Hail to the Hugely Classy Commander-in-Chief
The frightening and contradictory ways that Donald Trump would lead America’s armed forces.
The results of the Iowa caucuses notwithstanding, there remains the strong possibility that Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination, and contest for the presidency. It's time, in other words, for all Americans to think seriously about what sort of commander in chief Trump would be. It's especially important given that, since 9/11, the executive branch has enjoyed tremendous freedom to undertake covert and clandestine operations, as well as expanded military commitments, with little restraint or oversight from Congress, the courts, or the American people.
The results of the Iowa caucuses notwithstanding, there remains the strong possibility that Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination, and contest for the presidency. It’s time, in other words, for all Americans to think seriously about what sort of commander in chief Trump would be. It’s especially important given that, since 9/11, the executive branch has enjoyed tremendous freedom to undertake covert and clandestine operations, as well as expanded military commitments, with little restraint or oversight from Congress, the courts, or the American people.
Campaign slogans and sound bites — which tend to dissolve under the glare of day-to-day Oval Office decision making — are not normally the best evidence to rely on when considering a candidate’s future as a policymaker. But Trump leaves us little choice. He has largely kept hidden who, if anyone, provides him with military advice, preferring to mention anonymous generals, as well as a few specific individuals, like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and retired U.S. Army Col. Jack Jacobs. And his frequent refrain is that he trusts his own judgment, because he is such an exceptionally smart person. Taking him at his word, I recently read just about every one of his speeches or interview excerpts that dealt specifically with military affairs, in an attempt to discern his thinking on five critical areas of U.S. military policy.
First, what sort of force structure would President Trump develop? Here, he consistently warns that the U.S. military is presently “very weak,” has “never been so poorly prepared,” and is steadily “being decimated.” The solution to this troubling diagnosis is to build a military that is “bigger, better, and stronger,” as well as “beyond anything … technologically.… Because you’re getting now, militaries have to be technologically advanced.”
Trump never translates this into specifying how many Joint Strike Fighters he believes the government ought to buy, or what precisely the Army’s target strength should be. (When asked which of the three legs of the nuclear triad he prioritized, he replied, “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.”) Rather, Trump’s envisioned force structure is “a military so strong, so big, so powerful that nobody messes with us. Nobody, nobody, nobody messes with us.” Without using the concepts specifically, Trump displays tremendous faith in the power of general deterrence and compellence against all current and potential adversaries. They will intuitively sense America’s power and either refrain from undertaking undesirable actions or change their policies once the U.S. military reaches a certain size.
President Trump also pledges to somehow cut defense spending while similarly building up the military, apparently by uncovering heretofore unknown efficiencies: “We can do it for a lot less. They sent a washer from South Carolina to Texas. It cost $997,000, okay?” In 2013, he also backed sequestration, but added that federal budget spending across the board needed to be cut much deeper.
Second, what uses of force would Trump authorize? When asked this in October, he replied, “The Trump doctrine is very simple, Jake. It’s strength. It’s strength. Nobody is going to mess with us.” Yet, on the rare occasions that interviewers pressed him further, he expressed a decidedly non-interventionist philosophy. He claims to have been opposed to the Vietnam War, “yet another disaster for our country, the second Gulf War, a huge mistake because you’re going to destabilize the whole Middle East,” and the 2011 Libya intervention — “look at what we did there — it’s a mess.” He believes that Iraq and Libya would be better off with Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi still in power, and that both leaders would have prohibited transnational terrorists from operating within their countries.
Trump takes a much stronger line against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, noting: “We got to close it down, because he’s getting too close to doing something…. Once he has the transportation system [apparently referring to delivery vehicles], he’s sick enough to use it. So we better get involved.” When asked by CBS journalist Scott Pelley, “You would drop a bomb on their nuclear reactor?” (a mission Trump once endorsed), Trump replied, “I would do something.” Here, Trump apparently is unconcerned about the nuclear deterrent possessed by North Korea, or its vast conventional military power that would assuredly be unleashed against South Korea in the case of a U.S.-led preemptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear program
Third, what would Trump do about the Islamic State? Despite his expressed, selective opposition to other interventions, he repeatedly supports becoming much more deeply committed militarily in Iraq and Syria. He pledged in September, “I would end ISIS forcefully … you gotta knock ’em out. You gotta knock ’em out,” using another name for the Islamic State. Recently in a campaign video, he said, “We are going to get rid of them, and we are going to get rid of them fast.” This wholly improbable time frame is consistent with his self-image: “I’m the most military-based and the most militaristic person.”
