Civilian Control of the Military

President Trump’s budget probably won’t go through. Not even Republicans like it. But it’s worth looking at what he asked for, and the scary thing it implies about his understanding of the role of the military, because he’ll try it again. It’s foundational.

For all Trump’s “hugest, biggest” language, his proposed military budget is only a 3% increase, which is way lower than a lot of past presidents’, and comes after various budget sequesters maybe brought the level below what it should be when we’re active in multiple theatres. (Note my “maybe.”) There’s military stuff I could go for: for instance, the military has been vocal about the problems caused by climate change, and how we need to refit naval bases to deal with sea level rise. For instance, sure would be nice to have safe zones in Syria.

No, the scary part is the one where he wants to cut civilian programs to enable the military expansion.

In particular, Trump figures he can cut a third of the budget for the State Department and shift it to the military.

I hope I don’t have to convince any of you how important it is to American democracy that the military ultimately answers to civilian command – that our foreign policy is guided by diplomats rather than generals.

Everybody prefers that. The military also prefers that. We sometimes call them killer angels, but they aren’t really angels. They’re just folks. Folks who serve, and do so with the confidence that civilian leaders have pointed them at a just target.

One of the most alarming things that’s already happened over the past few years is that constrained domestic budgets have forced a shift of various tasks that are traditionally State Department over to the Pentagon. Trump would accelerate and make permanent that process.

To be clear, this doesn’t strengthen his personal power. It does the opposite. Despite the “commander in chief” title, he has more direct control of the State Department (which he has left largely unstaffed). Nor does he seem to want to be closely involved in military strategy. According to a March 1 Daily Beast article, he’s even considered removing himself from the approval loop for counterterrorist raids, after Yemen blowback. (The White House says: So the military can move faster. I say: We should definitely delay killing people until we’re absolutely sure we need to, but also I think it’s more an issue of laziness and criticism avoidance.)

Having Trump in charge of stuff is scary and a bad idea. HOWEVER, no matter how much I might like individual generals, switching over to military rule without civilian oversight is an even worse idea. An America-breaking idea. Frankly, all you have to do is look at the line of presidential succession to see that the Secretary of State is supposed to be higher up than the Secretary of Defense. (Defense is below Treasury.)

It’s spooky that our Toy Soldier president has such unswavering confidence in the military, and so much suspicion of everyone else, himself possibly included.