Trump's leave it to the generals policy is risky

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  • President Trump appears to be giving his generals more and more control over their operations, writes John Kirby
  • Implications are enormous, he writes

CNN national security analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)President Trump appears to be giving his generals more and more control over their operations, and the implications are enormous. In a new Time magazine interview, he cites speed as the most pressing reason:

"But they say, 'Sir, we're ready to go.' I said where? They had some people in a certain country, Yemen, where they had them [surveilled] and they needed the go ahead to kill, to kill them. But in other words they wanted the right to go ... By the time they get to me, and I get back to them, usually it's over anyway, it's gone, they're gone ... I say why am I telling them? So, I authorized the generals to do the fighting, you know."
Mr. Trump is right to recognize that the speed with which our commanders must act today demands an agile and decentralized decision-making process. Actionable intelligence is fleeting, and the moment to strike is too easily lost if not seized upon. The tyranny of time and distance complicates that process, as he also correctly points out.
    But there is also risk in giving the military too wide a berth when it comes to making operational decisions in foreign lands against foreign targets.
    In the haste to achieve a desired outcome -- the capture or killing of a terrorist leader, let's say -- we might kill or injure innocent civilians, civilian infrastructure, imperil US or partner troops or unnecessarily escalate regional tensions -- all of which could hamper our strategic ends, damage American credibility and alienate the very people we may be trying to win over.
    It's about strategic oversight and balance. And that balance must be constantly adjusted, based on ceaseless feedback.
    For example, many commanders bristled at the limits President Obama imposed on the use of force. But Mr. Obama also delegated broad authority to his generals for many types of military operations. He was thoughtful and deliberate, and he was willing to adjust as necessary, such as when he streamlined approvals for counterterrorism raids after the failed attempt in 2014 to rescue American hostages in Syria.
    Maybe he didn't always get the balance right. But no one can argue President Obama didn't always try.
    And the trying matters.
    A president shouldn't use the proverbial 3,000-mile screwdriver to tell his SEAL teams how to snatch-and-grab a terrorist, but neither should he fail to fully understand the scope of the missions he orders, the risks inherent in failure and the effects that success or failure might have on his larger geopolitical strategy and foreign policy. He has to work at it, each and every time ... because each and every time will be different from the last.
    He also cannot expect his generals, no matter how brilliant they are, to advise him on the political and policy implications of his decisions. I'm not suggesting the generals shouldn't try to understand those implications. They do and they will, but policy shouldn't be an overriding concern of theirs.
    To quote George Fielding Eliot, a famous strategist: "It is for the civil power to determine higher ends of state policy and to provide the military power with the instruments necessary to support or, if need be, to defend the policy so adopted. It is for the soldier to advise as to the sufficiency of these instruments, but the determination of policy is not his province."
    Part of the problem right now -- a big part of the problem -- is that the United States does not have clear policies governing our conduct in many parts of the world, save, perhaps, Northeast Asia. Aside from the bumper sticker of "America First," the ends of state policy Mr. Eliot extolls are as unknown as they are unspecified.
    But another part of the problem is that our commander in chief doesn't appear to grasp the depth of his own accountability.
    Remember how he talked about Senior Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, the Navy SEAL who was killed in Yemen?
    "This was something that was, you know, just -- they wanted to do," he said, referring to his commanders. "And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. And they lost Ryan."
    Wrong answer.
    Nobody "lost" Ryan. Senior Chief Owens was killed in action fighting bravely on a mission that the President ordered. The President may delegate all the authority he wants, but he can never delegate responsibility. Win or lose, succeed or fail, that burden falls squarely on him.
    That's why Mr. Trump needs to ask the tough questions upfront. He needs to comprehend completely what he -- and he alone -- is ordering the military to do. His generals have a lot on their plate. They want to accomplish a lot of things. They're talented, smart and professional. And today, they command the most competent, battle-hardened troops any military has ever fielded. But that doesn't always make them right.
    The commander in chief can afford to be a little skeptical. And maybe, at times, just a hint slower. He should insist on enough checks and balances -- and personal visibility -- in place to ensure mission success, while still preserving his ability to intercede and adjust.
    What worries me is not just Mr. Trump's cavalier approach to delegation: "I authorized the generals to do the fighting, you know." It is that he doesn't appear willing or capable of trying to establish this level of visibility or realizing that this balance depends on a thoughtful consideration of ever-changing conditions. He's just not curious enough.
    I know the President likes to turn to Andrew Jackson for example. But I recommend he spend a little time with "Tried by War," James M. McPherson's excellent book about how Abraham Lincoln taught himself how to be an effective commander in chief.
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    Lincoln made mistakes early on, but he was mature enough to realize it and to keep learning, experimenting and adjusting. He soon reached the point where he didn't have to ask himself: "Why am I telling them?" He knew why.
    Lincoln knew which orders he alone could issue and which ones the generals could issue themselves. He never stopped monitoring field operations and jumping in when he felt it was warranted. As McPherson tells it, Lincoln believed strongly in strategic oversight. He "knew that war was too important to be left to the generals."
    Modern military operations are not Civil War battles. But Lincoln's curiosity and learning process -- forged in real time -- can be instructive today, if only Mr. Trump would be willing to try.
    And the trying matters.