- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Well that was fast. Maybe too fast.
This morning, I joined a group of scholars and experts in civil-military relations to post a letter calling on all presidential candidates, but especially Donald Trump, to stop boasting about ordering the U.S. military to commit war crimes. I had written on this a few days earlier, and was dismayed to hear Donald Trump double down on the boast at the Fox News debate on Thursday night.
As we were circulating and posting our letter, Trump was conducting an interview with the Wall Street Journal, apparently backing down. Here is his latest statement:
Mr. Trump, in a statement to The Wall Street Journal, said he would “use every legal power that I have to stop these terrorist enemies. I do, however, understand that the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters. I will not order a military officer to disobey the law. It is clear that as president I will be bound by laws just like all Americans and I will meet those responsibilities.”
This statement, if it reflects the true position of Trump today, possibly amounts to an extraordinary rebuke of everything he has been saying, and resaying, and repeating on the topic for months.
This is important. Trump would not be walking back from a stray comment made in the give-and-take of a chaotic debate. He would be flip-flopping from a boast that he has repeatedly made with as much aforethought as he gives anything he says.
It will still leave unanswered some troubling questions. Is Trump actually reversing himself, or has he wrongly convinced himself that his Thursday night debate boast is somehow consistent with his Friday midday Wall Street Journal retraction? Since Trump also falsely claimed on Thursday night that he had not reversed himself on numerous issues where the debate moderators had him nailed, chapter-and-verse, there is a reason to be skeptical.
But it is possible this is a sincere reversal. We will know that Trump is serious if he repeats his new message as often as he repeated his old one. If he does, that will go some distance to repairing the damage already done.
Other questions still nag. How is it that Trump made it past Super Tuesday without correcting his stance on this issue? Could it really be that he was unaware of the fundamental civil-military issues at play? Does his long delay confirm other critiques: That he is poorly staffed, poorly briefed, and fundamentally unprepared for the responsibilities of commander-in-chief?
The quick reversal cannot be attributed to the efforts of my colleagues. The two stories crossed in the ether and arrived more or less simultaneously on the internet. But the reversal, if it holds, might offer encouragement to others who have called for Trump to amend his ways.
If the reversal is itself reversed, then the message of our letter is even more important.
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