Can Trump Tame the Pentagon?

Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars overseas? Since he’s stated he knows more than America’s generals, will he rein them in? Will he bring major reforms to the military-industrial complex, or will he be nothing but talk and tweets?

At Trump’s first news conference as president-elect, he had little to say about the military, except once again to complain about the high cost of the F-35 jet fighter program. The questions asked of him dealt mainly with Russia, hacking, potential conflicts of interest, and Obamacare. These are important issues, but how Trump will handle the Pentagon and his responsibilities as commander-in-chief are arguably of even greater import.

Ironically, the last president who had some measure of control over the military-industrial complex was the retired general who coined the term: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another president – Jimmy Carter – attempted to exercise some control, e.g. he canceled the B-1 bomber, a pet project of the U.S. Air Force, only to see it revived under Ronald Reagan.

Excepting Carter, US presidents since Ike have issued blank checks to the military, the Pentagon, and its bewildering array of contractors. Whether Democrats (JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Obama) or Republicans (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bushes), rubber-stamping Pentagon priorities has been a common course of presidential action, aided by a willing Congress that supports military spending to “prime the economic pump” and create jobs.

Ike, of course, was hardly perfect, but he had the cred to command the military, to rein it in, perhaps as much as any one man could in the climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. Hardly a pacifist, Ike nevertheless came to hate war. Can we imagine any president nowadays writing these words?

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Ike’s wisdom stemmed from his experience with the bloody awfulness of war. Recent presidents, by comparison, have been unstinting in their praise of the US military. Ronald Reagan, who had a cozy job in Hollywood during World War II, was a snappy saluter who oversaw a major military expansion. More recently, Barack Obama, with no military experience, went out of his way to praise the US military in hyperbolic terms as the “greatest” in human history.

Recent presidents have idolized the military, perhaps because they either never served in it or never really experienced its foibles and faults, its flaws and failings. Perhaps as well they’ve celebrated the military because they saw it as a popular and easy form of patriotism. But the Pentagon needs a commander-in-chief, not a cheerleader-in-chief. It needs to be challenged, it needs a boot up its collective ass, if it’s ever going to reform its prodigal ways.

Trump has been critical of the military, an encouraging sign. But his appointment of retired generals to key positions of power suggests conformity and business as usual. Trump himself is a military poseur, a man impatient with facts, a man who didn’t know what the nuclear triad was even as he talked of (false) nuclear gaps vis-à-vis Russia.

Even as he talked of wasteful wars and clueless generals, Trump promised to use the US military as a battering ram to smash America’s enemies. He promised as well to rebuild the military, increasing the Pentagon budget while taking the fight to ISIS, words that suggest President Trump won’t often say “no” to the national security state. Ike, however, could and did say “no.” He had the toughness to weather the predictable Pentagon, Congressional, and military/corporate storms. Will Trump?

Again, the last president to lead a novel initiative in national security was Jimmy Carter, with his focus on human rights. Dismissed as naïve and pusillanimous, he became a one-term president. Trump has promised to end wasteful wars, to re-prioritize federal spending to focus on internal “security” measures such as national infrastructure, and to make NATO and other US allies pay their fair share of defense costs.

If he carries through on these promises, he’ll be the first president since Ike to make a measurable and significant course correction to America’s warship of state. But first he needs to be held to account, most certainly at press conferences but elsewhere as well. Endless war is a threat to democracy; so too are politicians who posture but do nothing to rein in militarism, imperialism, and authoritarianism.

If Trump combines the two, if he doubles down on incessant war and a cult of authority, American democracy may suffer a mortal blow.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at wastore@pct.edu. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

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