The Buzz

The Soldiers and The Donald

Donald Trump has done America a huge favor.

During the Detroit presidential debate two weeks ago, Trump inadvertently injected into the campaign a topic as tragic in its absence as it is vital to the question of commander-in-chief suitability. Fox News anchor Bret Baier asked Donald Trump what he, as president, would do if the U.S. military refused to execute his orders—that is, targeting terrorists’ families and “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The business tycoon responded with a confidence bordering on swagger: “They won't refuse. They're not going to refuse me. Believe me. . . . If I say do it, they're going to do it. That's what leadership is all about.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper re-litigated the point last week in Miami. Trump budged and proposed an elegant work-around. Instead of forcing the military to carry out illegal orders, he said, “We better expand our laws . . . They [ISIS] are laughing at us, believe me.”

Although this back and forth has so far borne little fruit, the GOP front-runner did cast a spotlight on the single most important element in any national-security apparatus: civil-military relations. Anyone interested in gauging who is best suited to command America’s military should capitalize on Trump’s rhetorical door opening and challenge the 2016 presidential candidates to articulate their vision for civil-military relations. Every American presidency has had to assuage civil-military tensions. The next president will doubtless be thrust into the same crucible.  


Why We Should Care

The civil-military problematique is inextricably linked to American freedom and security. The very power a polity gives a military to vanquish its foes and secure its global interests could, paradoxically, enable the military to prey on the society for which it was created to protect. Coup d'état is the traditional worst case scenario. Conversely, a military neutered for fear of tyranny couldn’t deter external aggression. A more plausible script would see a military, hell-bent on coercing foreign adversaries, drain society of its resources. Yet another concern is that a nefarious military could entangle a nation in wars deemed inimical to society’s interests. The list goes on. Peter Feaver, the Duke political scientist, explains the civil-military balancing act:

“The military may be best able to identify the threat and the appropriate responses to that threat for a given level of risk, but only the civilian can set the level of acceptable risk for society. The military can propose the level of armaments necessary to have a certain probability of successful defense against our enemies, but only the civilian can say what probability of success society is willing to underwrite. . . . The military assesses the risk, the civilian judges it.”

The United States is no stranger to civil-military discord. Harry Truman sacked Gen. Douglas Macarthur in 1951 to avoid all-out war with China. In 2010, Barack Obama relieved Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his Afghanistan post to preserve “the military chain of command and respect for civilian control over that chain of command.” More recently, CENTCOM analysts have alleged that supervisors manipulated their intelligence product to mask military failures in the fight against ISIS.

For the civilian president, navigating civil-military relations is a delicate art with monumental consequences. At the outset of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought from John F. Kennedy a clarification on their rules of engagement. Gen. Maxwell Taylor and Gen. Curtis LeMay, then chairman and air force chief of staff respectively, extracted from Kennedy tacit permission to retaliate if any direct action befell U.S. servicemen. Days later, when the Soviets fatally downed Maj. Rudolf Anderson’s U2 over Cuba, the generals returned to the Oval Office, hoping to execute the course of action they favored all along—invasion and Castro decapitation. Kennedy made a judgment call. In the face of his generals’ appeals, he retracted his previous acquiescence. By resisting the urge to retaliate, Kennedy afforded the blockade and diplomacy the time needed to resolve the crisis without further bloodshed.