The Role of the Pentagon in the Trump Administration


On January 20th, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. More than any other president in living memory, he will enter office with an unclear foreign policy agenda and few certainties about his real views of the world. His campaign trail was littered with contradicting statements regarding America’s role in the world, and the 10 weeks since election day have clarified little. Without a doubt, we are entering into a period of upended assumptions and vast uncertainty in U.S. foreign and national security policy, with numerous indications that suggest the 70-year bipartisan consensus about U.S. global leadership is now about to shift in major and unprecedented ways. This period of looming unpredictability will make the role of the Department of Defense — the nation’s largest department of government — unusually important in shaping the Trump team’s thinking during its first year and beyond.

Trump’s foreign policy team is divided into three competing factions, as Thomas Wright recently argued. The “America First” circle questions the value and contributions of America’s allies around the world and believes that the United States has been disadvantaged by nearly all free trade deals. The “religious warriors” see radical Islam as an existential threat to the West and believe that protecting America from this rising threat demands a massive re-prioritization of our policies. The “traditionalists” continue to support the post-World War II bipartisan consensus, where the United States plays a strong global leadership role backed by a strong military and sustained engagement with allies and friends. These three factions will battle for dominance over the next year as Trump settles on what direction the United States should take in this new era.

The Pentagon and its military and civilian leaders always play a large role in shaping national security and foreign policy. But in this potentially tumultuous period for U.S. defense and foreign policies, Secretary of Defense-designate Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, and the rest of the Pentagon team will also have five broader responsibilities in this new and untested administration.

1. Challenge Naive Assumptions About the Use of Force

Many of the traditionalists are extremely concerned that the America First-ers and the religious warriors will gravely harm the United States through reckless adventurism, disregard for laws on torture and armed conflict, and sheer ignorance of the policymaking process. This view was clearly articulated last week by Eliot Cohen — a prominent Republican who coordinated one of the Never Trump letters — in Congressional testimony that endorsed confirming Mattis:

A Secretary Mattis would be a stabilizing and moderating force, preventing wildly stupid, dangerous and illegal things from happening, and over time helping to steer American foreign and security policy in a sound and sensible direction.

Cohen is right to be concerned and correctly identifies the single most important role of the Pentagon in the next four years. The bench of qualified potential civilian appointees for foreign policy and national security jobs has been decimated by the transition team’s apparent disqualification of over 150 prominent Republican national security experts who signed Never Trump letters during the campaign. Seasoned Pentagon leaders like Mattis and the uniformed military leadership will, therefore, have an even greater obligation than usual to ensure that administration officials clearly understand the costs and risks of using military power — especially the second-, third-, and maybe even fourth-order effects of doing so. They must do so by challenging facile assumptions, examining worst-case outcomes, and ensuring dissenting viewpoints are preserved and voiced up the chain of command to make certain all information is considered before final policy decisions are reached.

If confirmed, Mattis and Dunford will have a special responsibility to raise these questions directly with the president and his inner circle of advisors. They will also have the additional responsibility of asking the very difficult and unpopular follow-up question: What happens after the use of force? Will military force alone be sufficient to achieve stated objectives? If not, what else needs to happen? What are the long-term effects of military action? Could those prove more dangerous to U.S. interests than the threats posed by the immediate crisis? These questions are particularly vital when time is short and the pressures to use force are strong, such as in response to a North Korean missile test or an Iranian naval provocation. Pentagon leaders can act as an important brake on the rush to act when the pressure is on to “do something now” before all options have been fully considered.

2. Provide Strategic Continuity Through Enduring Military Missions

Trump’s inauguration will usher in a period of vast uncertainty about U.S. intentions, strategies, and tactics among friends and adversaries alike. During this turbulent time, the Defense Department can play a calming and stabilizing role through its enduring missions around the world. While the commander-in-chief will change on Friday, the U.S. military will still be patrolling and securing the global commons. It will continue its extensive program of military-to-military engagements and its global exercise program to maintain presence and work with partners around the world. And, it will remain postured to reassure friends and allies, and help deter potential adversaries. Some, none, or all of these missions may change during the Trump administration. But until and unless such changes occur, the vital duties of safeguarding the global commons, working with allies, and deterring long-standing adversaries will remain the core day-to-day functions of the U.S. military. Moreover, Pentagon leaders such as Mattis, Dunford, and the other members of the Joint Chiefs will be uniquely positioned to make the case that national interests are best served when the United States remains strongly engaged around the world — in effect, putting America First by playing a strong global leadership role backed by U.S. military power.

3. Forge Close Working Relations with Congress

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress broad authorities to oversee and resource U.S. military forces, making it a vital partner for the executive branch. Yet, many political

appointees in the Trump administration — especially those from the private sector — will have no experience with the frustrating constitutional separation of powers designed by the founding fathers. Republicans control both houses of Congress but their party is deeply divided, especially between defense hawks who want to increase defense spending and budget hawks who are more concerned with government spending and reducing the national debt.

Now more than ever, Pentagon civilian and military leaders will have to work closely with the legislative branch and expand their commitment to openness with Congressional members and staff. This could include holding more closed briefings for members and staff on readiness and intelligence issues, having senior military leaders make more frequent trips to the Hill to meet with key committee leaders, and improving informal relationships with member and committee staffs. Pentagon leaders should also recognize that full transparency with the Hill is the most effective way to ensure the people of the United States fully understand and support evolving military policies and new plans for the use of force in the Trump administration.

4. Serve as a Keeper of Values

The Pentagon serves an unspoken role in the U.S. government that accrues from its immense size and budget, relatively uniform culture, and high levels of public confidence. The U.S. military conducts its operations in ways that adhere to long-standing norms in international law. Suspected violations — such as bombing hospitals or murdering civilians — are rigorously investigated, and those who are found at fault are held accountable. In the past year, both active and retired senior military officers have openly rejected using military force in ways that would violate the laws of war, such as carpet-bombing ISIL and the use of torture. While Trump has backtracked on some of his campaign promises to use waterboarding and other techniques that he called “far worse,” the Pentagon must nonetheless ensure that the laws of armed conflict and the diverse sets of international treaties and agreements codified into U.S. law are scrupulously followed. The incoming secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff must be vigilant and unhesitatingly assertive in pushing back against any such extra-legal directions. A Pentagon that maintains strict compliance with international laws will also serve as a model for all U.S. government entities.

5. Exemplify Loyal Public Service

Pentagon civilian and military officials at all levels should set an example for the rest of government on proper and loyal public service. Members of the military and the civil service have a duty to do their level best to support their bosses, regardless of any personal policy disagreements. Yet, as we recently wrote, every public servant will have to continually assess and re-assess the moral components of his or her service during the next four years given the wildly unpredictable nature of this particular administration. Some may choose to leave government. For those who stay, loyal service requires fully supporting and implementing administration policies that fall short of their moral redlines, even those with which they strongly disagree. Yet, loyal service also requires them to voice their considered honest opinions, calling out ill-advised or clearly illegal proposals, and seeking ways to provide dissenting outlooks within the institution. The Pentagon should stand as a bright example of loyal and principled public service during an administration that may well test the norms of public policy in unprecedented ways.

Trump’s inauguration will almost certainly usher in a new era of U.S. foreign and domestic policies. Many of the administration’s key national security policy directions remain unknown and will be shaped by vigorous debates in the coming weeks, months, and even years. During this period, the Pentagon and its civilian and military leadership will provide a vital anchor point of continuity and experience in an administration that will often lack both, especially in the domain of foreign and defense policy. They must do their utmost to ensure that decisions to use force are made carefully, responsibly, ethically, and legally.


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alyssa Weeks