The Buck Stops Over There

The commander in chief’s gravest decisions are being delegated to unaccountable generals who’ll be used to insulate him politically if things go wrong.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

One of the more obscure rationales offered for supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries and general election came from a group of right-leaning intellectuals with ties to the Claremont Institute, who argued that he would save the American project from progressive usurpers by reining in the administrative state. Adherents of this view worry that governance in the country has become unmoored from the will of the people, as democratically elected representatives delegated more and more power to unaccountable “experts” and bureaucrats.

The particulars of their project have always been murky.

It is easy to see how a determined Congress could rein in the administrative state with the power of the purse. I’ve yet to hear a good explanation of how a president with no apparent commitment to the Founding principles will achieve the desired transformation, apart from appointing jurists of the sort that any Republican would favor.

Meanwhile, Trump’s approach to foreign policy is directly at odds with the project. Rather than acting as a strong commander in chief who insists that “the buck stops here,” Trump has repeatedly elevated the judgment of unelected bureaucratic experts, insulating himself from democratic accountability for U.S. policy.

The trend began with the first military raid undertaken on his watch. As the Military Times noted in February, “In a television interview, President Donald Trump appeared to blame his military leaders for a Navy SEAL's death last month during a troubled raid in Yemen, saying ‘they’ pushed elite sailors into a dangerous mission.”

Navy SEAL Ryan Owens was killed in the operation.

“This was something they wanted to do,” Trump told Americans. “They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected, the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

Now Trump is applying the same approach to a major war.

According to The New York Times, “President Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan, three administration officials said Tuesday, opening the door for sending more American forces to a war that the Pentagon chief acknowledged the United States was ‘not winning.’” Mattis is said to favor sending thousands of American troops to the conflict.

The article adds that “Mr. Trump has already given his Pentagon chief similar authority for Iraq and Syria.” And that authority has been quietly exercised in ways that would trouble many Trump voters if they were aware of the actions being taken. For example, the Pentagon deployed a small team of U.S. troops to the Syrian city of Manbij on a peacekeeping mission at best tangentially related to the fight against ISIS. And this mission creep was undertaken without congressional permission.

If and when America’s approach to Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria fails in some aspect, or proves wholly ineffective, Trump will presumably claim that he was just taking the advise of respected generals, as he did after the raid gone wrong in Yemen. But that posture elides the fact that the Pentagon has institutional agendas and biases that presidents ought to temper; that civilian leaders have a responsibility to prioritize among missions and make hard decisions about tradeoffs; and that there are deep disagreements among respected generals about how to proceed in any conflict as complicated as the ones in which America is now engaged.

Trump may still get away with that dodge politically. If so, he’ll have done more to cede agency to the administrative state on matters of great consequence than to reverse course.