Trump has overseen a steady transfer of power from the White House to the Pentagon
The moves are intended to empower the military at a tactical level
In his first six months in office, President Donald Trump has overseen a steady transfer of power from the White House to the Pentagon, handing off several warfighting authorities that previously rested in his hands – and those of past presidents of both parties – to the Pentagon and the commanders overseeing the US’ military campaigns.
The moves are intended to empower the military at a tactical level, bolstering the US’ intensifying fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups to praise from several current and former military officials.
But those efforts have also raised concerns about whether Trump expects to face the same level of accountability for military decisions he has kicked down to the Pentagon and have drawn attention to the inherent risks of downsizing the White House’s role in overseeing the US’ escalating military campaign against ISIS and al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
Trump’s most significant step in this direction came earlier this month when he empowered Defense Secretary James Mattis, a recently retired four-star general, to set troop levels in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon and the White House have downplayed the move by noting that Mattis can only act within the guardrails of the current US strategy in that country. But the move effectively empowers Mattis to send thousands more US troops into the warzone without the commander in chief’s signoff for the first time in a 16-year war that has spanned three presidents.
In Yemen and Somalia, Trump has given US commanders waging the fight against terrorist groups there more freedom to launch raids and offensive airstrikes without the White House’s OK by designating provinces in both countries as “areas of active hostilities,” leading to a marked uptick in airstrikes in Yemen.
In Iraq and Syria, the President has also granted the Pentagon more freedom to manage troop levels.
Meanwhile, the White House’s National Security Council – which some at the Pentagon criticized as overbearing in the Obama administration – has seen its power diminished, leaving Pentagon officials to describe a more streamlined decision-making process with fewer White House-crafted hoops to jump through on some military decisions.
The CIA, too, has been empowered by Trump, regaining the authority to conduct drone strikes against suspected terrorists – actions President Barack Obama chose to personally authorize via the military.
Trump administration officials have described the changes as a deliberate effort to empower the military and reverse the protocols that defined the Obama administration’s oversight of military campaigns that much of the top brass described as micromanagement that needlessly hamstrung commanders. Although not to the same extent, some of those complaints also stemmed from the era of President George W. Bush, military experts said.
“No longer will we have slowed decision cycles because Washington, DC, has to authorize tactical movements on the ground,” Mattis said in May. “I have absolute confidence as does the President, our commander in chief, in the commanders on the ground as he’s proven by delegating this authority to me with the authority to further delegate it and they’ve carried it out aggressively.”
The sentiment is widespread in military circles.
Retired Gen. John Allen, who forcefully criticized Trump during the campaign, expressed support for some of Trump’s moves to empower military commanders. The former top commander in Afghanistan and later Obama’s special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition recalled how he and other top military officials have long craved “greater flexibility” to more effectively carry out their mission and “maintain the momentum against the enemy.”
“Many of these targets are very perishable,” Allen said. “Every time I or other commanders had to come back to Washington for permissions, everything slowed down.”
Going too far?
But now, some are questioning whether the changes put into effect by the Trump administration amount to an overcorrection that risks handing over too much authority to the Pentagon.
Going forward, the White House will have a diminished role in sounding off on military decisions that could have geopolitical implications as well as political ramifications back home in the US.
Trump will be one step removed from more of the military’s airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia, decisions that could lead to more civilian casualties and local uproar in countries where the US is not formally deployed. Military commanders have stressed there has been no change to their tolerance for civilian casualties.
As Mattis prepares to send as many as 5,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, the commander in chief won’t need to be in the picture. He has been briefed on the proposals for additional troops, but Trump – who during his campaign railed against “nation-building” and a deepening of the US’ military footprint abroad – ultimately left the final decision to Mattis, distancing himself from a decision that could lead to more US casualties and prove politically unpopular.
Under both Presidents Bush 43 and Obama, decisions to send thousands more troops came from the top.
“I think there are some legitimate concerns that he is distancing himself from decisions about war and peace,” said retired Adm. John Kirby, a career military officer who served as the Pentagon’s top spokesman during the Obama administration.
