President Donald Trump on Thursday praised the decision to drop a massive bunker-busting bomb in Afghanistan as an example of the “total authorization” he has given his military commanders.
But such boasts only deepen defense experts’ concerns that Trump is ceding the military too much influence over the United States’ actions abroad — creating the danger of an unbalanced policy that gives short shrift to interests like diplomacy.
Trump, who faced early criticism for relying on retired generals to fill key Cabinet posts, has placed career military men in the two main civilian posts that shape national security policy: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army lieutenant general. At the same time, he has failed to fill most of the other top civilian posts that provide a major check on military prerogatives.
Trump has also allowed military commanders to wield more authority on troop deployments and other actions, most notably in Syria — in contrast to the Obama administration’s reputation for micromanaging even the smallest details of national security. But Trump declined to say whether he had let them make the call in Thursday’s bombing, which used the Air Force’s 21,000-pound “mother of all bombs” to attack a cave network used by the Islamic State.
Asked whether he had authorized use of the bomb, never before been used in combat, Trump told reporters that "everybody knows exactly what happened."
"What I do is I authorize my military,” he said. “We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done a job as usual. So we have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing. And, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately."
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the lack of national security experience of Trump and some of his closest confidantes is one reason to worry about the administration’s military-heavy tilt.
“The commander-in-chief and the people immediately around him are somewhat malleable when it comes to national security," Smith said, pointing to Trump’s about-face last week in ordering a strike on the Syrian military for its use of chemical weapons. “You can’t imagine anyone more opposed to military action in Syria than President Trump right up until he ordered the strikes. I’m worried President Trump is going to go with such a military-heavy set of advisers."
Syria is the most notable example of the greater autonomy the military has enjoyed in recent months, as hundreds of U.S. troops help local allies prepare for an offensive against the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqa.
The top admiral in the Pacific also announced last week that he had redirected an aircraft carrier battle group toward the waters near North Korea as a show of force.
In his remarks about Thursday’s strike in Afghanistan, Trump boasted about empowering the commanders, calling that a key difference from former President Barack Obama’s approach. "If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what’s happened over the last eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference," he said.
But others in the defense and security worlds fretted that a vacuum at the top the administration means that military prescriptions are dominating the debate.
"Because you have a lot of military minds thinking of this in a military context, you are going to get answers to things that are really, really finely tuned to the military considerations but not the diplomatic considerations or even the domestic political considerations," said Alice Hunt Friend, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who held several senior policy positions in the Obama-era Pentagon. "That is something the president should be very concerned about. Civilians are supposed to give them the political context of what they are doing and why they are doing it."
The concerns are not just about the military personalities who are crafting policy.
In fact, Mattis, who required a special congressional waiver to serve as the military’s civilian leader, and McMaster have both drawn bipartisan praise. Supporters see them as moderating influences on some of Trump’s most unpredictable impulses, saying they’re unlikely to propose reckless military operations.
The worries center more on who is not in the room — namely in the National Security Council’s powerful "deputies committee," which is made up of the the second-ranking officials across departments such as State, Treasury and Defense. That body has historically cued up options for the Cabinet and ultimately the president, but Trump’s slow pace in filling agency slots means that many of the committee’s members are either Obama holdovers or career staffers with little influence.
"That is your civilian control," said Andrew Hoehn, who was deputy assistant Defense secretary for strategy under George W. Bush. Hoen, now vice president for research and analysis at the government-funded RAND Corp., said the deputies committee "is how policy is made. Lacking those positions is a concern. Do we have the right set of inputs in place yet? I think the answer to that is no."
The NSC declined several requests for answers about how many deputy committee meetings have taken place during the Trump administration and who has attended. Requests for comment to the office of Mattis, who pledged in his January confirmation hearing to "provide strong civilian leadership of military plans and decisions," were also not answered.
Others are raising concerns about the policymaking process under Trump given the prominence of so many military professionals in his orbit.
In addition to Mattis, McMaster and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford, DHS Secretary John Kelly is a retired general. So is Keith Kellogg, the executive secretary of the National Security Council, while several other senior NSC staff have deep military credentials.
"Effective civilian control requires three things: clear role delineation between Mattis, McMaster, and Dunford, set by the president and transparent to everyone on the NSC; a defense and military apparatus that is totally clear on the same; and strong civilian and non-defense counterparts, especially at the State Department," said Loren DeJonge Schulman, who recently served as senior adviser to former National Security Adviser Susan Rice. She was previously the chief of staff to the assistant Defense secretary for international security affairs.
"Through no fault of Mattis’ and McMaster’s," she added, "it doesn’t seem like we’re even close to having any of those."
It is also not clear to Schulman that Trump, who has repeatedly praised the military prowess of his Cabinet officers such as Mattis and McMaster, fully understands the civilian-military balance and why civilian control has been considered inviolate in the American system.
"By the president’s own words, it’s not apparent he’s clear on the two of them being in civilian roles, period," she said.
Smith, a vocal skeptic of the decision to grant Mattis a waiver to serve as Defense secretary, said he worries that "hardcore Pentagon military folks are driving the ship."
“They spend all day looking at bogeymen and figure out how to get them," he said in an interview. "They have a certain way of looking at the world. There needs to be a counterbalance."
As an example he cited a recent conversation with an unnamed general about Trump’s decision to strike Syria. "We can’t do nothing," the general said. "Why not?" Smith responded.
The danger of relying too heavily on military advice, Friend wrote recently, "is that military operations become divorced from overall foreign policy, making both civilian leaders and the military vulnerable to runaway events."
"I’ll be happier when I see [Mattis] has a deputy, an undersecretary for policy, all those mechanisms to not only advise him but operate in an inter-agency process in a way we’d expect," said Hoehn, the former Bush adviser. "The same holds true for State and Treasury. Then we would see the NSC system working as it is designed."