On Tuesday, President Donald Trump hosted several service members at the White House to discuss Afghanistan strategy over lunch. “We have plenty of ideas from a lot of people, but I want to hear it from people on the ground,” Trump told reporters before meeting the troops.
Meeting the troops is a fine thing for a commander in chief to do, but this kind of symbolic meet-and-greet doesn’t substitute for Trump actually doing his job. Our nation deserves an elected leader who will do more than delegate key decisions on war to the Pentagon. Our troops deserve a leader who will do more than promise to make the military great again. And if you’re going to meet the troops for lunch, Mr. President, by God, visit them in theater, like your two predecessors, so you get a glimpse of the hardships and sacrifices they’re making on your orders.
In the six months since he’s taken office and the 10 weeks of transition before that, Trump has effectively ignored the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this despite bombastic campaign promises to “win” in each place (whatever “win” means). What he has done is cede warmaking authority to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who now reportedly has plenary power to set objectives, allocate resources, and move troops to fight in both countries. Although National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster reportedly limited Mattis to 3,900 more troops in Afghanistan for now, it’s clear from Trump’s own statements and reporting on the White House that the president has delegated his war powers down to Mattis—along with whatever political risk may come from bad outcomes.
Such a delegation of war power may be attractive to Trump, whose lack of experience is balanced by the incredibly deep expertise of his national security adviser and secretary of defense. Nonetheless, this also represents an abdication by the president, who is the sole elected official of the executive branch and the only person capable of being held politically accountable for decisions involving war and peace. Trump is right to set broad objectives and delegate decisions about tactics and operations to his generals. But he cannot escape responsibility for the strategic decisions about objectives, nor evade his duty to marshal public support and resources from Congress to pursue those ends.
In the Washington arena, Trump has also been AWOL from his important political duties as commander in chief. In February, he submitted a budget that boosted defense spending by $54 billion. However, it soon trickled out that even this increase fell far short of the Pentagon’s needs to meet the Trump strategy (such as it is) for national security or even dig itself out of the fiscal hole caused by sequestration. In response, the House and Senate armed services committees moved to propose a defense budget $37 billion higher than Trump’s. However, given the enormous continuing costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and long-deferred modernization projects within each of the services, even these budgets are likely to fall short of military requirements. They also don’t keep pace with the wartime budgets proposed during the previous two administrations, which, despite their faults, kept the Pentagon running even at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
These failures—which fairly belong to both Trump and Congress—are creating risk for our military around the world. The perennial failure of Congress and the White House to reach a budget deal in a timely manner creates uncertainty that ripples through the entire military establishment. This uncertainty adversely affects long-term procurements for aircraft and ships, frustrates personnel planning, and makes it impossible to forecast training resources and rotations. Process failures aside, the Pentagon still does not have the aggregate resources it needs to continue fighting two wars, carry out special operations missions around the world, deter Russia and North Korea through forward deployments, and conduct myriad other missions. All four services arguably need more personnel, newer weapons systems, and more money to fund training. Military aircraft are literally falling out of the sky (and killing troops) because of a lack of resources for training and maintenance and deferred modernization, too. Transforming the military, and adding new capabilities like a cyber corps or space corps, will take even more money—money that, so far, Trump has failed to procure from Congress.
Some of these resource shortfalls could be addressed through strategy or better management. Shortening the list of military obligations would reduce the numbers of troops, ships, planes, and bases drawing on the massive Pentagon budget. Managing the Pentagon better could shave a little off the top as well. But so far Trump has chosen neither better strategy nor better management; he’s doubled down on commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan without a clear strategy for either and blustered his way into confrontations elsewhere. If Trump wanted the military to do less with less, he could make that happen, but right now he’s forcing it to do more without adequate resources.
Trump’s abdication of his leadership role and refusal to give the troops resources would be enough to declare him a failure as commander in chief. He’s also added insult to injury through his repeated missteps and gaffes involving service members and veterans, from the campaign trail to the White House. He’s not just insulted them. He’s actively sought to corrode their integrity, by politicking before military audiences and using them as props for his most controversial domestic policy proposals like the travel ban.
Wednesday’s lunch with troops fits into this model. Trump isn’t interested in fulfilling his constitutional role as commander in chief of the armed forces, nor in a serious policy discussion with veterans of our Afghanistan wars. He’s using the troops as props, attempting to hide behind their bright medals and pressed uniforms, and to use their credibility for his own political gain. While the soldiers invited to the White House undoubtedly had experiences to share with the president, it’s unclear how much these troops’ personal vignettes will help the president decide on the future of the war at this inflection point.
Summoning the troops to the White House for such a lunch is a presidential prerogative, to be sure. But it’s imperious to do so and unlikely to instill confidence among members of the military or the public. Trump has now had six months in office to visit the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, like his predecessors did on multiple occasions. (President Barack Obama first visited Iraq in April 2009 and then visited Afghanistan in March 2010.) Trump even had a perfect opportunity to do so in May, during his Middle East trip, when Air Force One literally had to skirt Iraq when flying between Saudi Arabia and Israel. And yet he avoided landing in Iraq or Afghanistan, missing the opportunity to see these battlefields, hear directly from commanders there, and meet the troops following his orders.
We might not expect more of President Trump based on his own history of evading wartime service. Nonetheless, Trump’s advisers—including McMaster, who wrote a book titled Dereliction of Duty regarding leadership failures during the Vietnam War—do know better. Our troops deserve a better commander in chief, and our nation needs a better president, for these wars continue to grind on and consume American blood and treasure even if the president wants to ignore them.