Unfit to Command

“Donald Trump’s hubris is a threat to our nation’s security and to the well-being of our men and women in uniform. He is not ready, and is not fit to serve as commander in chief.”

Donald Trump is frighteningly unfit to serve as commander in chief. Asked three times in the second presidential debate, he offered no strategy for how to deal with Syria. Worse, he repeatedly attacked the judgement and plans of our nation’s senior military leaders as “stupidity.” What brilliant analysis led him to this conclusion? A simplistic and wrong-headed belief that the key to a “tremendous success” against ISIS is “sneak attacks.”

Presidential candidates with zero military experience like Trump usually commit that they will rely heavily on the judgment and advice of the nation’s senior military leaders on military matters and any decision to commit U.S. forces. Without abdicating ultimate responsibility, they seek to reassure voters that they recognize and respect the decades of knowledge and experience, including the combat experience, of those who have dedicated their professional lives to providing for our nation’s security.

Not Donald Trump. In his world, he knows more than the generals about ISIS. The generals are stupid. They are “all rubble.” And America is not “exceptional”, or “indispensable”, or “the most powerful nation on the face of the earth.” Rather, it’s a country that “never wins.”

Trump’s hubris and unpreparedness were on full display in the second presidential debate, including on a troubling exchange regarding the war in Syria that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.

Moderator and ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz, who has been covering military and foreign affairs since the 90’s, pressed Trump three times to say what he would do about Syria and Aleppo. He ignored the question the first time. Raddatz pointedly repeated it, reminding Trump of his running mate’s position that the U.S. may need to respond militarily to Russian aggression on behalf of Syrian president Assad, including bombing civilians in Aleppo. He retorted, “I disagree. I disagree.” But again offered no ideas or plans. Raddatz tried a third time: “Tell me what your strategy is?” Again, no substantive answer.

What Trump did say was deeply unsettling to those of us who have served in the military and the department of defense. Shockingly his digressions and obfuscations ended several times with complaining about the “stupidity” of how the US conducts military operations. His example? The planned assault to retake Mosul, Iraq from ISIS fighters who have held the city of over one million for two years. “Why can’t they do it quietly, … make it a sneak attack …? Why do they have to say we’re going to be attacking Mosul within the next four to six weeks, which is what they’re saying? How stupid is our country?” he whined.

Operational secrecy — using the element of surprise — is a tactic, not a strategy. It makes sense in the context of President Obama and the operation to take out Osama Bin Ladin or approving the use drone strikes to take out Al-Qeada and ISIS leaders. But a “sneak attack” isn’t a strategy for defeating ISIS in Syria or Iraq, or for retaking Mosul.

That Donald Trump does not understand that this late in the campaign, that he has no concrete ideas or strategies to offer on Syria, that he is instead deeply dismissive of the intelligence, experience, capabilities, and plans of our nation’s senior military leaders in comparison to his own, should be deeply alarming to anyone who cares about the security of our country and its role in the world.

A president that picks the tactics and tells the generals how to fight the war is doomed to failure. From the military’s perspective, such presidents risk wasting the lives of brave American service members and needlessly destroying the military capacity of our nation. One need look no further for evidence of the tragic consequences of such hubris, than Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld scoffing at the judgement and congressional testimony of then Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki who accurately predicted that it would take several hundred thousand soldiers and many years to secure Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein.

What our senior military leaders need and want from their commander in chief are clear objectives, a long term strategy, and the resources and political support to get the job done. And they want a president who will listen to and take into account their considered advice on military matters. Donald Trump, who would be the least experienced president ever in national security affairs, has made it clear he has no intention of being that kind of president.

Donald Trump’s hubris is a threat to our nation’s security and to the well-being of our men and women in uniform. He is not ready, and is not fit to serve as commander in chief.

Louis Caldera is a professor of leadership at The George Washington University and was Secretary of the Army from 1998–2001.

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