Storm clouds over the Pentagon – – by John B. Alexander, Ph.D.

by John B. Alexander, Ph.D., retired senior military officer, and Los Alamos National Laboratory retired:

July 30, 2017:


The tweet announcing the expulsion of all transgender personnel from the Department of Defense (DOD) should set off alarm bells and raise warning flags throughout the military and all of Capitol Hill.

The concern transcends LGBT issues and strikes at the very heart of our nation’s defense.  The same POTUS who lied to the public about the rationale for that decision, also holds access to the nuclear codes, and a range of other use of force options that could bring America into armed conflict with other nations.

In addition, POTUS has dominion over a wide variety of administrative procedures, such as budget and personnel actions, that could have profound impact on service-members and national security.

In reality, even minor changes in policy can reverberate and create unintended consequences that could be catastrophic.

That is why the normal procedures for any policy changes include careful study before implementation.

While civilians know the Defense budget is huge, unless they have served in a position involved in constructing the multi-year plan, they cannot imagine just how complex and internally competitive the process is.

Whether one agrees with the expenditures or not, there is no denying that considerable thought has gone into the submission.

And, the complex negotiations do not end in the Pentagon as the legislation moves forward.  However, we now see that a simple tweet can upset years, if not decades, of thoughtful efforts.

The concept of civilian leadership of the American military has been sacrosanct since it was specifically included in the U.S. Constitution.

That document intentionally also split the powers between the Commander-in-Chief and the Congress.

It was Congress that was given the power to declare war.

The concept was based on the notion that these civilians would constrain military leaders who might be too anxious to employ force and divided so that no individual could unilaterally initiate conflict.

There was, however, an implied assumption, that a commander in chief would act responsibly.

Never was the current situation envisioned – – one in which an incompetent and reckless person was in charge.

Americans knew that Trump had little foreign policy, let alone any military experience when they voted for him.

Many observers were somewhat convinced that experienced adults would be brought in to head and supervise the agencies involved in such matters.

Many people felt reassured when General Mattis was appointed as the Secretary of Defense, and more controversially, Rex Tillerson selected as Secretary of State.

Both had extensive experience in their respective fields.  Unfortunately, actions, such as those announced this past Wednesday (26 July 2017),  undercut their effectiveness and raise serious doubts about how policies are derived.

Clearly, neither SECDEF Mattis, nor any of the service chiefs, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were consulted about the policy change.

The issue was not unknown to them, and extensive studies conducted that tended to conclude that inclusion of transgender service members was not a significant negative factor as Trump indicated.

The studies also disproved a key complaint he raised concerning the “burden of tremendous medical cost” incurred by them.

The issues of concern here include that his information was counterfactual, he failed to ask for advice from the key leaders who were knowledgeable about the topic, and yet impetuously made the decision.

As with his infamous immigration order in January, he blindsided those who must implement the transgender policy.

Included in the President’s tweets was the phrase “my generals.”

That too should be alarming and demonstrates just how far out of touch Trump is regarding the U.S. Government in general, and Department of Defense in particular.

Even though he has the title of Commander-in-Chief, flag officers are not his generals (or admirals) but rather they swear allegiance to the Constitution of the United States.

For the record, senior flag officers do serve at the pleasure of the president, and there have been others fired when operating at cross purposes.

Those old enough may remember when President Harry Truman publicly fired General Douglas MacArthur.

More recently President Obama accepted the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal following the publication of a derogatory story in Rolling Stone magazine in which he and his staff had disparaged the President.

Trump’s personnel activities are more reminiscent of his experience running a family business than dealing with complex federal bureaucracies.

His lack of understanding of separation of powers could not be clearer than his inept handling of the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions.

Not an isolated case, Trump constantly conflates institutional responsibilities with his expectancy of unfettered loyalty to him as a person.

It must be acknowledged that other U.S. presidents legally have abused the use of military force.

Notably, many military members believe that President Clinton’s employment of Tomahawk missiles against Afghanistan was merely a distraction maneuver predicated on domestic issues.

Known as Wag the Dog, former CIA expert familiar with the terrain, Milt Bearden, concluded that all those strikes did “was rearrange the rubble.” They did replace Lewinsky headlines, albeit briefly.

The ill-advised invasion of Iraq was authorized in the emotional fervor of post-9/11, but at least Congress was consulted.

Even that strategic blunder offers guidance on use of caution as the basis for the vote was later learned to be based on counterfactual information and orchestrated for nefarious purposes.

That tragic decision was, at least in part, predicated on the emotional state of the country following the terrorist’s attacks and a perceived need to retaliate against someone.

That may actually have commonality with Trump’s most publicized use of force, the missile strike against Shayrat, a Syrian air base from which it was believed a chemical attack had been launched.

The public was led to believe that missile attack was initiated based on the emotional pictures of children dying from poison gas.

As both incidents portray, emotion is a terrible substitute for strategy; something still lacking in our Middle East policies.

While America’s standing in the world has taken a beating under Trump, there is still no denying that our military is by far the best and strongest.

Spending more on defense than the next seven (7) countries combined, in any direct armed confrontation the U.S. military can vanquish anyone.

However, the nature of war has changed, and troops and hardware only part of the solution to any future conflict.

Our brightest military leaders understand the complexities of the next engagements and are diligently preparing to design a force that can continue supremacy.

Concurrently, we have a commander-in-chief whose modus operandi, both in business and in politics, has been that of a street bully.

Remember that during the campaign his approach to ISIS was just to “bomb the shit out of them.”

Unfortunately, those remain his instincts whenever challenged.

Such does not bode well for coming confrontations that require extreme delicacy in order to prevent minor situations from become catastrophic.

Repeatedly, psychiatric experts have warned the public about Trump’s narcissistic, paranoid, and delusional personality traits.

So flagrant are the warning signs of “dangerous mental illness,” that the American Psychoanalytic Association, officially removed the Goldwater-rule, a prohibition adopted by mental health experts to admonish publishing their opinions of public figures.

A conundrum looms large.

How can senior leadership of the Pentagon deal with POTUS policies announced by tweet? What do they do if they hear of orders to initiate actions that they know will have long-term devastating consequences?

Department of Defense personnel have more experience in contingency planning than any other organization in the world.

It is rare when they are really caught totally off guard.  The reason is they have thought through the myriad of complex issues that often emerge.  Trump says he wants to be unpredictable.  Unpredictable translates to unreliable for both allies and adversaries. Being unpredictable to our own organizations is unconscionable and can have catastrophic results.

The announcement of the transgender policy via a tweet on Twitter was just a shot across the bow.  What may come next should scare everyone.  While pundits hail the incoming White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, as a force for composure and sanity, recent history does not support such euphoria.  As a nation, we are sailing in uncharted waters, and yes, there may be dragons lurking.




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