming the generals when things don’t go well. He already did this after one of the first military setbacks of his presidency: the death of a Navy SEAL in a raid in Yemen in January. Expect the same posture from Trump with whatever doesn’t go well in Afghanistan.
Image: Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks before the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Department of Defense fiscal year 2017 budget hearing, on March 22, 2017.