As an Afghanistan veteran, I’m concerned by the news that President Donald Trump is removing himself from the process of deciding whether or not we send more American troops to that country, because I believe he is putting political safety ahead of national security. As he’s already shown, he wants to be able to take credit when military operations go well and blame others when they don’t.
If military leaders determine an increased troop level is necessary, the president will say it was their decision, not his, in an effort to shield himself from public opinion. If, God forbid, Americans are killed in a new surge of troops, President Trump is positioning himself to blame generals – just like when he said “they lost Ryan,” referring to Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed during a Trump-approved raid in Yemen.
Later, when President Trump was asked whether he had authorized the dropping of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, he replied, “Uhh, everybody knows exactly what happened.” What likely happened is that Donald Trump didn’t know the outcome of the mission, or what popular opinion was going to be, so he had yet to decide whether to take credit for it.
This is not what a leader does, and it follows a previous Trump decision to remove himself from the responsibility of setting troop levels in Iraq and Syria. Despite what President Trump has claimed, this is not about saving time for the military; it’s about saving face for a president with a notoriously fragile ego and a habit of skipping intelligence briefings.
It is a stunning sign of weakness to the country and the world.
The president is in charge of the military so that a single individual – accountable to Americans – is responsible for its successes and failures. Yet President Trump hasn’t even spoken with our commanders in Afghanistan or Iraq since taking office. I am not saying the president should micromanage every decision made on the battlefield. But a decision of great magnitude should come from the Commander in Chief. At a minimum, the president should have an overall military plan that his commanders can follow, but president Trump doesn’t seem to even have that.
Because President Obama had an overall strategy, military and civilian leaders under his command could make reactive decisions that advanced the president’s goals. In the military, we call that commander’s intent: When there’s a decision to be made and you don’t have exact guidance at that moment, you at least know overall what your boss wants. There is no commander’s intent right now because the commander-in-chief has no plan and, apparently, no interest in the role.
I believe the president should be closely involved in certain military decisions, such as whether to conduct a raid in a nation where we have a limited troop presence or whether to use a weapon we’ve never used before. Regardless, when he refuses to say whether he is responsible for a military decision, it is a stunning sign of weakness to the country and the world. And even if you disagree in the above examples, certainly we can all agree on this: The president should be the final decision-maker when it comes to increasing the number of Americans we send into harm’s way.
As a former Captain in the Army National Guard, I trained hundreds of soldiers to lead troops into combat. Some of them could be called to service if the Pentagon decides to send more troops to Afghanistan. President Trump owes them and their families the acknowledgment that the order to put their lives on the line came from their Commander in Chief.
The men and women of the American military have the courage to follow orders. They deserve a commander-in-chief with the courage to give them.