The president has given Defense Secretary James Mattis almost unprecedented power. But Trump won’t tolerate his disobedience for long.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy., Jennifer WilsonJennifer Wilson is research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Constitution explicitly names the president “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States,” but all presidents delegate most day-to-day leadership and management of the military to their secretary of defense. Donald Trump’s obsession with the military, however, has led him to go several steps further, granting commanders seemingly limitless authority and proudly turning his commander-in-chief powers into a rubber stamp for Defense Secretary James Mattis. “We have given them total authorization,” he has said. “What I do is, I authorize my military.”
Even more remarkable, he has dodged the decision of when and how many American lives to put in harm’s way. In allowing Mattis and senior commanders to establish the troop levels in Syria and now Afghanistan, Trump is the first post-Cold War president to delegate such major strategic choices concerning war and peace.
One would think, in exchange for passing off these decisions, Trump would expect his guidance and messaging to be followed down the chain of command, and that Mattis would not publicly clash with the commander in chief. But this is the Trump administration, where reasonable expectations are nonexistent. It’s not just that Trump has handed all responsibility for military operations to Mattis; it’s not even clear whether the commander in chief has retained the prerogative to set the broad strokes of the administration’s military strategy.
Take, for example, the way the two characterize threats to the United States. Trump has made it a point to talk about the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism,” while Mattis uses the opposite depiction of the enemy: “terrorists who defame Islam.” They have also publicly diverged on the importance of NATO. Mattis has never questioned the alliance, stating during his confirmation hearing that NATO is vital to American security. “If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it,” he said. Before reversing his position on the alliance (after Mattis’s public comments), Trump regularly labeled NATO “obsolete” and floated the possibility that it should be “gotten rid of.” In a foreign-policy speech last April, Trump said, “The U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
While he has since walked back his skepticism of the alliance, Trump has stuck by his position that member states need to pay up, tweeting, for example, that Germany “owes” the United States money for the “powerful and very expensive defense it provides.” Mattis has echoed Trump’s calls for member states to fulfill their spending promises (a call that U.S. leaders have made for decades), but rejected Trump’s claim that those who fall short of their commitments must pay the United States directly.
Mattis and Trump also split on the role of the State Department in foreign policy. Trump’s first budget blueprint includes a 28 percent decrease in funding for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. Most leadership roles within State, usually filled by now, remain vacant. These signs, coupled with Trump’s enthusiasm for shows of military force and his idolization of military officers indicate how little he values the role of diplomacy, international aid, and the foreign-policy advice of civilians. Mattis, however, in Senate testimony as commander of the U.S. Central Command, defended full funding, saying, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition, ultimately.” His close relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson since becoming defense secretary, and the fact that State has taken the lead in responding to North Korean provocations, underscores his belief in a comprehensive approach to U.S. power abroad that includes robust support for international aid and diplomacy.
Mattis’s beliefs about the use of force are also evident in Yemen. During a visit to Saudi Arabia, he placed stock in diplomacy. “Our goal is for that crisis down there, that ongoing fight, be put in front of a U.N.-brokered negotiating team and try to resolve this politically as soon as possible,” he said. The White House, however, seems to pursue a military-first solution. Trump has ramped up military operations in Yemen, authorizing three drone strikes during his first weekend in office. Then there was the ill-fated Navy SEAL raid a week later — which he blamed on “the generals” — and the 80 (and counting) airstrikes. His administration is also reportedly working to finalize tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the (puzzling) destination of Trump’s first foreign visit.
Yet another pivotal area where Mattis and Trump are at odds is the respect for international laws and norms. In blatant disregard for well-established and widely recognized laws of war, Trump has been a longtime advocate of plundering Iraq’s oil. Trump repeated this argument throughout the campaign. In his first speech after Inauguration Day, he again lamented that the United States did not “keep the oil” in Iraq, adding, “Maybe we’ll have another chance.” However, Mattis, during his first trip to Iraq as Trump’s defense secretary, flatly rejected Trump’s long-held passion for plunder, saying, “We’re not in Iraq to seize anybody’s oil.”Trump has also regularly defended using torture, which is prohibited under U.S. and international law and widely regarded by interrogators as ineffective, characterizing its use against terrorists as “fighting fire with fire.” As a candidate, Trump promised to bring back waterboarding. Only a week after his inauguration, he defended his views, saying, “I happen to feel that it does work.” Mattis, on the other hand, has a long history of opposing the kind of interrogation methods, including waterboarding, used in the George W. Bush administration. In written responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation, Mattis said he supports using the Army Field Manual, which clearly prohibits torture, as the “single standard for all U.S. military interrogations.”
Their divergence on the use of torture highlights not only a contradictory set of beliefs and values, but is also an example of Trump’s willingness to defer to his subordinate on such an issue. Amazingly, Trump, who otherwise seems to revel in the powers of his office, yielded the crucial decision of whether to torture wartime captives to his defense secretary. In a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, he said, “I don’t necessarily agree [with Mattis], but I would tell you that he would override because I am giving him that power.”
No modern president has allowed himself to be so directly and publicly contradicted by his defense secretary. This novel dynamic between the president and the civilian leader of the military is both unprecedented and harmful. Principles and norms that once mandate that the president’s word be both believed and followed have eroded.
Delegating authority to Mattis in areas where the two diverge could result in consequential decisions being made without Trump’s awareness. Such divergence is unprecedented. There have been disagreements between Pentagon chiefs and their bosses, including Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s ignoring President Ronald Reagan’s authorization for an air raid in Lebanon’s Baalbek Valley in 1983 and Secretary James Schlesinger’s refusal to carry out President Gerald R. Ford’s ordered evacuation in Vietnam in late April 1975. But Mattis has taken this to a new level. The Trump-Mattis relationship chips away at the fundamental understanding that the cabinet should promote and carry out the president’s policies and priorities.
The divide also makes foreign-policy interests more difficult to understand for allies and adversaries, and obscures priorities for the Pentagon. Because Trump’s words may not reflect actual policy, the United States will become a less predictable actor, damaging treaty alliances and inviting miscalculation by adversaries. It is also confusing for the U.S. government bureaucracy. Military officials have previously scrutinized what their commander in chief said for messaging guidance that was subsequently echoed in their speeches, memos, and emails. Today, senior uniformed officers act as though the commander in chief did not exist, referring to the comments of Mattis or that of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. The rhetorical gap between Trump and Mattis invites a similar erosion of trust and miscalculation within the government’s ranks as it does beyond U.S. borders.
The defense secretary is a political appointee who serves at the pleasure of the president. For the time being, Trump respects Mattis’s expertise and professionalism (even while incorrectly labeling him “General Mattis” more than a dozen times since entering office). Referring to military officers, he said: “I’m a believer in professionals. … They love doing it. They know every inch of the territory, right? I say, why am I telling them? So I authorized the generals to do the fighting.”
However, at some point Trump might realize that job satisfaction and knowledge of cartography are not enough. He has the habit of deflecting blame when things go awry (and they will at some point, with wars expanding in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen) and a disregard for the optics or consequences of impulsive decisions to fire top officials. Should Mattis make what Trump decides in retrospect to be a consequential misstep, he would surely be dismissed. Such an executive decision from a president with little interest in governing would be tremendously and lastingly disruptive, both within the national security bureaucracy and with allies and adversaries.
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