Kirby, who said he believes there are merits to giving commanders more latitude, said he worried the Trump administration’s decisions represented a “knee-jerk, counter-reaction” to the Obama White House’s involvement in military decision-making.
“This could potentially be an overcorrection,” said Kirby, who is now a military and diplomatic analyst for CNN.
David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who has written extensively about White House national security decision-making, called Trump’s moves to delegate troop levels “a break from, essentially, modern history.” He said the Trump administration’s moves to diminish the National Security Council’s input and devolve power to the Pentagon are “counter-historical.”
Short of sending thousands of more troops into a conflict, the decision to give commanders more freedom to carry out airstrikes and special operations raids in some areas without the White House’s signoff could ripple into broader regional implications.
The Obama White House also kept a close hold on certain tactical movements to stave off “mission creep,” or the possibility the US could slowly become more deeply entrenched in limited conflicts.
Kori Schake, the former NSC director for defense strategy in the Bush administration, praised Trump’s moves to shift more warfighting powers to the Pentagon. But she also expressed concerns that the decision to delegate troop management authority to the Pentagon came without Trump first deciding on a broader US strategy in Afghanistan.
“It’s really important for the President to take responsibility for outcome and have a conversation with the American people that prepares people for both what we’re trying to do and the sacrifices that will be required to do it,” Schake said.
“The President has not done that on Syria, he has not done that on Afghanistan, he has not done that on the expansion of counterterror operations in Africa and other places. And the risk that runs is that the public – when the casualties start mounting (is not) prepared for the deeper political commitment,” she said.
National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said Trump will decide on the US’ broader strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia in the coming weeks, but decided to grant Mattis the troop authorization beforehand because of the uptick in violence in Afghanistan in recent weeks.
‘Let the warfighters fight the war’
Trump administration officials rejected criticism that Trump is shirking his strategic responsibilities as commander in chief, insisting Trump is putting power back to the commanders directly overseeing the US’s fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
“The President believes the best thing to do is to let the warfighters fight the war,” White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told CNN.
Bannon, one of the principal architects of efforts to reduce the White House’s footprint on the military’s tactical decisions, insisted Trump remains deeply engaged in crafting the strategy for defeating ISIS and said decisions on “anything important on the warfighting side” still rest with him.
“He hasn’t given up any of the strategic decisions,” Bannon said.
The officials said Trump continues to approve the most impactful special operations raids and Anton argued Trump’s moves to empower military commanders speak to Trump’s management style: “He delegates authority,” Anton said.
“That’s fine until something goes wrong,” said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling (ret.), the former commanding general of the US Army in Europe. “Then who is going to take the responsibility for those things going wrong? Is it the guy he gave the authority to or is it still him?”
After a raid gone wrong, questions about accountability
Several former military officers and experts interviewed by CNN said their concerns stemmed from one of the first life-and-death decisions Trump made during his term.
Days after he was sworn in, Trump signed off on a special operations raid in Yemen that would leave dozens of civilians and a US Navy SEAL dead. Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens would be the first service member killed in the line of duty on Trump’s watch.
Weeks later – amid criticism that Trump had hastily approved the raid during a dinner with his defense secretary and with Yemen in uproar over the civilian casualties – the President punted responsibility to the generals who recommended he approve the raid.
“This was something that was, you know, just – they wanted to do,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News, referring to the US’ top military men. “And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected … And they lost Ryan.”
If Trump sticks to that mindset while shifting power to the Pentagon, Schake, the former Bush administration official, said the military faces a “real risk” that it will be stuck with the blame for negative outcomes – rather than elected officials in Washington, like the President.
But while Trump’s moves to give the Pentagon more authority have put some distance between the President and some consequential military decisions, he will be hard-pressed to escape the consequences of those decisions entirely.
Allen, the retired four-star general who praised Trump’s moves to give the military “greater flexibility,” said Trump “can’t dodge culpability and responsibility.”
“He’s still the commander in chief and he’ll still be held accountable,” Allen said.