The Atlantic (November, 2019); 42-49
Mark Bowen’s article is subtitled: “What Top Military Officers Really Think about Trump.” He divides his critique into five categories, each of which should make you shiver a tad.
First, President Trump “disdains expertise.” We knew that already. We knew he advanced conspiracy theories, kept his own version of truth and facts, and refused to read briefing papers. If advice couldn’t be reduced to two or three bullets on a notecard or a single page of easily understood graphics, our President waited until Fox News distilled the information for him.
For much of the twentieth century, we celebrated the rise of expertise. We were a nation that had faith in science and technology. We profited mightily from that commitment, winning Nobel Prizes, making amazing medical advances, putting men on the moon, and ushering in the digital age. However, there was always a contingent of Americans suspicious of change and change-makers, suspicious of putting so much faith in science that we lost faith in faith itself. In the twenty-first century they joined with workers whose jobs no longer afforded a living. Rather than the obscenely wealthy becoming the enemy, professional elites were labeled the offenders. and Trump rode into town to drain their swamp.
We have become the developed nation of the gut, not the brain.
Second, “he trusts only his own instincts.” As Bowden writes, “Trump believes his gut feelings about things are excellent, if not genius. Those around him encourage that belief, or they are fired.” The poor generals, it appears, prefer to base decisions on facts. They admire Trump’s occasional decisiveness, except when it is mysteriously withdrawn. Note, Bowen writes, Trump’s indecisive decision not to retaliate just 15 minutes before punishing Iran for downing of our drone. Trump claimed his decision to reverse his prior decision was due to sudden information about casualties that every military expert assures us would have been among the things discussed when that option first arose. He must have missed that part of the early briefing options.
Third, “he resists coherent strategy.” Trump believes in the chaos theory of leadership. Keep people confused, be unpredictable, ensure the situation churns. As Bowen notes, keeping enemies off-balance is a good thing, except when you become unbalanced yourself. Trump goes back and forth between “Rocket Man” and the author of great “love letters” to him. And, although a crazy approach like that might work with a crazy man like Kim Jong Un, unpredictability on a global scale increases the likelihood of misunderstanding and miscalculation. Without a strategy, crisis becomes the norm.
Fourth, “he is reflexively contrary.” According to Bowen, “Trump so resists being led that his instinct is nearly always to upend prevailing opinion.” Sometimes being contrary is a good thing. There’s reason to raise questions; what seems like perfectly good advice based in fact, might be someone’s political inclination supported by bad information (note attacking Iran under President Bush). However, Bowen concludes, “trying to shape Trump’s approach to the world into a cogent philosophy is a fool’s errand.” Rather, the generals should “keep binoculars trained on his twitter feed.”
Finally and fifth, “he has a simplistic and antiquated notion of soldiering.” Trump likes the military. He loves his generals. He told us that throughout the 2016 campaign and periodically since his election. To Trump war is a John Wayne movie. To the generals, “good judgment counts more than toughness.”
Bowen’s conclusion: the military is slow to change and so it may be able to withstand decisions made by a poor leader for a term, but maybe not for two.
Sleep well at night. Trump has let us know a “mighty genius” is in charge.