Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, keeping some distance from his Commander-in-Chief. Photo: Reuters

The President, The Generals and The Region

Can Trump-Military Rift Hurt U.S. Mideast Actions?

By Amir Oren

American military officers, serving and retired, have a tradition of staying out of politics, unless they are candidates themselves – a rather rare event in recent years. Gone are the days of victorious wartime Generals – Washington, Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower – elected civilian Comnanders-in-Chief in peacetime. As an institution, the U.S. military is proudly a-political. Famous Generals such as Marshall and Petraeus even refrained from casting their votes. But less than two months before the Presidential elections, its relationship with Donald Trump has become an issue, with possible repercussions for the Middle East.

It all started as a love affair. Trump declared his admiration for the military and appointed recently retired Marine Corps and Army 4- and 3-Stars to key positions in his cabinet (Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security) and staff (National Security Advisor, White House Chief of Staff). Sooner rather than later, they all left, disagreeing with either his policy or his personality.

One bone of contention was Trump’s determination to bring the troops home from the Middle East, especially from Syria, in line with his “America First” ideology and based on the assessment that Daesh has been defeated. While not happy with what they saw as a premature move sure to backfire, and managing to dilute and delay the withdrawal, the officers saluted and executed their orders, with Defense Secretary James Mattis, formerly Trump’s Marine hero, choosing to leave the administration.

This was foreign policy with military aspects, clearly within the prerogative of the President to decide and direct. Not so when domestic issues and electoral politics came to the fore, earlier this summer, with National Guard units and other Federal troops mobilized when cities flared up in race-related riots. The sensitivity was twofold – employing the military against civilians, and in a context where many officers and enlisted personnel do not side with Trump. Several high-ranking officers went public with their rage and resentment. The most senior of them all, though equal in rank to some 40 other 4-Stars, is Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, who apologized for taking part, wearing combat fatigues, in Trump’s photo-op walk to a church near the White House while demonstrators used their Constitutionally protected freedom of expression.

Gen. Milley, a former U.S. Army chief, owed his position to Trump, who chose him over Mattis’ favorite, USAF chief David Goldfein. The Chairman, JCS, is not in the chain of command, which goes from the President to the SecDef to the Commanders of the various geographical or functional commands. Yet he is the face of the military to Congress and public alike and is in charge of the Joint Staff, coordinating planning and resources among competing demands.

With this recent experience in mind, the military has now been dragged into Trump-related controversies once again. It started with remarks attributed to him and generally considered credible, but denied by Trump. He went on, however, to wage frontal war on “Pentagon” elements. The top layer Department of Defense is manned by political appointees, his own, so surely he did not mean Secretary Mark Esper and his staff. The targets must have been the Generals and Admirals in the Washington area and around the world.

The derogatory language allegedly used by Trump regarding fallen servicemen infuriated members of the military, who four years ago heavily favored the Republican candidate over Hillary Clinton but now, according to public opinion polls, are disillusioned by him and prefer Democratic candidate Joe Biden. If true, this is an ominously development for Trump, as the olive-uniformed privates and sergeants reflect his once-solid political base of blue-collar workers lacking college degrees.

On Monday, Trump lashed out at ranking officers who “want to do nothing but fight war” so that the defense industry can happily go on producing bombs and planes.

A faint echo of outgoing President Eisenhower warning Americans on his farewell address of “unwarrented influence by the military-industrial complex”, Trump’s  comment was nevertheless bewildering as regards the industry part, as he usually prides himself on selling American weapons overseas, especially to Arabian Gulf countries, thus restoring sagging industries back home and generating jobs for the unemployed.

Trump argued that Biden is “globalist” and thus would be more prone to get America in trouble overseas. This appeal to isolationist sentiments, with the usual hyperbole, is part of the legitimate debate giving voters a choice. The unusal part is the attack on military officials as war-mongering for coroporate profits.

This accusation drew a swift response from Milley’s successor as Army Chief of Staff and thus his colleague on the Joint Chiefs, where Milley is first among equals. General James McConville said senior military leaders would only send troops to war if national security demanded it, indeed “as a last resort”. This is in line with the conditions set by General Colin Powell and Defense Sectetary Caspar Weinberger in the 1980’s, to avoid another Viet-Nam War with public alienation from the military sent on a mission set by the political leadership. Indeed, the Chiefs are persistently much more reluctant than politicians and armchair Field-Marshals to embark on open-ended expeditionary adventures. In a volunteer Joint Force, any suspicion by troops that their superiors view them as cannon fodder for profit or promotion would irreparably thin the ranks.

If Milley, McConville, new USAF chief Charles Brown – first Black as head of any of the services (Powell was elevated to Chairman without being Army chief earlier) – and their Pentagon comrades openly resent Trump’s pronouncements, could it curtail U.S. military operations in the Middle East, either in the eight weeks leading to the elections or in the months between the vote and the inauguration of the next President, should Biden win?

Unlikely. Trump is running on a stop endless wars, bring boys home (for Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.) platform. It would be out of form for him to launch a surprise offense, without provocation. By the same token, it would be foolish for an enemy such as Iran to provoke him and risk a sudden rise in his electoral chances. Congress might invoke a tight version of the War Powers Act limiting the President’s authority. If Trump insists on issuing an execute order, it will go through Asper to the chiefs of CENTCOM and EUCOM – the Central and European – commands who will probably also needs assets under the Strategic, Cyber, Transportation and Special Operations command. The Joint Chiefs would advise and equip, not make the decisions. But the Generals in charge of EUCOM (dual-hatted as NATO’s military commander) and CENTCOM would remind their boss that they have to consult with allies in their jurisdictions, as well as testify in Congressional hearings. An extreme Nixonite scenario, with a Defense Secretary following James Schlesinger’s example by preparing to block questionable Presidential instructions, is too far-fetched except for creative fiction writers and directors.

In sum, late summer and early fall do not seem right now as a time of rising tensions in which a President may order a strike sure to bring about an escalation, and if he feels the urge to, cooler heads will prevail, without resorting to either war or to disobeying a direct order. Nevertheless, a caveat must be added: Trump being Trump and the Middle East being the volatile area it has always been.