Americans don’t often think about civil-military relations and that’s a good thing. It means that paratroopers are not seizing communications centers and tanks aren’t rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. But since U.S. civil-military relations are generally healthy, when Americans do talk about them, they often do so in apocalyptic terms. Each example of civil-military tensions, it seems, portends a crisis.
Civil-military relations under President Donald Trump are a case in point. Most recently, The Atlantic published a piece based on anonymous sources stating that the president denigrated fallen Americans two years ago during a visit to France to commemorate the end of World War I. Named sources denied the charge but the dustup fed the narrative that Trump routinely disparaged the military.
Contradictory criticisms of President Trump’s handling of national security issues began at the very outset of his presidency. On the one hand, detractors charged that he was a potential warmonger who was going to spark a conflict with Iran or North Korea. On the other, they fretted that he was weakening the U.S. position in the world by reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Europe against the advice of his military commanders.
The same contradictions applied to his military appointments. On the one hand, critics charged that the number of retired officers he appointed to high office violated the principle of civilian control of the military. On the other, they argued that these military men would provide a check on a mercurial president.
An extreme example of the latter position was expressed by Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and senior Pentagon appointee from 2009 to 2011who commented in Foreign Policy shortly after Trump’s inauguration that “one possibility is one that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders.” She continued that, for the first time, she could “imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: ‘No, sir. We’re not doing that.’”
No matter what one thinks of President Trump, the idea that active and retired military officers should form a phalanx around the duly elected president for the good of the country smacks of “praetorianism,” something I have warned against previously on this page. Do we really want to normalize the view that the military is the protector of republican government?
I have argued that U.S. civil-military relations constitute a bargain that is constantly being renegotiated as circumstances change, something that has been going on since the founding of the republic. There are three parties to the bargain — the civilian leadership, the uniformed military and the American people. In discussing U.S. civil-military relations, commentators often forget the last party to the bargain. The people may be wrong, but anyone who tries to conduct security policy without taking into account the citizens of the United States will fail.
President Trump seems to have his finger on the pulse of the American people more firmly than the national security “community.” They are tired of the stalemate in Afghanistan. They are leery of continued adventures in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
It is also the case that the military often seems to forget that the president bears the responsibility for establishing U.S. policy. The military provides advice but do not have the right to “insist” that the president accept it. U.S. history also illustrates that the military is not always right, even when it comes to military affairs, as Vietnam makes clear.
Both the uniformed military and the president bear responsibility for the current state of civil-military relations. The missing element is trust, the mutual respect and understanding between civilian and military leaders that enables the exchange of candid views and perspectives between the two parties as part of the decision-making process. It seems clear that both parties to the civil-military bargain need to reexamine their mutual relationship because it is mutual trust ultimately that lies at the heart of healthy civil-military relations.
This article originally appeared in Providence Journal.