Donald Trump's sacking of the FBI boss investigating his campaign's alleged Russia ties is understandably dominating the news right now, but another story about a rift between the president and his national security adviser is raising its own alarm bells in the DC Establishment.The widely respected General H.R. McMaster, who replaced disgraced former military man Mike Flynn, is seen as a leading representative of the administration's moderates, a counter to chief strategist Steve Bannon's radical wing, and a restraining influence on the president's impulses. That the two may be on the outs raises concerns first brought up by national security professionals during the carnivalesque campaign season: that someone with Trump's temperament and inexperience is unfit to control the world's most powerful military.
But a healthy dose of conflict between Trump and his military advisers could be a good thing, by showing that McMaster, for instance, has held onto his storied independence and spurring the president—who likes to subcontract key decisions to subordinates—to finally articulate and take ownership of some kind of coherent vision for America's role in the world.In a statement denying the original report of a rift published Monday by Bloomberg's Eli Lake, the White House maintained that the president "couldn't be happier" with the general. Maybe. But the fact the story was leaked in the first place is—as with the deluge of leaks since the election—a sign of dissension. The conflicting reports are also a window into the struggle between hostile factions (globalists vs. nationalists, pro vs. anti-interventionists) that has roiled the administration's first hundred days domestically and will shape its foreign policy over the next four years.It's also a test case for the shifting balance of civilian and military leadership in the nation's politics, where any precedent that is set now could long outlast the Trump presidency.
Trump, who attended a military academy, dodged the draft, and called Manhattan nightlife his "personal Vietnam," has had a tempestuous relationship with the military brass. He claimed at one point during his campaign to "know more about ISIS than the generals do." But he's also seemed enamored of military men, appointing a conspicuous number to top positions after winning plenty of affection from the rank and file during a heated campaign. The list of military officials hired by the Trump administration includes retired Marine general Jim Mattis as defense secretary and Flynn, a Bannon ally who was infamously forced to resign after failing to fully disclose talks with Russia's ambassador and then replaced by McMaster. In recent months, the president has reportedly "signaled that he wants to operate more like the CEO he was in the private sector…and delegate even more power to Mattis."
Some Trump critics have at least tacitly endorsed this approach. "Ordinarily, a president this deferential to military commanders and blasé about civilian control of the military would be troubling," Slate's Joshua Keating wrote in March, "but given the civilian in question, it's hard to get too worked up about it." Similar sentiments could be heard from anti-Trump conservatives.Major General (retired) Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. told VICE that so far, at least, the Trump presidency hasn't caused "any fundamental alterations to the essentials of civilian control of the US military"
Dunlap, who retired after serving 34 years in the Air Force, currently heads the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University. Trump's policy of delegating more authority to military commanders, he argues, is more course-correction than radical shift. "Obama didn't hesitate to fire generals and admirals, or to impose restrictions on military operations.," he told me. Insofar as Trump has begun reversing that policy, Dunlap added, it 's been welcomed by the military hierarchy.What's missing from Trump's plan to empower military commanders is any indication that he first provided them with a strategic endgame other than "winning." Without that, there's the risk of a vacuum at the top that is filled by disorder and by, perhaps wiser, but less accountable, unelected leaders.McMaster and Mattis are both highly esteemed officers known for their intellect and judgement. And unlike Flynn, they both have a reputation for respecting the military's role in a constitutional republic. But as the sudden and suspicious firing of Comey shows, there's no guarantee that anyone in the administration will stick around for long. And whatever is normalized for Mattis and McMaster today will be available to their successors tomorrow.
One consequence of Trump's ascendance has been a disorienting inversion of traditional values. (One could argue it was a cause). Whatever the case, the point is just this: Political affiliations no longer have the fixed meaning they did only a few years ago—which is why, more than ever, it's crucial to take things on their merits. In other words, on some issues, Bannon the anti-interventionist may be right.Just look at the administration's newest proposal to salvage the war in Afghanistan, a powerful argument for why even the wisest generals shouldn't be given undue deference by civilian leaders.In the war's 16th year, the new plan, which hasn't been yet approved by the president, reportedly calls for some 3,000 additional troops to do what the 100,000 deployed during Obama's surge could not: reverse the Taliban's gains and shore up the government in Kabul. In a sense, it would be more promising if the new plan called for garrisoning 50,000 troops for the next 50 years, abandoning the cities in favor of a rural Afghan strategy, and invading Pakistan. That at least would show that something had been learned from past failures, enough at least to at least stop repeating them.It is precisely on questions like Afghanistan where the president's independence and authority, and ultimately his judgement, really matter. Whether or not the latest stories about McMaster are true, we should hope for some bickering between the commander in chief and his top advisors. None of them has a monopoly on answers.Follow Jacob Siegel on Twitter.