The US military is making many life-or-death decisions without input from the person who matters most: the president of the United States.
In Trump’s first months in office, the US conducted drone strikes in Yemen and a special operations raid where a Navy SEAL was killed, dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, and on Thursday struck Assad’s forces in Syria. What all of these military operations have in common is that none of them required approval from the commander in chief, Donald Trump.
Why? Because he doesn’t feel like his approvals are needed — and because his predecessor micromanaged the Pentagon to a dangerous degree.
Trump’s hands-off approach — allowing battlefield commanders to take daily decisions affecting US foreign policy and national security — is a major shift in the American way of war. The Pentagon now does not require the president’s sign-off when military commanders believe an action is necessary. That's potentially good news for generals who felt hamstrung by the Obama administration, but it carries clear risks for both Trump and the US.
“Conflict is a lot more complex” than it seems, according to former Navy Undersecretary Janine Davidson. “You can blow stuff up … but where do things end?”
For a president who came into office with an “America first” worldview, proclaiming on the White House website that the US does “not go abroad in search of enemies,” he has given the Pentagon free rein to go out and search — and destroy.
When the “mother of all bombs” was dropped on ISIS caves in Afghanistan on April 13, killing dozens of militants, most people focused on the enormity of the weapon. After all, it was the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat.
Less time was devoted to understanding why the 21,600-pound, $170,000 bomb was dropped. And, more importantly, who ordered it?
It turns out Trump didn’t order the massive strike at all. It was called in by Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Nicholson said he had certain “latitude” to drop the bomb and only needed to notify the White House that the strike was imminent. He was right.
Once the dust settled, Trump was asked by a reporter why the bomb was dropped without his say so. His response revealed a change in US military affairs (emphasis added):
“What I do is I authorize my military. … We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done the job, as usual. We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing. Frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
In other words, Trump doesn’t feel he needs to be looped in on life-or-death military decisions. He’s purposefully leaving that up to commanders fighting on behalf of the United States.
In fact, after a press conference last Friday featuring Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, and head of the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk, a senior US military official labeled Trump’s strategy against ISIS as “delegate and annihilate,” reports Defense One.
If it all seems like an odd stance for Trump to take, it’s because it is. During the presidential campaign, he said he knew more about ISIS than the generals. When pressed on that comment by CBS’s John Dickerson, Trump doubled down, claiming “[t]hey don’t know much because they’re not winning.”
That wasn’t necessarily their fault, he assured voters. It was Obama’s.
Trump feels Obama reduced US military commanders to “rubble”
During the campaign, Trump’s broadsides about the military continued.
“Under the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the generals have been reduced to rubble, reduced to a point where it is embarrassing for our country,” Trump said in front of a room of veterans and active-duty service members.
NBC’s Matt Lauer pressed him on the comment, and Trump’s response revealed his mindset: “I have great faith in the military, great faith in certain of the commanders.”
Trump also told Dickerson that “[i]f we had the leadership, meaning the go-ahead, you could knock [ISIS] out fast.”
In Trump’s mind, Obama’s White House ruined US military leadership. All they needed — especially to defeat ISIS — was a president committed to removing the handcuffs and letting them do whatever they deemed necessary to win.
Well, that’s what appears to have happened in Afghanistan. Nicholson saw an ISIS cave complex, felt it needed to be destroyed, and used a weapon he deemed appropriate to do so. And that was his call to make since the president had already offered his blanket “authorization” and “go-ahead.”
Trump wouldn’t have it any other way. Surrounded by “my generals,” as he calls Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, both retired Marines, Trump prefers to pursue an “alpha male” foreign policy, as Seb Gorka, a White House national security aide, characterized the administration’s approach.
And why is that? Trump may paint himself as a tough guy, but he’d rather not be held responsible should anything go wrong.
