Jim Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general and former defense secretary, was sort of joking when he recently told a charity dinner: “I think the only person in the military that Mr. Trump doesn’t think is overrated is Colonel Sanders.”
Good line, but it contained a dark and dangerous truth: The president treats military officers with the same disdain with which he views any professional who contradicts his warped worldview — judges, economists, intelligence officers and climate scientists. Even weather forecasters.
Trump recognizes only one authority in all matters: himself. And his arrogance is getting worse. Like Mattis, he was sort of joking last August when he proclaimed, “I am the Chosen One.” But in his heart, you know he believes exactly that.
In domestic policy, there are plenty of guardrails to contain Trump’s more erratic instincts. Judges blocked his cruelest crackdowns on immigration. Democrats thwarted his attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Republicans forced him to withdraw one of his craziest ideas, lining his pockets by holding the G7 summit at his own resort.
But in foreign and military policy, presidents traditionally exert far more authority over decision-making than they do at home. That’s why Trump’s refusal to follow the advice of what he calls “failed generals” is so deeply disturbing. The president knows almost nothing about military strategy, and his combination of arrogance and ignorance poses a profound threat to the nation’s security interests.
The latest example of that ignorance was his precipitous decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria. In one disastrous stroke, he abandoned our Kurdish allies, aided our Russian enemies, encouraged the murderous Assad regime in Damascus, and endangered our closest friend in the region, Israel.
Trump apparently doesn’t care about these calamitous consequences, because he has only one goal: creating a campaign slogan — “I brought the troops home!” — for his re-election effort. The Kurds in Syria don’t vote in Michigan and Wisconsin, he reasons, so to hell with them.
Military officers generally follow a “code of silence” regarding civilian decisions. Mattis was so alarmed by Trump’s intentions that he resigned last December when the Syrian pullout was first raised, but he won’t criticize the president directly. Other officers have decided they must violate the code and speak out — a striking sign of how strongly they disagree with the president’s path.
Joseph Votel, a retired four-star Army general who headed U.S. operations in Syria until last spring, wrote in The Atlantic that Trump’s withdrawal “could not come at a worse time.”
John Allen, a former Marine four-star general, told CNN that “there is blood on Trump’s hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies.”
Allen was particularly incensed that the president acted at the urging of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a true tyrant who has systematically dismantled democratic institutions, including a free press. “This is what happens when Trump follows his instincts and because of his alignment with autocrats,” Allen said.
Congressional Republicans have also been following a “code of silence” when it comes to Trump. He remains widely popular with the party’s base, and most lawmakers have been unwilling to risk his wrath. But like the generals who spoke out, a few Republicans were too unnerved by the Syrian debacle to stay quiet.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, no fan of the president, issued a blistering condemnation: “What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history.”
Even Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader and an eager enabler of Trump’s worst instincts, finally had enough. He wrote an article in The Washington Post that said, “Withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake. It will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances.”
Foreign policy seldom decides elections, but the generals and Republicans who are willing to break the code of silence and condemn the president are making a valuable contribution. Most Americans could not find Syria on a map, but that’s not the point. If enough voters, especially women, come to believe that Trump’s recklessness makes them and their families less safe, then the president’s prospects could be seriously threatened.