Trump and the Generals

The president says he wants to “win.” What does that mean?

President Donald Trump shakes hands with his new National Security Adviser Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with his new National Security Adviser Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

In the past month, Trump has met with four of the most important generals in the U.S. military to discuss terrorism and the war on the Islamic State. So far, he’s ignoring a lot of their advice. On the budget, on how to counter radical Islamic extremism, and on whether to even use phrases like “radical Islamic extremism,” it is a sea of mixed messages between top military commanders, Trump, and his inner circle.

What will Trump have the United States do about the war on ISIS, the size of the military, the national security budget, and the rest of the government toolbox for global security? Trump’s comments on Monday, when he proposed shifting $54 billion to the Pentagon, suggest he wants a big win, a military win, and he sounds like he wants it soon. Whether Trump will heed the “best military advice,” as generals like to say it is their job to provide, is his prerogative as their civilian commander in chief. On the campaign trail, Trump boasted that he knew more than the generals, hinted that he may fire many of them, and said he wanted a new ISIS war plan nearly immediately upon taking office. But he may not know how to listen to his military leaders. At the very least, they increasingly sound like they’re working for a different president altogether.

When Trump went to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa last month for his first major visit with U.S. troops, he met behind closed doors with the top two generals of the ISIS war, General Joseph Votel of Central Command and General Tony Thomas of U.S. Special Operations Command. Later, Thomas, at a special operations conference outside of Washington, D.C., two weeks ago, said Trump had asked them “[v]ery practical questions” like “What are we trying to accomplish? How do we win?”

Thomas offered reporters basically the same answers given by virtually every military leader over the past eight years or so when asked about winning the war on terrorism. Answering questions specifically about the recent Yemen operation in which a Navy SEAL was killed, Thomas immediately went for the long view. He said he wanted Americans to understand those elite counterterrorism operations are occurring nightly but “unless we get governance on the back side of our military efforts, this is going to be a long struggle.” Winning the war on terrorism, in other words, is going to take a lot more than winning each night raid or even winning the entire battle.

Generals don’t much like to talk about “winning” against terrorism. They understand and tell the public and congress that the United States is in a 10-, 30-, 100- year battle against a multi-generational ideological war of ideas that goes far beyond the military battlefield. In that context, what is “winning”?

Thomas said he supported General Votel’s current war plan, which was Obama’s war plan: “The truth of it, I think, [Votel’s] logic, which is compelling, is that — more troops on the ground, maybe you own the problem when you’re done with it, as opposed to his approach, which is ‘by, with, and through,’ which I think is a more appropriate approach,” Thomas said. He was referring to the Pentagon’s preferred plan of fighting ISIS through U.S.-trained local forces instead of fighting terrorists directly with large numbers of American ground troops. “At the end of the day, the places we defeat ISIS need to be owned by the local people and be governed by the local people, that’s what we’re hoping.”

Trump, however, is fixated on a more conspicuous form of winning. “We have to start winning wars again,” he said Monday. “I have to say, when I was young, in high school, and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war. You remember,” he said. “Some of you were right there with me, and you remember? We never lost a war. America never lost. And, now, we never win a war. We never win. And we don’t fight to win.”

His public fixation, despite the four-star guidance he received, has implications for the budget and the war plan. Last week, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford said the new counter-ISIS war plan the Pentagon was sending to Trump actually was not a “military plan.” It was a whole-of-government plan, calling for non-military help to fight ISIS. There was no talk of “winning” and Dunford certainly understands why. He was commander of the seemingly never-ending Afghanistan War. But on Monday, Trump proudly boasted that his first federal budget proposal would shift $54 billion to the Pentagon from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other non-defense agencies. It sounds like the complete antithesis of what Dunford said the Pentagon was about to propose. Defense Secretary James Mattis delivered that plan to the White House on Monday.

Even the newest general on Team Trump has already struck out. The president’s National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, advised Trump to drop the rhetoric of “radical Islamic terrorism” from his speech because it angers the Muslim world, stokes anti-American fires, and endangers U.S. troops and national security. McMaster was overruled by Trump’s political team.

Trump has also defied his generals on press relations, warning troops of the “dishonest media” during his trip to Tampa. In the weeks since, Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Mattis, Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, former top special operations commander Admiral Bill McRaven, and others, have defended the free press.

Over and over, Trump has heard his generals, then gone to the microphone or Twitter and ignored them—a pattern he began on the campaign trail. In September, Trump said he’d likely place new generals in charge of the ISIS war and that the ones in charge had been “embarrassing” under Obama, who he said had marginalized them. In November, also in Tampa, he called the Mosul offensive under way “a total disaster” and called for “different thinking” from what Votel, Obama, and the entire U.S. national security leadership had provided.

In the next few months, Trump will either order a way forward against ISIS that U.S. military leaders offer up (and likely is not much different from the war underway), or he’ll order some radical departure from what he’s offered this week, which may require that some generals resign their commissions. Either he’ll slash money from the State Department and pull back America’s diplomatic and development presence abroad—including money related to counter-terrorism—or he’ll expand it to help end this fight and prevent further conflict, as so many generals have suggested. Either he’ll tone down the anti-Muslim rhetoric, like McMaster wants, or he’ll keep it up. Either he’ll proclaim to the world the importance of a free and adversarial press to democracy, exemplified nowhere better than in America, or he won’t.

Americans can pick their own metric, but one place to watch is Eastern Europe. In the last year, former President Barack Obama and NATO moved thousands of American troops to Russia’s border, with more tanks, aircraft, ships, and missiles. If Trump really wants to make nice with Putin, he could pull all of that back, or cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal. So far, Trump has indicated no change in troop levels, and pledged to build the biggest arsenal ever.

What “the generals” say matters, and what Trump says about them and their advice is confusing. The new president’s actions will speak louder than his words.

This article appears courtesy of DefenseOne.