“Total authorization” absolves Trump of blame
Trump seems to wrongly believe his “total authorization” stance would absolve him of any blame if something were to go wrong. President Harry Truman used to say the “buck stops here,” meaning all credit — good or bad — fell to him as the president.
That’s not how Trump sees it. One military action Trump did personally authorize, after military officials explained the plan to him, was a special operations raid in Yemen targeting an al-Qaeda leader on January 29. Twenty-three civilians were killed, including women and children, as well as Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a US Navy SEAL.
The president took no responsibility for the casualty. Instead, he proclaimed “they lost Ryan,” laying blame at the feet of the troops charged with completing the mission. (He also claimed that the planning for the raid “started before I got here.” That’s true — the Obama administration planned it.)
Trump is trying to have it both ways. He takes credit for successes, like the bomb drop in Afghanistan, and he passes blame when things go badly, like in Yemen.
The other responsibility he’s shirking is that of the country’s top national security strategist. After all, it’s the president’s job to guide the government, including the Pentagon, by outlining US goals in the world.
But the more authority he gives to the military, the less say he has a say on the strategic direction in which America is headed.
Without a strategy, commanders’ decisions can put the US into tough spots
Davidson believes “the model of letting the generals do what you want works if you sat down and had a clear understanding of the problem, strategic objectives, and how the military can advance that.” But the president doesn’t seem interested in all that, and its putting the US into some tough spots.
Davidson’s point is illustrated by last Thursday’s strikes in Syria. The United States struck a convoy of Assad’s forces which were headed in the direction of At Tanf base. It’s at that base where the US trains rebels to fight Assad.
This second attack on Syria — which followed an April 6, Trump-authorized set of strikes on an air base where Assad had launched a chemical weapons attack — could be mistaken for a policy switch from trying to defeat ISIS to trying to remove Assad.
Trump has yet to decide which course of action he wants to take, and it led US Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to offer two different explanations on whether or not the US planned to remove Assad.
But Mattis said the Syria strikes should not be interpreted as a policy change. “We are not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war,” he told reporters after the strikes were reported. “But we will defend our troops.”
Did the president really need to give approval in a case like this? As former Congress member and Secretary of the Army John McHugh told me in an interview, our enemies have shown an “amazing flexibility” to harm us, and so it’s good that US armed forces have the “tactical freedom” to respond appropriately. “Very few presidents get into the minutiae of tactical decisions,” he affirmed.
So the United States attacked Assad’s forces to protect US troops at At Tanf. That’s all well and good. But here’s the problem: The commander’s decision to strike Assad’s convoy brought up the question of a US policy change. That’s a tough spot the US did not need to be in.
If Trump had already articulated a strategy, commanders would have known whether or not attacking Assad — increasing the fair perception that the United States is fighting the regime — was appropriate or not.
To be fair, the tensions between civilian strategic direction and military decision-making have always been there. Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who was the senior commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, noted that “commanders need the ability to make decisions on the ground" and require a "reasonable degree of flexibility." However, if the president continues to be hands off, he will "lose sight of his responsibility to execute the strategy," he said.
John Craddock, a retired four-star general and former NATO commander, is on the other side of this debate. He told me he thinks “the military’s ability to prevail has been hamstrung by political considerations” during the Obama administration. It makes sense for Trump to give more authority to his commanders, like the bomb drop in Afghanistan.
“The target set matched the capabilities of the weapon. Why wouldn’t [the president] delegate authority to employ to the theater commander?” he asked.
The points raised by McHugh and Craddock are valid. Still, relying too much on the military to make decisions on behalf of the United States imperils Trump’s ability to guide US foreign policy.
After all, what is good for the battle is not necessarily what is good for the country, as was apparent with the latest Syria developments.
As Trump looks to enact his “principled realism” strategy, which he articulated during his first foreign trip as president, he will have the opportunity to set agendas with nations he visited like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and European countries — as is his job.
For now, it appears he will take responsibility for diplomacy. He’ll leave the rest to the military.