Illustration by Michael Hogue
Late in April, President Trump signed a classified memo delegating U.S. ground troop levels in all theaters of the war against ISIS to the secretary of defense. This decision received very little fanfare, and to the extent it was reported on at all, few chose to note it for what it was—part of an ongoing trend within the Trump government to delegate authority down the chain of command.
On a fundamental level, such delegations aren’t surprising. U.S. presidents have, after all, seen the scope of their power grow markedly, administration after administration adding new little bits that they present as vital to the office. There’s just too much for one person to do anymore, which is why the executive branch has grown to massive levels.
Amid this growing domestic power, the United States has also spent the last century building the most powerful, most heavily-funded military on the planet. Wartime control over the U.S. military is a prerogative established for the president too, and that hasn’t changed.
At least in theory. The military of the early republic was small, and doing anything with it was comparatively rare. In 2017, the U.S. military is not just huge, it’s active to an unprecedented level. America is fighting multiple wars and other military actions around the planet, and the expectation is always that there will be some kind of intervention abroad. U.S. military action is, at this stage, a permanent feature of American life.
Like everything else, that has made armed conflict a prime candidate for delegation. Keeping track with the goings on of umpteen wars around the world is a full-time job for a commander-in-chief, and President Trump has, since taking office, made a concerted effort to move the day-to-day details down the chain of command. Decisions on ground operations are going to U.S. commanders in the field, as are decisions on U.S. airstrikes in several areas.
Outright delegation of troop levels is a step far beyond that, however. That fact was clearly not lost on the entire administration, which is why that authority was given to a civilian position, the secretary of defense, instead of a military figure, like the head of Central Command.
This would be an important distinction in most cases, except that the current secretary of defense, James Mattis, is just a few years removed from being the head of Centcom, and is a career military officer who retired only in 2013.
Keeping civilian control over the basics of U.S. military action is a vital interest, which is why U.S. law requires a substantial gap between the end of military service and a person taking up the mantle of the defense secretary. Mattis is the second general in modern history for whom Congress has agreed to grant a special exception.
The war on ISIS war is now, with this latest delegation of authority, almost entirely under direct military control. This is a virtually permanent operation, with Pentagon officials repeatedly insisting that the U.S. military presence in Iraq will continue long after the conflict with ISIS. For now, that decision to keep troops abroad is wholly within the Pentagon’s purview.
This is an incredibly dangerous precedent to have set. Keeping a tight civilian leash on the military is not just a desirable goal, it is an absolute imperative when dealing with a large, active military. And no military is larger or more active than America’s.
An increasingly independent military, encouraged to make important decisions on their own, is a mortal danger not just to civilian control over the military, but by extension to civilian control over everything else. We have multiple examples in recent history that show fostering an independent spirit in the military leads to bad outcomes.
Among the world’s large militaries, those with the most independence in recent history are South Korea, Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, these nations are all replete with examples of military coups d’etat, and those coups have more than once been instigated as a direct result of the civilian government trying to reign in control.
That is what makes the latest delegations a particularly dangerous precedent. President Trump may view this as merely an extension of following the advice of military leadership on defense policy, a pledge he and other candidates commonly make. In reality, however, there is a huge distinction between advice and outright delegation.
If America loses civilian control over its military, history has shown that it is difficult to get back. We are already coping with the consequences of the powerful U.S. military being unleashed on other nations. We must ensure that we do not also unleash them on ourselves.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.