As I have been noting since he took office, President Trump insists on politicizing the military. Whether it is speaking to troops at MacDill Air Base, addressing sailors when dedicating an aircraft carrier, or, in this case, signing an omnibus bill to fund the government, the president has a habit of linking the military to his personal or partisan agenda. As Defense One editor Kevin Baron noted on Twitter on Friday:
And as Baron’s colleague, Marcus Weisgerber, explained, the president more or less accused Democrats in Congress of “not supporting the troops.”
I will continue to quote the excellent explanation Alice Hunt Friend of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has provided for why a politicized military is a major problem:
A politicized military exercises loyalty to a single political party and/or consistently advocates for and defends partisan political positions and fortunes. An apolitical, nonpartisan military is one of the norms underpinning American democracy and a feature of American military professionalism. The military serves the Constitution through obedience to democratically elected civilian officials without regard for political party or partisan positions. This idea underwrites the peaceful transfer of power between presidential administrations and ensures that the American people can make governance choices free from the threat of coercion. Knowing that partisan intentions do not inform professional military advice also allows elected officials to trust the expertise and advice provided by senior officers. Moreover, if the military took partisan positions or exercised partisan loyalties, voters might reasonably assume that the opposition party would not be able to control the military if voted into office. In other words, the democratically elected representatives of the people would not be able to count on the faithful execution of national security policy if the military expressly favored the other party. Such conditions would break down the public’s confidence in either the disfavored party or in the military itself and damage the functioning of the government.
Another critical result of a nonpartisan force is that it protects the military: because the American military serves elected representatives from different political parties equally, there is no reason for those representatives to treat the military differently based on partisan affiliation. Decisions about the funding, size, shape, and use of the military are much less likely to be motivated by a desire to defend partisan power and much more likely to be driven by wider strategic, economic, and public values. Moreover, service personnel management can remain a professional—not political—process.
There is never a good time for a president to politicize the military. Moreover, there will always be some degree of tension in civil-military relations—some of which is actually quite healthy. However, I would argue that we are in a particularly inopportune moment to have a president who lacks respect for basic civil-military norms.
For one, the American public reveres the military even as few among them understand. Only a small percentage—less than one percent—of the population serves in the military. A tacit bargain has emerged in which most Americans show deference to the military in exchange such a small number of Americans bear the burden of what is approaching two decades of war. Cheering for returning veterans at NFL games becomes a stand-in for critical thinking about the role of the military in U.S. foreign policy and American society.
On the other side of the coin, there are hints of a growing sense of military elitism among some military personnel and veterans. One of the most prominent examples came in the form of a “pep talk” Secretary of Defense James Mattis gave last year to military personnel serving in the Middle East. Mattis told those assembled that it was up to them to “hold the line” until civilian society got its act together. And just recently, a former Navy SEAL running for Congress in California raised a stir when he stated that military service should be a requirement to run for office (it should be noted though, pushback against the sentiment came from other veterans).
Analysts and scholars of civil-military relations have feared such a development for some time. And while it is far too soon to suggest a crisis, it is worrying nonetheless. The president’s insistence on making the country’s most respected public institution—one that is supposed to remain apolitical—a matter of partisan politics makes it that much more so.