Trump as Commander in Chief: Testing the Limits of Civilian Control?

Civilian control of the military is a long-established hallmark of democratic governance. It clearly can exist without democracy, but democracy — as the embodiment of popular sovereignty — can’t exist without it. The Trump presidency ahead promises — perhaps counterintuitively, perhaps not — to be a crucible that will test the limits and lengths of civilian control in this country as never before in recent memory. The result could well be a fundamental redefinition of the concept as we have come to know it: that of a deferential military dutifully executing direction from civilian authority without visible resistance, without itself becoming a threat — real or perceived — to those in power.

In simplest terms, civilian control means vesting direction and oversight of the military, as well as final decision making authority for military matters, in the hands of properly elected and appointed civilian officials. Why? To confer authority and legitimacy, to impose restraint and justification, on the conduct of military affairs, while avoiding the inevitable corruptions of concentrated power. Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur, bêtes noires in the most celebrated test of civilian control in modern US history, both invoked the Constitution as the underlying foundation for the concept.

It rarely is clear exactly where civilian control begins and ends. A coup d’etat — the overthrow of government — obviously would represent a wholesale breakdown of control. At the other extreme, though, are operational failures, which are never considered breakdowns of civilian control, however much the steady stream of recent such failures must be owned by both a parochial military and its strategically challenged civilian overlords. In between is what, over time, has come to be the principal arena of contention for civilian control: that being military dissent and, more seriously, disobedience. This is where the “battles” of the near future, if and when they emerge, will be waged.

There is a temptation to consider parallels between the period ahead and past coup d’etat scenarios, both imagined (viz., the 1962 novel and 1964 movie, Seven Days in May) and real-ish (viz., the 1933 plot by a cabal of self-interested, proto-fascist US businessmen, who allegedly sought, unsuccessfully, to recruit retired Marine Major Gen. Smedley Butler to lead an ad hoc force in unseating President Franklin D. Roosevelt). But a coup d’etat in this diverse, pluralistic country of Madisonian factions stretches the contemporary bounds of credulity, not least because any such tendency has long-since been completely socialized out of the US military.

The military is controlled, let us note, to the extent that it permits itself to be controlled. It is, after all, an immensely powerful institution that not only monopolizes the most lethal, destructive instruments of state violence, but also reaches throughout society and into other societies as well. What binds the military to both its civilian overseers and society as a whole is a tacit social contract of mutual rights, obligations and expectations.

From the other parties to this compact, the military expects unconditional appreciation, unequivocal support, unquestioning trust, unlimited discretionary license and non-meddling by unqualified “amateurs” inside and outside government. At a deeper level, as the price of its docile compliance, the military also expects of its civilian masters at least a modicum of strategic acumen and military literacy. Where these collective expectations go unfulfilled, there is and will continue to be subliminal tensions that could explode or lie dormant, depending on surrounding circumstances.

What is expected of the military, in turn, is that it be operationally competent and a source of sound advice, to be sure, but also socially responsible and politically (and ideologically) neutral. The imperative for social responsibility implicitly demands, among other things, that the military serve as a check and balance — to check civilian militaristic impetuosity, where it exists; to balance manifold civilian strategic shortcomings, where they exist. The imperative for political (and ideological) neutrality openly demands that the military let neither political preferences nor ideological predispositions affect its performance, and that those in uniform resist speaking out publicly in opposition to an incumbent administration’s policy (even if they do let themselves be “used” to publicly support policy).

A commander in chief who honors these imperatives — who recognizes and accepts the military as a check and balance, who seeks to avoid politicizing the military against its wishes and better interests, who encourages speaking up internally as inoculation against speaking out publicly — can reasonably expect a stable, if not harmonious, relationship.

One thing seems ineluctably clear: that the military’s relationship with the next commander in chief will be a function not of political or ideological considerations, but of behavioral, personality-based ones. The idealized ethos of civilian control is predicated on the notion that all direction of the military is, ipso facto, legitimate, and that the military’s proper role is to not impede, obstruct, resist or openly oppose, but to salute smartly, say “Three bags full, sir,” and execute. A commander in chief who, through his words and actions, sullies and discredits the office of the presidency, turns legitimacy into illegitimacy and thereby arguably relieves the military of an obligation for deference. Accordingly, two questions command the attention of observers and participants alike as we move forward:

First, how should we expect the military to react to a commander in chief if its members — particularly its senior-most members — see him as provocateur and bomb-thrower, overwhelmingly arrogant, self-absorbed, self-promoting and self-serving, insensitively domineering, willfully ignorant of strategic affairs; who arbitrarily attacks, demeans, and alienates parties both foreign and domestic, is given to random acts of provocation and intimidation, generates constant turbulence, anxiety and disequilibrium, lets personal insecurities, pettiness and vindictiveness take precedence over national security, undermines trust and confidence at home and abroad, endangers the country, its values, interests and credibility, and resolutely refuses to seek or entertain reasoned professional advice?

Second, how should we expect the military to react to a commander in chief, were he, for example, to precipitate, in a fit of personal pique, confrontations with adversaries (like China or Russia); to demand the intensified use of torture; to order rounding up, interning and persecuting particular classes of people; to direct the suppression and infiltration of public demonstrations and other forms of peaceful assembly; to stretch the bounds of the law through increased use of federal forces for law enforcement purposes; to further expand the covert use of special operations forces abroad (and at home?) for purposes of circumventing accountability; to fuel a reenergized nuclear arms race; or to reject established treaty obligations?

Such questions prompt us to acknowledge that the behavior of the next commander in chief assuredly will prefigure the resultant behavior of the military, and the behavior of the military in turn will determine the future content and direction of civilian control. Reflecting on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s election to the presidency, Harry Truman famously mused: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” Similarly will the new commander in chief, should he adopt the persona of a generalissimo in pinstripes, face a military whose members, though thoroughly inculcated with the authoritarian values of their culture, take extreme umbrage at hyper-authoritarianism imposed from without. They expect to be accorded respect and treated with dignity, to have their counsel sought and listened to. One hypothetical result could be a spate of reliefs (firings), resignations, public outspokenness, even refusals of orders. Another result, in contrast, could be a military that, in the interest of institutional self-defense, adopts a more thoroughgoing strategic outlook, speaks up more regularly and forcefully, and seeks greater transparency to expose and counter strategic myopia, ineptitude and duplicity. In either event, the idea and practice of civilian control, and the health of civil-military relations more generally, will be at stake. It will be a living experiment to which all concerned citizens should stay tuned.