President Donald Trump loves his generals. (And he does view them as “his” generals.) In the first weeks of his presidency, he has stocked the top ranks of his defense and national security team with them, even replacing one general with another general when there was a sudden vacancy in the role of National Security Adviser.
At the same time, he is proposing a new spending plan that dramatically increases the Pentagon's budget in an effort to kick off what he promised would be “one of the greatest military buildups in American history.” He has promised major expansions of all branches of the armed forces, including a vastly expanded and hugely expensive buildup of the Navy.
He plans to finance this re-arming of America, in large part, by slashing the budget of other elements of the government, including the Department of State.
This dramatic redirection of spending, combined with Trump’s repeated promises on the campaign trail that he would “get tough” with America’s enemies, which included explicit vows to commit war crimes, such as targeting the families of the country’s enemies, reinstating the use of torture as an interrogation technique, and taking the natural resources of conquered countries, suggests a serious reorientation of US foreign policy toward war and away from the pursuit of peace through negotiation.
Discussing his budget proposal on Monday, Trump even seemed to pine for the days when the United States was fighting and winning wars. “We have to win. We have to start winning wars again. I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war. You remember...some of you were right there with me, you remember, America never lost.”
He continued, “We never win and we don’t fight to win. We don’t fight to win. We’ve either got to win or don’t fight it at all.”
We're now at the point where Trump’s dedication to building up the military at the expense of the civilian national security apparatus is even making the generals nervous. On Monday, 121 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals from all branches of the US military sent a letter to Congressional leaders pleading with them not to allow the defunding of the country’s diplomatic corps or of international aid efforts.
Experience has taught them, they said, that “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe.”
They added, “We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone – from confronting violent extremist groups like ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa to preventing pandemics like Ebola and stabilizing weak and fragile states that can lead to greater instability. There are 65 million displaced people today, the most since World War II, with consequences including refugee flows that are threatening America’s strategic allies in Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe.”
The letter was copied to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (the latter two being a retired Marine Corps general and a serving Army General respectively.)
Among the signatories were veteran officers who have served in key national security posts, like Army General Keith B. Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency, and head of U.S. Cyber Command; Air Force General Michael V. Hayden, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Army General David H. Petraeus, who also ran the CIA and served as the commander of coalition forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism– lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness,” they wrote. “We urge you to ensure that resources for the International Affairs Budget keep pace with the growing global threats and opportunities we face. Now is not the time to retreat.”
On the campaign trail, one of Trump’s most common criticisms of other politicians was that they were “all talk, no action.” His bias toward action over words seems to be bleeding over into the realm of international relations, to the point that even professional soldiers view as problematic.
At this time, it might be helpful for someone in Trump’s inner circle to point him toward the bust of Winston Churchill that he so ostentatiously returned to the Oval Office last month.
The former British Prime Minister was no stranger to the use of military force, and in 1954, then retired from politics, he visited the White House and delivered brief remarks at a luncheon. His exact words are unknown, but were memorably reported by The New York Times as a defense of diplomacy in the face of calls for military action: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”