Trump Has Arranged for a Military Mulligan. Will He Make the Most of It?
President Donald Trump is surely familiar with the concept of the mulligan — a chance to take another golf swing after shanking the ball in the hopes of making a better shot. Golf purists frown on the mulligan, but it is the duffer’s friend, and can save a round if used judiciously.
Trump shanked civil-military relations last week when he directed law enforcement to clear a path for his photo op in front of St. John’s and then promoted the imagery of him striding across the street with his senior military adviser in tow. Publicly flirting with invoking the Insurrection Act so as to mobilize regular military troops despite the opposition of his secretary of defense, his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his White House chief of staff, and his attorney general — not to mention the impassioned resistance of the mayors and governors he would supposedly be helping — was another shank.
This Saturday, as the commencement speaker for the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, Trump gets his civil-military mulligan.
The fact that the president is speaking at an in-person commencement is a mini-controversy in itself because critics alleged this was subjecting the cadets to health risks just to appease presidential vanity, while West Point leaders insisted that the risks were reasonable and manageable and that the soon-to-be lieutenants needed to return to campus anyway. Regardless of who was right about those decisions, now, in hindsight, the commencement could be a real opportunity for Trump to set a new tone. Coming on the heels of two roiling weeks of social upheaval and civil-military crisis, this is arguably the most important commencement speech of Trump’s presidential tenure.
As speeches go, a presidential military commencement is almost a gimme putt. The formula is well-worn and easy to follow. The president opens perhaps with a wry reference to the interservice sports rivalries and, at some point, takes pains to invoke the special authorities conferred on the speaker to absolve the graduating seniors of any remaining disciplinary infractions. Throw in some service-specific descriptions of missions — past, present, and future — as well as some gripping accounts of alumni heroism, and the speech practically writes itself. The cheer lines are easy to write and hard to flub.
The only way to shank a military commencement speech is to turn it into a partisan political address. Trump has spoken at military commencements before and it hasn’t gone well. He has given in to those partisan temptations with some inartful boasting, and the result is further concerns about the politicization of the force instead of the feel-good optics of a president looking, well, presidential.
This time, the president finds himself in a tougher patch of the rough, and the consequences of an errant swing on the speech are greater. There are three logically distinguishable approaches he could take. The safest is just to lay up: give an anodyne speech that follows the formula, bask in the polite applause, and get offstage quickly. The dumbest is to swing away without regard for the situation in which the president finds himself. If he gives a partisan speech that sounds like a MAGA campaign rally full of lambasting of critics and cringe-inducing claims about military support for his policies, the president could well revive all of the pushback he received this past week.
The boldest move would be to seize the moment and speak sensitively and with understanding about the larger issues raised by the protests. Some well-crafted, well-delivered remarks — even if brief — could put the worst of the civil-military crisis behind him and pave the way for Trump to campaign without humping some needlessly heavy rocks in his bag.
Other former presidents have risen to the occasion this past week: Barack Obama and George W. Bush both showed how to speak about racism in the moment. The current uniformed military leaders have likewise spoken directly and, at times, eloquently about why the military must not be silent on the matter of race and why the military’s connection to society is of paramount importance.
But getting it right requires having a sensitivity for civil-military relations that has thus far eluded this White House. It requires understanding that the bedrock principle of civilian control means that the military owes civilian leaders more than mere reflexive obedience to a leader’s whims.
Civilian control in the American context is best understood as a three-legged stool.
One essential leg is a commitment to carry out legal orders regardless of whether they conform to what military officers want to do — even regardless of whether they represent the wisest course of action at the time. This is the “right to be wrong” that is inseparable from democratic civil-military relations. Nothing that current military leaders said this week came close to breaking this commitment. Had the president issued formal, legal orders, I am confident they would have implemented them, and rightly so.
But another leg is a commitment to provide candid advice to both the president and Congress — the Constitution is quite clear that the “civilian” in “civilian control” includes both branches — regarding military assessments of the likely intended and unintended consequences of different courses of action. This commitment is especially important if one or the other civilian branch seems hell-bent on a risky course without considering all of the second- and third-order consequences. This is precisely what Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Gen. Mark Milley, and Attorney General William Barr were doing when they advised against sending in active-duty forces to quell the protests. Military leaders are not always right in these matters — early June is a time to remember that senior military leaders advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt not to invade North Africa in 1942 in favor of what would have been a disastrous early cross-channel invasion — but they would be derelict in their duty if they did not warn the president or Congress about their concerns.
And then there is the third leg, which was the one that most preoccupied senior military leaders these past two weeks: the obligation to recruit, train, and retain a professional military force capable enough to do what civilian leaders ask of it and ethical enough to do only what civilians ask of it. Military leaders know from painful experience that racism is an insidious threat to this “recruit, train, and retain” mission, as are other societal ills (sexism, drug abuse, and so on). If civilian society is being ripped apart through convulsions from the legacies of America’s original sin of slavery, then the military will be undermined as well.
That is why military leaders did not view the protests through the narrow lens of “law and order” exclusively, but rather through a broader frame that took into account the painful reality of ongoing racism and the ways it shapes the lives of all of the uniformed military. That is why they spoke to those issues in the moment, as they did after the tragedy in Charlottesville.
These comments were not political posturing by the military, though they did involve walking a tightrope because the White House was emphasizing a different message. Rather, these comments were merely the fulfillment of a military obligation to recruit, train, and retain forces ready to defend the national interest.
If Trump gave a speech that underscored his appreciation of this more complex understanding of American civil-military relations, he would go some distance to regaining par. But if he whiffs his mulligan, Trump may regret insisting on the high visibility of a West Point commencement address. And he will raise anew doubts about his fitness to be commander in chief.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and director of the American Grand Strategy Program at Duke University.