In their ongoing attempt to fan the Resistance, the media has been breathlessly speculating over whether top civilian and military leaders will openly defy President Donald Trump’s troop deployment to the U.S.-Mexican border.
Over the last several days, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford have been peppered with loaded questions about the border mission and even encouraged to challenge the president. Most recently, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who speaks straight from the belly of the foreign policy establishment, spent an entire column suggesting that Mattis was losing credibility for not taking a stand.
Ignatius apparently believes Mattis and Dunford should openly question Trump’s order to send 6,000 troops to the border to deal with the approaching caravan of Central American migrants. This is no light suggestion: it undermines the critical norms and principles concerning civilian control of the military.
The problem begins with Ignatius’s description of Mattis as “a stand-up guy—the sort of independent, experienced leader who can steady the nation in a time of division” (emphasis added). While intended to be a compliment, this remark exposes either ignorance or an attempt to mislead the public as to the role and responsibility of the secretary of defense.
“Mattis certainly possesses an ‘independent intellect,’” Giselle Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told TAC. “But he’s very much a core component of the military’s chain of command, second only to the commander-in-chief.” Donnelly added that the secretary can function as a check on the president, but the position does not exist for the purpose of obstructing the commander-in-chief. Rather, Mattis is supposed to be the executor of policies formulated in the White House. If he cannot fulfill this function, the president is well within his right to relieve him of his duties.
Author and commentator Colonel Douglas Macgregor (Ret.) was blunter, saying, “[Mattis] in no way functions in an independent capacity.” He described the op-ed as just another episode in the ongoing political squabble between Trump and the “Resistance.” Both he and Donnelly said Ignatius had little basis for making a call for such drastic action. America is not approaching a “red line,” as Ignatius described it, where Trump is about to commit a tragic error requiring intervention.
If Mattis harbors any reservations about Trump’s decision making, he has a responsibility to duly advise, warn, and suggest alternate courses of action to his superior. In fact, if the accounts in journalist Bob Woodward’s recent exposé are accurate, it’s clear that Mattis has differed from the president before and is willing to express opposition to his boss (though the manner in which he did stirred controversy).
But ultimately, Trump and Mattis constitute a team, with Trump as team leader. As Mark Nevitt, Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and former Navy JAG, explains, the chain-of-command “places the civilian president and defense secretary as partners in ensuring civilian control over the uniformed military. Trump and Mattis are the legal guarantors of civilian control within the executive branch, not Mattis and Dunford.” This means neither the media nor the public should expect the secretary and chairman to “save” the military from the commander-in-chief.
Failure to enforce the president’s ultimate authority on military matters could also lead to the normalization of open disobedience, especially if it comes to be perceived as virtuous. “If the secretary disobeys the president once, it can easily happen again,” Donnelly warned, adding, “Ignatius is playing with fire.”
Equally reckless is the insistence by retired officers, including an anonymous four-star general cited by Ignatius, that General Dunford “needs to speak up.” The fact that this is coming from figures who once wore the uniform is worrisome, since it asks of Dunford, an active-duty, uniformed military officer, the unfathomable: open violation of a fundamental precept of military ethos.
As noted by James Joyner in The National Interest, any dissent or reservation needs to be aired in private. “[Dunford’s] public commentary,” writes Joyner, “ought to reflect the policy preferences of the elected decision-makers, not his own preferences nor those of the top brass.” That neither the secretary nor chairman can speak openly is the price of admission to the highest military ranks.
It’s become clear that the media is trying to sniff out any possible dissension among Trump’s generals. In an interview with the press over the weekend at the Halifax International Security Forum, Dunford was repeatedly asked for his opinion about the border situation. When a BBC reporter inquired whether the military would take a hit for engaging in the mission, Dunford replied that it would not.
“We do have a very strong, nonpartisan, apolitical ethos in the U.S. military. And I view one of my more important responsibilities as the chairman as being the steward of that ethos,” he said.
Meanwhile, retired officers have stepped up their own attacks against the president, fueling the media speculation that the military is turning against the White House. Retired Admiral William H. McRaven has perhaps been the most outspoken, saying in a Washington Post op-ed that he would “consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.” Trump dismissed him as a “Hillary Clinton backer” in an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday.
Donnelly believes the retired officers are allowing themselves to become caught up in the hyper-partisanship of the times, motivated by a belief they are doing the “right thing” in criticizing a controversial president. Macgregor, on the other hand, thinks they are being used by anti-Trump forces in the media and elsewhere to undermine the administration.
“The media isn’t above wrapping itself in the flag,” Macgregor added. “They will use the prestige afforded by those who’ve served in uniform as a means of injecting credibility into their struggle against Trump.” More troubling is the possibility that retired officers are doing the talking for those still serving inside the Pentagon. This suggests the discontent towards the commander-in-chief among the top brass is real.
Macgregor also sees Mattis and Dunford (but Mattis in particular) being built up by the media as the ideal “heroes” against the “villain” Trump. But he and Donnelly both view this as a losing game. While speaking out against Trump may damage the president politically, not only would the damage be temporary, Mattis and Dunford would pay the biggest price in the long run.
“They would lose all credibility,” said Donnelly. She cited the blowback John Allen, another retired Marine four-star general, received after his appearance at the Democratic National Convention during the 2016 election, as an example of what happens when a military officer is perceived as taking sides.
“Trump’s supporters would also likely rally around their president, even as their admiration of the military is greater relative to the general population,” Donnelly added. Her analysis is consistent with at least one study indicating that the public appears to recognize when military officers are conducting themselves in a partisan fashion.
Of course, if either Mattis or Dunford find it impossible to work under Trump, resigning in protest is always an option. Some have suggested Mattis in particular should do just that. But as Ignatius laments, this would only remove one or both of the so-called adults in the room. It would hardly address the core issue: Trump’s supposed inability to make the right decision.
And while vigilance is prudent, both Donnelly and Macgregor agree there is no reason to believe a civil-military crisis is brewing.
“There isn’t anything new about the media calling for military disobedience,” Donnelly relates. “Ignatius could’ve written the very same op-ed over a decade ago during the Bush administration. Each presidency has experienced friction with its military leadership, but it hasn’t resulted in a crisis.”
Edward Chang is a freelance defense, military, and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared in The National Interest, Real Clear Defense, and War Is Boring.