Analysis

Two Marines Are the Last Guard Against Trump's Dangerous Shenanigans

When Steve Bannon has more influence than the heads of the army and intelligence, Trump's defense chiefs could be the only voice of moral opposition.

Two ex-Marines: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, left, and Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon.
Alex Brandon/AP

Islamic extremists carry out a series of terror attacks in the United States. The president responds with an executive order calling for the detention, in special camps, of all Muslims in the country — including citizens and permanent residents. The president’s chief military advisor objects to the order.

Such a scenario was outlined in an essay published this month in the Joint Force Quarterly — the journal published by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It was written by Lee Turcotte, a junior officer in the United States Air Force, with the rank of major. Last spring, when Trump was on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination, Turcotte  won the Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition, competing against other military college students.

His essay could have been left to gather dust alongside thousands of other entries. It was quietly praised when it won back in May 2016, but then last month a decision was made to disseminate it with great fanfare. The person responsible for the decision was the publisher of the journal, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who also wrote the accompanying editorial.

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The article underscores the right and obligation of the senior military command to express moral reservations over policy. Trump’s name does not appear in the article, but the thrust is clear, indeed almost prophetic.

The essay warns of a rising tide of nationalism, isolationism, xenophobia, and anti-Islamic rhetoric, describing a scenario that although it mentioned no names sounds realistic. It recommended ignoring unethical orders of an imaginary president, of whatever party, directed against citizens of Muslim faith. The article begins with a quote from Herman Meville’s novel “Moby Dick” about the necessity of speaking out and standing up “amid the general hurricane.”

Shortly after the article appeared Trump issued an anti-Muslim executive order barring admission to Fortress America. The chief enforcer of the order is due to be retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, the new homeland security secretary. The Citizen and Immigration Services, the customs service, the Coast Guard and the Border Patrol all report to him.

When the border wall with Mexico that Trump has promised to build is completed, there won’t be sufficient border patrol personnel to defend it. The old Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 bars the military from involvement in domestic law enforcement. That was the practice until Trump was elected. But who would interfere if, with the support of a majority of justices on the Supreme Court, he changes the law or even turns Turcotte’s nightmare scenario of detention camps for Muslims into a reality. Against the backdrop of growing protest among the ranks of the professional staff of the Justice Department and the State Department and among the American intelligence community, it is only the Pentagon that is missing to turn the tide of internal contempt of Trump into a tidal wave. In the American system of government, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is not a commander in the same way as the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff is. He is the senior staff officer, the chief military adviser and a member of the National Security Council, a role that Trump seemingly tried to downgrade a week ago, before backtracking in the face of criticism.

The chain of command passes from the president to the secretary of defense and from him to the regional and operational commanders, who have the same four-star rank as the chairman does (though he officially outranks them). Very few of Dunford’s predecessors were well known to the public. An exception was Colin Powell during the 1991 Gulf War. Usually, the chairman is the secretary of defense’s partner during congressional hearings. Generals who come to the public’s attention, such as David Petraeus, usually come from the field, not from the five-sided building on the western bank of the Potomac.

Dunford is a Marine officer. Landing on a beach with the enemy waiting is considered to be the toughest and deadliest military mission of all. It’s no wonder the Marines have an image of stubborn fighters, who bang their heads against the door until they break it open, no matter how many Marines fall in the assault. It took considerable time and effort for them to earn a place at the top. At first, their commander was added alongside the other chiefs only at the insistence of Congress. Until the 1980s, no Marine went on to be appointed a regional commander. The establishment of the Central Command, Centcom, was partly intended to create a job for a Marine general. The involvement of the Marines in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to the promotion of a series of Marine generals to the top brass. Only in 2005 was the first Marine, Gen. Peter Pace, appointed as chairman of the joint chiefs; Dunford is only the second.

As president, Barack Obama had no political incentive to appoint Dunford as chairman. Dunford is lucky that Defense Secretary Mattis — his commander and one of his mentors — stands between him and Trump.

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Mattis is Trump’s most, if not only, successful appointment. It is doubtful that Trump really knew who Mattis is and what he stands for. A retired Marine general, Mattis is the total opposite of Trump — even in the personal arena. Unlike the president, Mattis never found time to marry three times — he is a bachelor. His familiarity with the ways of the world and its leaders is broad and deep. In his conversation this week with King Abdullah of Jordan, Mattis renewed their old acquaintance from his days at Centcom. He called his colleagues exactly according to protocol, first Canada, Britain, the secretary general of NATO, Australia and New Zealand; after that Germany, France, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Saudi Arabia.

Most important, Mattis is not a thrill seeker. He is cautious of commitments that lack budgets to back them up, and emphasizes the importance of cooperation with other bodies in the administration — first and foremost, the State Department. Diplomacy comes first, military action is meant to deter and is at the service of the nation as a last resort.

By the end of the month, Mattis is supposed to present Trump with a proposal for intensified action — more than Obama took — to eliminate ISIS. Mattis is expected to warn the president of the diplomatic and operational price of blurring the distinctions between enemies who carry the banner of Islam, and Muslims and Muslim nations in general. He is aware of what is happening around him. Mattis, who opposes torturing prisoners in order to extract information, was able to convince Trump of his position by using down to earth language, rather than arguments concerning the law or fears that American prisoners would be tortured in response.

Like the Japanese-Americans?

Trump cannot allow himself to get into a confrontation with Mattis or Dunford, whose reputations are not subject to politics or partisanship. Such a clash could take place when foreign and defense policy spill over into domestic politics — for example, in scenario depicted by Turcotte. That could take the form of an anti-Islamic version of the shame and humiliation directed against Japanese-Americans in the 1940s — this time, with presidential pressure to join the campaign and defend it on the basis of military needs. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the detention of Japanese-Americans living in Western states, to prevent them from aiding in a Japanese invasion of California and the West coast. The lack of evidence of any links between them and the aggressors from Tokyo served as a wonderful excuse for the military to argue that the enemy was so sly that the evidence was completely hidden. The apologies and compensation came decades later.

Turcotte’s point of departure is more alarming: In the wake of terror attacks by Islamists who don’t belong to any organization or broad plot, the president decides to resort to collective punishment against Muslims, including permanent residents and citizens. In Turcotte’s scenario — which was disseminated at the initiative of Dunford — the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposes the plan to set up detention camps for Muslims, and expresses his objections to the president and his aides. The first argument made is that such an initiative will provide justification for the propaganda of extremist and violent organizations calling for an Islamic war in the West. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “also anticipates active opposition at home, not only among Muslims, which will lead to incidents in federal units employ fatal force against American citizens.” There is also a warning about “the moral bankruptcy and damage that will be caused to the army’s relations with society in the wake of its involvement in interning masses, in violation of American values, the principles of the constitution and human rights.”

The president insists that his decision is justified by the emergency situation, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reacts by resigning. The president, already anticipating this possibility, has another candidate ready to take over. Once the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is sworn in, the president signs a mass detention order, an executive order, just like Trump has been doing.

Loyal to whom?

In these times when Steve Bannon has more influence on the commander in chief than do the heads of the army and intelligence, the Marine Corps’ motto Semper fidelis — “always loyal” — is under threat. Loyalty to the president? Or to morality?

The scenario depicted by Turcotte is chilling in its resemblance to the reality unfolding before our eyes. It does contain a ray of hope, though, in the possibility of the Dunfords and Mattises serving as human dams. In order to offset the dangerous power wielded by the executive branch, the American democracy is forced to put its trust in the generals of the Marine Corps.