In his Tuesday night address to the nation, Donald Trump finally sounded like a president determined to correct the security nightmare on our southern border. That ominous situation has not been well-served by the presidential tweets and gratuitous insults.
American society is curiously double-minded about national security, typically taking it for granted until, like oxygen, it suddenly disappears; so it was at Pearl Harbor and again on 9/11. Hence the need for presidential persuasion, deal-making and bridge-building, strengths the nation reasonably hoped Mr. Trump might provide.
And yet he seems oddly determined to confirm our worst fears. While the border crisis was simmering, he provoked an utterly inexplicable crisis in civil-military relations, blatantly tweeting his disrespect for our greatest warrior-servants. Mr. Trump not only fired Gen. James Mattis as secretary of Defense but also publicly castigated Adm. Bill McRaven and Gen. Stan McChrystal, legitimate heroes who led the expeditions that tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Messrs. Mattis, McRaven and McChrystal were never accused of plotting to subvert Mr. Trump, but were pilloried for merely disagreeing with him.
In the midst of these distractions, Democrats took the absurd position that our porous southern is no threat to national security, that its fortification would be a waste of money or even an offense against humanity. Last week, for example, Nancy Pelosi appeared to channel her inner Trump (“I reject your facts”) while disputing a briefing from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who had just returned from inspecting border facilities.
As if they had lately become the undertow of American politics, the new Democratic ethos seems to argue: Those unfortunates crowding our gates are neither terrorists, criminals nor really even illegals. Far from being a national emergency, these future Democrats will soon be shopping at a Walmart near you.
While leading our Southern Command, Gen. John Kelly (until recently, the White House chief of staff) had a dramatically different view, even while serving under President Barack Obama who fired more generals than Stalin. Undaunted, Gen. Kelly fearlessly called this uncontrolled migration “an existential threat” to the security of the United States. So how did we get to the point where both sides of the political spectrum routinely reject the best military advice?
1. At West Point and the National War College, my students absorbed lessons I had learned from Harvard’s Professor Samuel P. Huntington, author of the classic, “The Soldier and the State.” While our half-century experiment with the all-volunteer military has generally worked well, it has also had the unintended effect of separating the American soldier ever farther from the state. Indeed, there is now a wall of separation isolating the 99.5 percent of Americans who do not serve from the 0.5 percent who do. It is as if Margaret Mead had discovered an entirely new island civilization. A tiny minority would be separated after adolescence for sacrifice, the rest of the tribe joining in a ritual obeisance: “Thank you for your service.”
2. The wall of separation necessarily means that fewer leaders have direct exposure to the harsh realities of military service, from corporate CEOs to future members of Congress. While there is abundant sociological evidence for this 50-year trend, it also shows up in in a national dialogue where the soldier is more often Them rather than Us. How much should we invest in our current and future defense? While American unpreparedness has a long and bloody history, the National Defense Strategy Commission recently concluded our military-technical advantage “has eroded to a dangerous degree.” Strategic implications: “The security and well-being of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades.”
3. Until quite recently, the American civil-military relationship has been our constitutional linchpin. Among other things, it ensured that the long view would prevail: Unblinking assessments of enemy threats and bottom-line capabilities the Republic would require to defeat them. Its most distinguished practitioners included generals like George Marshall and secretaries of Defense like William Perry, dedicated not to party or faction but only to the common defense. It is worth remembering that they each had critics but were famously trusted by Democrats and Republicans who favored consensus.
Before things get any worse: Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi should rededicate themselves to that priceless legacy. Because if you are sitting in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Panmunjom, then your perspective is likely to be quite different. You may see a government shutdown as a provocative weakness. And an uncertain trumpet as a not-to-be-missed invitation.
• Ken Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.
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