from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Donald Trump as Commander-in-Chief

February 3, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I have a piece on ForeignPolicy.com that attempts to evaluate what sort of commander in chief Donald Trump might be if actually elected president. After his second place finish in the Iowa caucuses last night, pundits might be writing off his chances to secure the Republican nomination, yet again. However, the Iowa caucus process is wholly unique and may not be representative of Trump’s overall national momentum. In addition, he has retained double-digit leads over his rivals in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the site of the next primaries scheduled for February 9 and 20, respectively.

Not only have most pundits and policy analysts not taken Trump seriously as a presidential candidate, they have largely refrained from critically analyzing his positions on national security and military issues. This is a mistake given that—especially since 9/11—the executive branch has enjoyed relatively few constraints from Congress and the Courts in going to war and expanding war aims. As part of updating our Presidential Candidates Use of Force Tracker, I have read as many of Trump’s disparate military and national security comments as can be found. While he is often credited with “telling it like it is” or “speaking off the cuff,” Trump actually sticks to a series of semi-consistent observations and principles, which may indicate what sort of commander in chief he would be.

I invite you to read the entire piece, but there are three points worth highlighting. First, more than anything else, Trump repeats his belief that the U.S. military is very weak and unprepared to go to war. He endorses building a military that is so big, strong, and technologically advanced that “nobody, nobody, nobody messes with us,” but contends this can be done while slashing defense spending. Second, Trump is both anti-interventionist—having opposed the Vietnam War, Second Gulf War, and 2011 Libya intervention—while simultaneously supportive of a vastly deeper military commitment in Syria, including the use of U.S. ground troops to protect a “big, beautiful safe zone,” and willing to consider bombing North Korea’s nuclear reactor. Third, he would significantly rebalance the burden sharing among mutual defense treaty allies, calling on South Korea, Japan, and Germany specifically to either greatly increase their own defense spending or to pay the Pentagon directly for enjoying the presence of U.S. troops.

It should be noted that all of the major presidential candidates have similar, significant gaps in the logic underlying their national security and military positions. For example, Secretary Hillary Clinton supports enforcing a no-fly zone over northern Syria to protect civilians from barrel bombs dropped by the Syrian Air Force. However, the cities where Syrian civilians are actually being killed by barrel bombs—a roughly north-south line running from Aleppo to the Damascus suburbs—would not be protected. More consequentially, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has repeatedly endorsed “carpet bombing into oblivion” suspected fighters of the self-declared Islamic State located within cities, claiming that “embedded special forces to direct that air power” would somehow protect civilians. Trump’s inconsistencies are simply the most pronounced, because no other candidate enjoys so much media coverage.

If you are interested in foreign policy, the Council on Foreign Relations has a great resource, Campaign 2016, that compares the candidates’ positions on major issues, and you can find the transcripts for all of the Republican and Democratic debates here. Undoubtedly, political campaigns are consequence-free spectacles where the candidates have no accountability for their words. However, one of them will be called upon to fulfill their article II section II constitutional role to be the “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” It is worth seriously considering what sort of role he or she would play.

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Defense and Security

Conflict Prevention

Elections and Voting

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