IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump can't delegate all of his powers as Commander in Chief

As a candidate, Trump said he knew more than U.S. generals. As a president, Trump appears to be taking a pass altogether on military leadership.
Image: Donald Trump, Jens Stoltenberg
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 12, 2017, in Washington. 
While much of the political world was watching Sally Yates' Senate testimony yesterday, the White House had a very different story it was eager to push. As the Washington Post reported, Donald Trump's "most senior military and foreign policy advisers have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would effectively put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban."The new policy has not yet been approved by the president, but as the Post's report put it, the Obama administration's efforts to wind down the U.S. military role in Afghanistan would be reversed under this new plan. The article added:

The new strategy, which has the backing of top Cabinet officials, would authorize the Pentagon, not the White House, to set troop numbers in Afghanistan and give the military far broader authority to use airstrikes to target Taliban militants. [...][I]n keeping with the Trump administration's desire to empower military decision-making, the Pentagon would have final say on troop levels and how those forces are employed on the battlefield.

This approach isn't limited to U.S. military policy in Afghanistan. BuzzFeed reported two weeks ago that while White House management over the Pentagon was tight in the Obama era, Trump prefers to give the Defense Department "a freer hand in deciding how many of its troops are deployed in the war against ISIS and when they are sent there."To that end, the president has delegated "new authorities to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to determine the maximum number of forces to be deployed to a conflict, known as the Force Management Level, or FML, in Iraq and Syria.... The Trump administration also has given more authorities to commanders, relaxing the rules to prevent civilian casualties during US airstrikes in Somalia."This also came up recently after the use of a MOAB ("Mother Of All Bombs") in Afghanistan, a decision that was made without input -- or even direct approval -- from the White House. Asked about this, Trump declared with pride, "Everybody knows exactly what happened. And what I do is I authorize my military.... We have given them total authorization, and that's what they're doing."In other words, Trump has effectively delegated his Commander-in-Chief powers to the Pentagon. As a candidate, Trump, despite having no experience or background in military service at any level, assured voters about his expertise in matters of national security -- remember when the Republican amateur boasted he knew more about ISIS than American generals do? -- but as a president, he appears to be effectively taking a pass.To be sure, every president needs to strike a balance. Ultimately, the military is required to follow a president's orders, but it's unrealistic to think any modern Commander in Chief, especially during ongoing conflicts, would personally consider and approve literally every individual mission and strike. Some delegation is a practical necessity.But with Trump, we appear to have a president who's content to leave decision-making authority elsewhere.I'm reminded of Trump's reaction to the disastrous raid in Yemen, shortly after the president took office, which left Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens and many civilians dead. Asked about what transpired, Trump made comments in a Fox News interview that were almost hard to believe."Well this was a mission that was started before I got here," the president said. "This was something that was, you know, just, they wanted to do. They came to see me they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we've had in many decades, I believe, and they lost Ryan."This was obviously an outrageous example of a president trying to avoid responsibility for a mission gone wrong, but in retrospect, I wonder if Trump was being literal. From his perspective, if he handed over decision-making authorities to military leaders, and Trump effectively removed himself from the process, then from the president's vantage point, "they" are to blame for what went wrong, not him.A variety of words come to mind, but "leadership" isn't one of them.