General Concerns

How worried should we be about the military’s takeover of American foreign policy?

Trump / Mattis
President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis stand during the commissioning ceremony for USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk, Virginia, on July 22.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In the past several weeks, President Trump has turned up his rhetoric against North Korea, warned Pakistan to stop coddling extremists, and announced that America would increase its military presence in Afghanistan. He also (reluctantly) signed a sanctions bill that targeted Russia and made noises about pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. These lurches, combined with concerns about Trump’s mental capacity, caused James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, to express anxiety over the fact that Trump has access to the nuclear codes. Still, the larger question remains: How much has American foreign policy changed under President Trump?

One certain change is the prominence of current and former members of the armed forces in policymaking roles. But even if Trump’s reliance on generals is unprecedented, it isn’t shocking to Rosa Brooks, a former senior Pentagon official, adjunct scholar at the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute, and author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon. Brooks’ book looks at the military’s prominence in different aspects of American life, and its increasingly central role in American foreign policy.

I recently spoke by phone with Brooks. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Trump’s seemingly substance-less rhetoric matters abroad, why having former military leaders in crucial policymaking roles is less worrisome than people think, and why military leaders are so concerned about the downgrading of the State Department.

Isaac Chotiner: We are about seven months into this administration and there have been a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs.

Rosa Brooks: Wait, where were the ups? Remind me.

Fair enough. Forget rhetoric for a minute. How do you think about the foreign policy this administration has been enacting?

I don’t think you can forget the rhetoric because in foreign policy the rhetoric is the substance, in part. I would describe Trump’s foreign policy in much the same way I would describe the president himself. It’s erratic and undisciplined and not particularly cohesive and tends to be characterized by an enormous amount of rhetoric that is irresponsible and sometimes downright scary. I think he has some successes, some largely incidental successes, most of which I tend to think fall into the “even a broken clock is right twice a day” category rather than the “oh that was brilliant” category.

What were those successes?

He did manage to get some of our NATO allies to pony up a little bit more. He did get Japan to pony up a little bit more. Those have been bipartisan goals of the last several presidents in a row, and those are good things. The fact that he got it by acting like he was perfectly willing to see all our allies invaded, nuked, et cetera, does not validate that approach.

Let’s go back to what you said about rhetoric because obviously rhetoric is substance if it is having an effect. But how, precisely, is it having an effect? Smart people in this country broadly know that when Trump mouths off it may be scary and it may be bad for our democracy, but it doesn’t necessarily imply any course of action, and so I assume smart people in other countries also know that.

I don’t know. I don’t think other people do know that. You’re right that the rhetoric doesn’t necessarily indicate any particular course of action, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can ignore it and it won’t be followed by action, either. That, I think, is the problem—that no one knows how to interpret the rhetoric. I don’t think we’re in a position where we can simply say, “Oh, ho, ho, that Donald, you know, he says all that crazy stuff but he never means it and he never follows up.”

I think his rhetoric has done some things that are not good for the United States. For instance, I think that his rhetoric has significantly alienated many close and vital U.S. allies, particularly in Europe. I think that his rhetoric has emboldened and empowered autocrats. I think that his rhetoric has, and this is more neutral, led all those states to feel that the U.S. is going to be at best a non-entity on the world stage, and at worst a malevolent actor, and that therefore they need to band together and look to each other and not look to the U.S. As I said, that could end up being good or bad. We don’t quite know yet, but that’s what I mean when I say that I don’t think people ignore the rhetoric. I don’t think anybody thinks oh we can just ignore it. I think people are scared shitless by it—as I think they should be.

Are there any commonalities or throughlines you see in Trump’s policies?

Yeah. There’s both a rhetorical throughline and there is a substantive line. Wow, I’m contradicting my own prior assertion that rhetoric is substance. But the rhetorical throughline is certainly that Trump is quite consistent about saying, in effect, “Hey guys, rest of the world, whoever you happen to be, whether you’re South Korea or you’re Japan or you’re Pakistan or India or Germany or France, you get what you pay for and you’re not going to get any more than you pay for. I’m going to browbeat you on that subject consistently.” He has been consistent about browbeating allies and partners on those issues, rhetorically speaking.

The sort of substantive throughline is that we barely have a foreign policy. This gets closer to my book’s themes. We essentially have a military policy. The military policy is being carried out with reasonable consistency and coherence in a sort of technocratic sense.

But we don’t have much other than military policy because the State Department under Trump and Secretary Tillerson is all but paralyzed by a combination of hiring freezes, threatened budget cuts, lack of personnel in key positions, and the fact that the White House fairly consistently shuts them out of anything important. Much of the sort of traditional U.S. diplomacy is either on hold or has sort of pulled back.

My sense was always that people at the Defense Department, especially in the higher levels, understood the importance of the State Department and how it made their job easier.

Given the sort of power and say the military has in policymaking, does it surprise you that there hasn’t been more of a push to say like, “No the State Department is important, we need them”?

I think there’s a really strong sense in the Defense Department that, in an ideal world, the State Department is a vital counterpart to the military. I think there’s an equally strong sense in the military at the moment that there is nobody home in the State Department, and that’s been to some extent true for the last decade or more but now dramatically exacerbated in the Trump–Tillerson era.

