President Donald Trump has once again intervened in military justice cases involving service members convicted or accused of war crimes. His actions, while legally permissible, will undermine command authority, good order and discipline, the military justice system, and relations with U.S. allies and partners. Unfortunately, this is no isolated event or confined only to the military justice system. It continues a pattern of the president taking actions that weaken or damage our military.
By our Constitution, the president serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has wide latitude in his authority to make decisions and order their actions. As long as his orders are legal, that fact is indisputable. However legal his orders may be, one must also consider the consequences of those actions — on our military, our country, and our partnerships and alliances.
The U.S. military is known around the world for its adherence to the Law of War (or Armed Conflict) and for our efforts to hold accountable those who are proven to have violated it. Pardoning or commuting the sentences of those convicted of war crimes, or halting judicial proceedings before they are completed, rightfully raises questions as to our continued respect for, and adherence to, those laws. If the United States can no longer claim to use its own military and civilian courts to adjudicate allegations of war crimes — or other serious offenses — committed by U.S. servicemembers serving in other countries, those governments will likely seek to detain, try and imprison our men and women through their own criminal justice and penal systems. Significantly elevating the risk of such an outcome could have a devastating impact on our military and relations with foreign partners.
While the president’s past and present intervention in war crimes cases poses the most serious threat to the military he professes to love and support, there is a litany of actions he has taken that can collectively hurt the military as an institution as well as those who serve in uniform, and their families. Despite the president’s repeated boasts about how well he treats and supports the military, many of his actions and directives risk causing short- and long-term harm.
Here’s a sample of them.
The president’s whipsaw actions on Syria, with confusing and often-contradictory statements and orders on abruptly withdrawing U.S. troops fighting against the Islamic State have already damaged the United States’ and the U.S. military’s reputation and credibility. U.S. service members in Syria (and Iraq) have trained, equipped, fought and shed blood with Kurdish military forces for many years, building trust and increased capabilities to defeat terrorist organizations. The president’s decisions, and the way in which they were made and communicated, exposed our friends and partners to greater harm. For decades, the U.S. military has trained and partnered with local military forces around the world, to build up their capabilities and to decrease the need for greater U.S. military involvement. Syria was a model of that cooperation. The president’s new focus on U.S. troops guarding Syrian oil fields does not advance that purpose and ending the counter-terrorism cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Force makes the U.S. and our allies less safe.
Southern border law enforcement
Ordering active duty military forces to the southwest border of the U.S. for a mission of dubious intent, given laws prohibiting those troops from conducting domestic law enforcement activities ranks high on this list. What was first announced as a short-term mission to counter “caravans” of poor migrants from Central America has stretched into a year-plus deployment, even as border crossings have decreased. What’s more, the deployment unnecessarily takes the service members away from their regular duties, training, bases, and families. After 18 years of wars overseas, they shouldn’t have to spend more time away from home for what is essentially a law enforcement mission without a true national security nexus. There was a humanitarian and “volume” crisis at the border earlier this year, but one that didn’t require the specialized skills of the U.S. military.
Diversion of funds to border wall
In order to fulfill one-half of a reckless campaign promise to build a wall on the southern border, the president has taken billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer funds that Congress appropriated for sorely needed military construction projects —including schools, training ranges and medical facilities — and other priorities to replace old fencing along the border.
The president has bragged about higher DoD budgets during his term but conveniently leaves out the primary role of Congress in appropriating those funds — the president’s budget is simply a budget request. Plus this marketing charade fails to acknowledge the impact sequestration and budget deals had on defense spending in prior years. He also has repeatedly claimed he gave the military either its first pay raise in 10 years or its largest pay raise over that period, neither of which are true.
The pay raise claims may not be damaging to the military, but they illustrate the president’s exaggeration of how much he has helped the military. More important, while he and the Congress have provided increased funds to the Department of Defense in recent years, he has also diverted some of that funding from its intended purposes. After 18 years of war with its impacts on people, equipment, acquisition and modernization, Trump’s decisions on the border deployment and wall funding cause the Pentagon to assume risk in some areas to shift funds to these unplanned — and unbudgeted — actions.
Public disparagement of military leaders
The president’s feigned respect for the military and heroes quickly disappears when he hears criticism or has a personal grudge. Witness the numerous public, personal attacks on Sen John McCain – which has continued even after his death – Gen. James Mattis (“world’s most overrated general”), Gen. Stan McChrystal, Admiral Bill McRaven, and most recently, Army Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, all of whom served with honor and distinction in combat.
Taking personal credit for military actions
Trump frequently takes personal credit for the actions of military troops and leaders. He has frequently used the term “I” in exaggerated – and inaccurate — claims of having defeated ISIS and his over-the-top performance at the press conference announcing the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was filled with self-aggrandizement, as well as making spurious claims and revealing sensitive operational details.
The president’s stated desire for a grand military parade, in line with France’s annual Bastille Day celebration, was avoided, but he succeeded in turning the annual patriotic — and decidedly nonpartisan — 4th of July celebration into a military spectacle. So, instead of hard-working service members getting a traditional long weekend to enjoy with families and friends, hundreds were required to spend their holiday, as well as days and weeks in advance for planning and preparation, indulging the president’s whims. Memorial Day, Veterans Day, local parades, flyovers of sporting events and other demonstrations that take place throughout the year suffice in showcasing service members and America’s military might for our citizens. A Washington, D.C., 4th of July parade featuring military troops is unnecessary and burdensome.
Among the worst of all, the president has held campaign-type rallies in front of military troops, engaging in partisan political attacks and rhetoric with service members who are, by our system of government, apolitical and non-partisan. They swear an oath to the Constitution, not the president, and they are prohibited by law and policy from engaging in most political activities. They faithfully serve under presidents of both parties and irrespective of the majority party in either the House or Senate. Turning events into partisan activities puts those in attendance in difficult circumstances and may erode the military’s standing with the American people as an apolitical entity.
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There is no requirement for the president to have served in the military, although many have throughout our history. Presidents are the ultimate decision-makers when it comes to military operations, especially in times of war or conflict. They don’t have to follow the advice and recommendations of senior military and civilian leaders, but most presidents come to rely on the experience and judgment of those leaders. Examples abound but President Trump’s actions and words (“we train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them for killing” in one tweet) demonstrate how little he knows or understands the military. As a consequence, the advice of those who do or have served becomes all the more important.
As the New York Times recently reported, the military has learned to adjust to this president’s mercurial ways. All senior military and civilian leaders must deal with the management styles of the commander-in-chief, regardless of his party affiliation and policy choices, but President Trump presents unique challenges to DoD’s leadership. As the Times points out, Trump’s tweets often take military leaders by surprise and raise questions, and concerns, about what is “real” and truly expected and what is rumination or not fully formed decisions.
The military must deal with the “fog of war” in combat. It shouldn’t have to decipher unclear or confusing directives from the president at home. Unity of command and clarity are essential components of military leadership.
We ask much of our men and women in uniform. U.S. service members and their families, who serve at great risk to protect our country, freedoms and values, should expect clear, honest leadership from the top down, and a commander-in-chief whose deeds truly match his words.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Image: President Donald Trump after a speech to Japanese and U.S. troops at JMSDF Yokosuka base on May 28, 2019 in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Japan. Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images