Civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle of the American system of government. Indeed, liberal democracies the world over have recognized the importance of this basic idea. It's precisely why current U.S. law prevents retired military servicemen and women to be out of uniform for at least seven years before accepting a position like Defense secretary.
As regular readers may recall, however, Donald Trump has seemed largely indifferent to the principle. During his presidential transition process, he tapped retired Gen. James Mattis -- only three years removed from active duty -- to lead the Pentagon.
Mattis, Trump said a month after his election, was "the closest thing to Gen. George Patton that we have." Perhaps, but what the president didn't seem to realize is that the Defense secretary job is inherently administrative. For the nation's first amateur president, who's never been especially familiar with how the government works, it simply made sense to put a general in charge of the Pentagon -- because he's, you know, a general. And the Pentagon is for the military. And the military should be led by those with stars on their shoulders.
It seemed to have a certain child-like logic, which Trump may still embrace. The New York Times had an interesting report over the weekend on Gen. Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who's positioned to serve as the president's top military adviser. Trump, however, seems to have a different vision in mind.
Although Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper is the top official in the civilian-led Defense Department, Mr. Trump treats General Milley as the de facto head of the military. (He is not -- he is the military's most senior official; the services are led by their chiefs and secretaries, who all report to the defense secretary and the president.)
The same day, the Washington Post reported that many U.S. officials believe Milley is "effectively running" the Pentagon by bypassing Mark Esper and taking matters directly to the president.
Here's a question I'd love to hear Trump reflect on: does he value civilian control of the military? Or does he have a different operating model in mind?