On April 9, President Donald Trump sat in the Cabinet Room with his national security team, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation’s four-star combatant commanders, and described the raid on his lawyer Michael Cohen’s office and hotel room as an “attack on our country.” To say the least, it was an odd description in front of individuals who have spent their lives defending the country against actual attacks. And it was a vivid illustration of the challenges our senior military leaders feel in working for President Trump.
Mere days later, the media published a quote from former FBI Director James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty that describes his impressions of Trump, in which Comey wrote that he had “flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.” Comey reaffirmed this assessment in his interview with 20/20 that aired on April 15.
As someone who spent over seven years as one of those Combatant Commanders — one of a small group of 4-star officers charged with the responsibility to send young men and women into combat — I often find myself wondering what it must be like to serve as a senior admiral or general in today’s world. Our senior military swear an oath upon every promotion: not to the office of the President, but to the Constitution. How are they executing their oath of office today?
Certainly previous presidents have manifested challenges similar to those presented today, from personal failings of character to rapid mood swings to erratic policy choices. But it is hard to remember a time where the level of unease has been so high. I hear this frequently from many senior admirals and generals still working today, and I feel their sense of extreme discomfort. That is not a good place for the republic.
(A disclaimer: I am a registered independent and worked as a Combatant Commander for both President George W. Bush and Barack Obama. I respected both for their character, honesty and the evident respect they had for their military, although there were times I disagreed with policy choices each made. I was vetted for Vice President by Hillary Clinton and interviewed for a Cabinet position by then President-elect Trump — at their requests. Anyone who knows me would say I am a political centrist.)
In today’s environment, our senior active-duty military face three significant challenges:
First, they have a leadership and discipline problem with the character issues manifested in the President’s day-to-day behavior, from an alleged payoff through Cohen to silence a porn star to deliberate misstatements about the size of the crowd that attended his inauguration. As uniformed officers who must exert discipline and demand courage, honor, commitment and truthfulness from their troops, they are challenged by the misalignment between the personal failings of the President and the standards for the force of which he is the statutory leader.
A second challenge is the erratic nature of policy, much of which directly affects the armed forces. All of our senior military have immense respect for the constitutional, legal and entirely appropriate civilian oversight of the military that is the bedrock of our system. The President’s authority as Commander in Chief will not be challenged. Full stop. But it is hard for our senior military leaders to chart a course when the destination keeps changing.
A case in point would be in the lead-up to Syrian strikes, where we first saw a Trump tweet that emphatically announced Tomahawk strikes (“nice and new and ‘smart!’” missiles), followed by a reversal to say it could come at any moment or not at all. Trump also hated and campaigned against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement with enormous security implications. But recently he opened the possibility of rejoining it.
Ideally, a nation would surprise our opponents tactically (not telegraphing strikes makes great sense) but have consistent strategic positions. What makes serving the Trump Administration so difficult for our senior military is the propensity to do the opposite: we are strategically inconsistent on everything from NATO (is it obsolete or a terrific partner?) to, again, Syria (is the United States getting out or staying engaged?) and the TPP (is it the worst deal ever or worth rejoining?). All of this makes military planning very, very difficult.
Third and finally, our senior military are inevitably being pulled into the politics of the moment by both the media and Congress — something they deeply want to avoid because it violates the very heart of the military profession in the United States. There will be constant pressure to seek statements that may be construed as political. The media will look for wedge issues between the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom and the White House, thus creating confusion about how to execute military operations as the ultimate “commander’s intent” becomes blurred. Additionally, Congress will seek support for their preferred political positions about everything from controversial personnel policies (i.e. service by transgender individuals) to the type of new hardware that the Department of Defense purchases. This can result in senior military crossing wires with the political leadership in the White House. Senior military are also constantly testifying in front of Congress and frequently doing media interviews — and so often are in the “hot seat” as a result. All of this distracts our military leaders, undermines their credibility with civilians and therefore weakens our security.
This brings us to senior military themselves and how they react. When President Trump said in an April 3 news conference that we were getting out of Syria immediately, even up here in Boston I could have sworn I heard a distant explosion to the south. That must be Jim Mattis’s head blowing up, I thought. The abrupt announcement ran counter to Secretary of Defense Mattis’s long-articulated positions on the region and the recent on-the-record statements of several senior military officials. It is the sheer chaos of it all that is difficult for our generals and admirals.
Militaries, for better or worse, are extremely orderly organizations. Let’s face it, the Department of Defense is a world where 1.5 million people get up every morning and put on uniforms. When someone gets a new job in the military, we call it getting a set of orders. Uniformity, an orderly process, thoughtful planning, a defined hierarchy — militaries thrive in such an environment.
Our senior military will try hard to avoid the political maelstrom. They will decline media interviews (and we as a public are far poorer for not having clarity on decisions our military is making about significant operations); they will make only the blandest of pronouncements in public testimony (again, we lose); they will avoid giving meaningful speeches, for fear they will be publically contradicted or criticized from the White House; and they will, most unfortunately, be tempted to simply depart the service, as H.R. McMaster recently did after being removed from his position of National Security Advisor. All of this weakens our national security even further.
The erosion spreads. A few weeks ago, at a public speech in a synagogue near New York City, an elderly man asked me a question in front of hundreds of people. After some inflammatory comments about the current Administration, he said: “Admiral, isn’t it time the military should do something about all of this?” I was shocked into near silence by the potential implications of the question — whether the military would override civilian control and insert itself forcefully into today’s political debates. There are few certainties in this world, but here’s one: I would bet my life that the U.S. military won’t step into the political fray and “do something” in the manner this man suggested. But the fact that I was even asked such a question speaks volumes about where we are in our national discourse and disturbs me deeply.
I hope our admirals and generals can keep their heads down and ensure the military does not become embroiled in domestic politics, and that Secretary Mattis can continue to run interference with wisdom and caution between the Pentagon and the White House. If he cannot, I fear a creeping politicization of our active-duty military, and therefore a diminishment of our national security. Above all, the White House must take care to avoid pulling the military into the heart of an increasingly political fray.