He offers several, conflicting courses of action for achieving his objective of destroying the Islamic State. Trump supports putting more U.S. troops (without saying how many) on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. One mission that those ground troops would purportedly fulfill is providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians, as he proclaimed, “I love the idea of building a safe zone someplace in Syria.” Inside of this “big, beautiful safe zone,” displaced persons “would be given shelter and food and be taken care of,” and with U.S. troops nearby, “ISIS wouldn’t want anything to do with it.”
Trump also endorses bombing Iraqi oilfields to eliminate one Islamic State source of wealth, declaring in November, “I would bomb the shit out of ’em. I would just bomb those suckers … I’d blow up the pipes … I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.” (Regarding the likely opposition from Baghdad he replies, “Who cares? I don’t care about the government of Iraq. They’re corrupt. The government of Iraq is totally corrupt.”) Yet, even while simultaneously bombing the entirety of Iraqi oil infrastructure, Trump has promised (for years) that he will simply “take their oil.” Presumably, he would seek to somehow remove the Islamic State’s oil from Iraq, before authorizing the destruction of its oilfields. Finally, he endorses allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin — “a very bright and talented man” — to undertake this robust mission on behalf of the United States: “Russia wants to get rid of ISIS. We want to get rid of ISIS. Maybe let Russia do it. Let ’em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?”
Fourth, what sort of civil-military relations would characterize Trump’s presidency? Unlike other Republican candidates who vow to listen to their generals, Trump expresses a tremendous self-confidence in his own knowledge of military affairs. As he explained last year to a biographer, “[I] always felt that I was in the military,” and that attending New York Military Academy gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.” Trump wants his senior military advisers to remain in the shadows and refrain from conducting interviews or speaking publicly: “I don’t want generals that talk…. I want generals that have action.” As to what sorts of general and flag officers he would listen to, “I want Gen. George Patton. I want Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur.” Both make for curious choices — Patton is known to have struck soldiers under his command who were likely suffering from PTSD, while MacArthur was effectively fired by President Harry Truman for disobeying orders by championing an expansion of the Korean War into China.
Fifth, what sort of alliance structure would Trump support? He has a long and consistent track record of pledging to rebalance the burden sharing among America’s mutual defense treaty allies. To retain the 50+ year U.S. military presence in South Korea, he would insist that country “pay us a lot of money,” adding “I just ordered 4,000 television sets. They come from South Korea. South Korea is a money machine.… South Korea should pay us and pay us very substantially for protecting them.” Similarly, he would rethink the long-standing commitment to Japan, believing, “If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair.” Finally, he declared in August: “I would support NATO,” but contends that in Ukraine, “I’m certainly not a fan of us being against Russia … for Ukraine when Germany is sitting back, you know, accepting all the oil and gas that they can get from Russia.”
It is difficult to summarize Commander in Chief Trump because most of his policy positions are not coherent, only roughly sketched out, and often contradict each other. He expresses an extremely dark and threatening worldview, believing, for example, that “[Iran is] going to take over parts of the world that you wouldn’t believe. And I think it’s going to lead to nuclear holocaust,” but he simultaneously champions reduced military commitments in most regions, except Iraq, Syria, and North Korea. He is equally a non-interventionist and a humanitarian interventionist, and someone who supports preventive uses of force. He suggests he would build up a bigger and more technologically advanced military, while simultaneously slashing defense spending.
Military officers complain anonymously about the prospects of Trump as commander in chief, as they have for previous candidates and actual presidents, but they can be expected to overwhelmingly follow orders rather than retire in droves. In my encounters with senior officers, most respond to his outrageous comments with a disbelieving eye roll and generally accept that candidates will say anything to get their party’s nomination and eventually elected. Moreover, those who have done multiple tours through the Pentagon recognize that the Office of the Secretary of Defense has far greater influence in the day-to-day operations and morale of the military than the president. Trump has never indicated who he would nominate to run the Pentagon, but he has indicated that he would nominate or appoint business leaders to keep diplomatic posts. (It should be noted that the last full-time business executive to become secretary of defense was Donald Rumsfeld, who was widely loathed by the officer corps.)
Of course, all of Trump’s words might be meaningless once he enters the White House. As he told a cheering crowd in Pella, Iowa, on Jan. 23, “When I’m president, I’m a different person. I can do anything.”
Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans. Twitter: @MicahZenko
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