Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The military deep state

Andrew Koppelman

     One of President Trump’s signature measures is his effort to purge the federal bureaucracy, what he calls the “deep state,” of longstanding institutional commitments that are inconsistent with his political program.  Trump’s crude buffoonery should not keep us from seeing that he has an implicit constitutional theory: the President is the voice of the people, and the institutions of government that were there when he arrived, to the extent that they embody an ethic that impedes his goals, are the enemies of the people.  It is that inconsistent ethic that makes “deep state” a derogatory epithet for Trump’s followers.

     Recent events in Syria suggest that Trump logically ought to start picking on a new target: the U.S. military, which has an ethic radically at odds with his own.

The campaign against the deep state is particularly clear with respect to climate change.  Many government departments rely on science to plan for the future.  This leads them to issue reports premised on (among other things) the massive evidence that human action is bringing about ecological catastrophe.  Trump, however, ran on a platform that denied that climate change was happening.  Hence, the scientists had to go.  To take one notable example, Joel Clement was forced out of his policy analysis job because he was working on mitigating the danger of climate change to Native American communities.  It wasn’t that Trump had anything against those communities.  But Clement’s work was inconsistent with a core Trump Administration commitment.

     The recent, abrupt withdrawal from Syria, and American soldiers’ horrified reaction, suggests that it is now time for another Trump purge.

     The ethic of the military has always been based on courage, respect for authority, trustworthiness, integrity, and above all loyalty.  Until now, Trump had no reason to question all that.  But now it has become a problem for him.  The military’s ethic chafes at walking away from our friends and compatriots, people with whom Americans have fought and died, and leaving them to mass murder and oppression.

     Events since Trump’s decision have shown just how much the U.S. was accomplishing with a skeleton force of a few hundred troops.  The Turkish invasion was enormously helped by the abruptness of America’s withdrawal, which gave the Kurds no time to prepare.  (It also disrupted the joint American-Kurd operation that led to the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – a potentially disastrous miscalculation that warrants its own investigation.)  After their abrupt exit, hundreds are dead and there are about 170,000 refugees.

American troops have responded to the precipitate betrayal of the Kurds with shame and disgust.  “It will go down in infamy,” said one veteran Army officer who had served in Syria. “This will go down as a stain on the American reputation for decades.”  "I am ashamed for the first time in my career," said one Special Forces soldier in Syria.  Another Army officer:  “As Turkey attacked, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed, number one, to have been part of it and, number two, that we, America, I believe are violating our values.  America in my mind is still the shining beacon on the hill, but we are not living up to that right now.” 

They clearly are not with the program.

     Just as it was necessary to cull the federal bureaucracy and all its public statements to eliminate any reference to climate change, it will now be necessary to cull the military and all its public statements to eliminate any reference to honor.

     If Trump takes his opposition to the deep state seriously – it’s not clear that he does – then the military will have to be reshaped in his image.  It will have to be a pretty thorough overhaul, probably the sort of radical step that is best postponed until his second term.  Keep an eye out for Fox News segments explaining why traditional notions of loyalty and honor are signs of the un-American weakness of wimpy, Chablis-drinking, politically correct liberals.

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