I think you will continue to hear people like Jim Mattis and the service chiefs say very strongly that diplomacy is important. Development is important. Our job, you know, we can’t do our job without those things. I think you’ll continue to hear that, but there’s only a limited degree to which the actors at the Pentagon have any ability to create that out of thin air or to get Donald Trump to create it.

My book was written before Donald Trump comes on the scene, and already you had State Department people saying things like “the trouble with DOD, it’s like it’s the 800-pound gorilla. We’re so outnumbered that even when DOD is begging us to help we don’t have the people.” The oft-cited line that there are more members in the military marching bands than there are foreign service officers is in fact true, even though I always thought it had to be apocryphal. This was a huge issue in Afghanistan during the Obama years, that the constant promises of a civilian surge just never materialized because the personnel just weren’t there.

I don’t want to turn this into just an advertisement for saying you were right.

Oh, I totally want this to be an advertisement saying I was right.

Are you surprised that with this administration the military’s role has gone beyond even what you thought possible?

I take it back when I said of course I want it to be an advertisement for me being right. This is actually an area in which I wish I weren’t right. Before I worked at the Defense Department, I worked at the State Department back in the last years of the Bill Clinton administration.

There was no Hillary Clinton administration, I hate to tell you.

I know. Just to avoid anyone thinking this was like wishful thinking. But I worked in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs, and I worked on war crimes issues and transitional justice issues and stability and reconstruction issues—all things that are very specifically on the chopping block for Trump and for Tillerson. The degree and speed with which the Trump administration has moved to continue the trend of undermining and paralyzing those parts of the U.S. government is incredibly depressing. I don’t think the trends I talked about in my book would have been radically shifted by a different presidency, including a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Maybe a Jill Stein presidency.

Well yeah, maybe. Most of the trends I talked about I think were trends that arose in response to changes in the geopolitical environment, not to partisan politics. The civilian parts of the U.S. government’s foreign policy apparatus were kind of dying, and Trump is coming in and pulling the plug on the life support and taking away all medications and basically trying to smother it with a pillow.

What is the current attitude at the Defense Department and in the foreign policy community about the increasing role of the military?

I think most people feel glad McMaster and Mattis are there. They’re the least-crazy people around. The same is true for Kelly. I think Kelly shares some of Trump’s hard-line views about immigration, which I’m not particularly happy about, needless to say, but I also think Kelly’s not crazy. He’s a competent guy and on most issues, I don’t think he’s particularly partisan.

I think most people take the view that Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster are sort of all that stands between us and nuclear war and so forth, so we’re glad they’re there despite everything.

There’s been all this talk about how the generals can shape Trump’s foreign policy, and then the fear of having too many military people in traditionally civilian roles.

I think that rests on some stereotypes about the military, which are less and less valid. It rests on some assumptions. When people say things like, “Well you know but these are civilian jobs,” I always sort of say to them, “I don’t understand what that means.” Explain to me the difference in 2017 between a civilian issue and a military issue. Give me a coherent theory of what falls in which basket, and nobody can do that. No military person can do it, and no civilian can do it anymore.

But your book also expresses concern about this.

That is right. But that isn’t the same as whether we should be worried that Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster are there. As the military has gotten more civilianized, the military as a sort of human institution has gotten more separate from the society it serves—and our kind of widespread public mythologizing of the military, the combination of the fact that the vast majority of the civilian population don’t know anything about the military, didn’t serve in the military, don’t know anybody who was in the military, and had it browbeaten into them that the only sentiment you’re supposed to ever express about the military is, “Thank you for your service. You guys are all heroes.”

That’s pretty toxic because it means that you have a population that doesn’t ask tough questions, that doesn’t feel entitled or empowered to ask tough questions, and as the role of the military grows, that means that there is a sort of growing number of things, policies, etc., about which the public doesn’t ask any questions and feels sort of frightened to ask any questions. That would be bad whether we were talking about the military or any other powerful institution or set of actors or set of policies. It’s not a good thing. It’s not a good thing for a democracy. Again, not because it’s the military but because it’s an institution that is taking on an ever-wider range of responsibilities on matters that affect all of us.

It’s also important to remember that Mattis and Kelly have retired. They are civilians now. They are not active. McMaster is the exception. He is obviously still active-duty military, but I don’t quite get the fixation on oh my God the military has taken over.

Where do you think it comes from?

If you think back to the founding of the American republic and why the Framers were concerned about civilian control of the military, it was a very different world that they inhabited back then. They inhabited a rather simpler world in certain respects, in which the physical force and the possession of physical force meant that you were in a unique position to kind of capture the state and capture instruments of power.

Today, that threat hasn’t gone away. That physical force still matters profoundly, but I think increasingly there are alternatives, additional routes through which malevolent actors and self-interested actors can capture the state, and capture power that range from the power of vast wealth and mobile wealth on a scale previously unprecedented in human history, to things like cyber- and other forms of information warfare and so forth. The focus on military power as the potential threat to accountability and democracy and equality strikes me as leaving us in a position where we fetishize that and forget the others. So we end up in a world where good job, good job American democracy. You kept all the military officers in their place and rapped them on the knuckles and we feel very good about our democracy, but meanwhile the super-rich have completely captured the state in all kinds of ways. I think it distracts us from other, equal threats.