“The commander-in-chief”

Two years in, the Trump presidency has become more toxic and dysfunctional by the day. The decline in American standing and influence in the world has been steep. Foreign governments used to looking to the United States for leadership and support see a volatile, narcissistic president whose grasp of reality is often tenuous at best. His daily tweets and occasional impromptu remarks reveal a man living in a fantasy world where “facts” are what he wants them to be — not what is real.

If this profile of an American president is deeply alarming internationally, it is far more so for the agencies and personnel of the U.S. government that work under the authority of the Oval Office. Perhaps no component of the government is more troubled than the Department of Defense, comprising the armed forces of the United States.

It is not unusual to have an uneasy relationship between the president and the Pentagon. Presidents are civilian politicians. Several recent presidents have had experience serving in the military as young men, but none since Eisenhower was a career military officer. The professional and life experiences of a Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton were light years away from the career culture of an Army general or Navy admiral. A military officer is steeped in a culture that is hierarchical, highly disciplined, mission-oriented, skills-based and suffused with an ethos of service above self. When the Marine Corps affirms its motto, “Semper Fi” (always loyal), or its recruiting message, “The Few, the Proud, the Marines,” these are not slogans; they are real. A fundamental tenet of the U.S. armed forces is that they are, and will remain, rigorously nonpolitical. That does not mean that soldiers have no political opinions. Much of today’s professional Army is drawn from rural/small-town America, particularly the South and Southwest, and the political views of the enlisted men and women reflect that. However, the officer corps represents a broader cross-section of the American demographic and they are the guardians of a military that serves Republican and Democratic presidents with equal commitment — while keeping the armed forces out of partisan politics.

Against this background, the election of Donald Trump has become a huge problem. The new President’s personal background is problematic, at best. As a draft-age young man, he was given a deferment based on a fabricated medical diagnosis (bone spurs) obtained for him by his wealthy father. This alone would have counted for little, but it raised doubts. Candidate Trump assumed the mantle of a cheerleader for the military, speaking in hyperbolic terms of “neglect” of the armed forces under the Democrats and how they will be “greater than ever” under a Trump presidency. He strikingly recruited three retired or serving generals (“my generals”) to occupy key posts in his administration: as chief of staff (Kelly), national security advisor (McMaster) and secretary of defense (Mattis). To the rank-and-file soldier, it all looked and sounded pretty good.

The senior officer corps, however, was seeing something else. Their mission is to defend American interests from foreign threats and adversaries. The growing drumbeat of allegations and convictions concerning Russian cyberattacks intended to sabotage the 2016 election were taken very seriously. This was an attack on America by a hostile foreign power. The National Security Agency (NSA), a component of the Department of Defense, had a key role in uncovering and countering Russian interference. When Pentagon and other national security officials tried to brief the President, they discovered he was not receptive. That same disregard extended to a whole panoply of foreign threats. The President would not read briefing papers prepared for him; he would not sit still for verbal and PowerPoint presentations. He showed no real interest in understanding his role as commander-in-chief beyond how he could cut expenses and extract money out of NATO and other allies who “were not paying their fair share.”

Last fall, Mr. Trump skipped the time-honored presidential visit to Arlington Cemetery around Veterans Day. On a trip to Europe to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I, he skipped a visit to the principal cemetery for American soldiers killed in that cataclysm. As the 2018 congressional elections approached, the President began to portray a caravan of Central Americans as a grave threat and ordered the deployment of 6,000 active duty troops to defend the southern border against a pending “invasion” comprising many women and small children. That crossed a red line — using the American military for blatantly political purposes. Along the way, Trump started getting rid of his generals — first McMaster, then Kelly and finally Mattis. The last came after Mattis made clear his objection to a preemptory Trump decision to withdraw U.S. forces fighting ISIS in Syria. That decision, announced without consultation with the Pentagon or his senior advisors, was justified because ISIS “was defeated.” That was simply untrue and the decision betrayed America’s de facto allies, the Kurds, while benefiting Russia, Iran and the Syrian Assad regime — a trifecta of U.S. adversaries.

Then last week the President made his first visit to U.S. forces in a combat zone — to an Air Force base in Iraq. He was there all of three hours. In his remarks to the troops, he praised himself, denigrated Democrats and effectively characterized U.S. forces as “suckers” for supporting ungrateful freeloaders in the region. He also informed his audience of servicemen and women that he had given them a 10 percent pay raise for 2019 over congressional opposition and that this was the first pay increase for the troops in 10 years. None of this was true. And, so it goes.

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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