Opinion | Trump’s Border Stunt Is a Profound Betrayal of Our Military
A week before the midterm elections, the president of the United States announced he would deploy up to 15,000 active duty military troops to the United States-Mexico border to confront a menacing caravan of refugees and asylum seekers. The soldiers would use force, if necessary, to prevent such an “invasion” of the United States.
Mr. Trump’s announcement and the deployment that followed (of roughly 5,900) were probably perfectly legal. But we are a bipartisan threesome with decades of experience in and with the Pentagon, and to us, this act creates a dangerous precedent. We fear this was lost in the public hand-wringing over the decision, so let us be clear: The president used America’s military forces not against any real threat but as toy soldiers, with the intent of manipulating a domestic midterm election outcome, an unprecedented use of the military by a sitting president.
The public debate focused on secondary issues. Is there truly a threat to American security from an unarmed group of tired refugees and asylum seekers on foot and a thousand miles from the border? Even the Army’s internal assessment did not find this a very credible threat.
Can the president deny in advance what could be legitimate claims for asylum, without scrutiny? Most likely, this violates treaty commitments the United States made as part of its agreement to refugee conventions in 1967, which it has followed for decades.
The deployment is not, in the context of the defense budget, an albatross. We are already paying the troops, wherever they’re deployed, and the actual incremental costs of sending them to the border might be $100 million to $200 million, a tiny fraction of the $716 billion defense budget.
Still, we can think of many ways to put the funds to better use, like improving readiness.
It’s also not unusual for a president to ask the troops to deploy to the border in support of border security operations. Presidents of both parties have sent troops to the border, to provide support functions like engineering, logistics, transportation and surveillance.
But those deployments have been generally in smaller numbers, usually the National Guard, and never to stop a caravan of refugees and asylum seekers.
So, generously, some aspects of the deployment are at least defensible. But one is not, and that aspect is the domestic political use — or rather, misuse — of the military.
James Mattis, the secretary of defense, asserted that the Defense Department does not “do stunts.” But this was a blatant political stunt. The president crossed a line — the military is supposed to stay out of domestic politics. As many senior military retirees have argued, the forces are not and should not be a political instrument. They are not toy soldiers to be moved around by political leaders but a neutral institution, politically speaking.
Oh, some might say, presidents use troops politically all the time. And so they do, generally in the context of foreign policy decisions that have political implications. Think Lyndon Johnson sending more troops to Vietnam, fearing he would be attacked for “cutting and running” from that conflict. Or George W. Bush crowing about “mission accomplished” when Saddam Hussein was toppled. Those are not the same thing as using troops at home for electoral advantage.
Electoral gain, not security, is this president’s goal. Two of us served in the military for many years; while all troops must obey the legal and ethical orders of civilian leaders, they need to have faith that those civilian leaders are using them for legitimate national security purposes. But the border deployment put the military right in the middle of the midterm elections, creating a nonexistent crisis to stimulate votes for one party.
When partisan actions like this occur, they violate civil-military traditions and erode that faith, with potentially long-term damage to the morale of the force and our democratic practice — all for electoral gain.
The deployment is a stunt, a dangerous one, and in our view, a misuse of the military that should have led Mr. Mattis to consider resigning, instead of acceding to this blatant politicization of America’s military.
Gordon Adams is professor emeritus at the School of International Service, American University, and was the senior White House budget official for national security from 1993 to 1997. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and a professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary, was chief of staff to the secretary of state from 2002 to 2005. Isaiah Wilson III, a senior lecturer with Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, is a military veteran who was an active-duty Army officer for 28 years of service that included multiple tours of combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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