Without consulting his generals, and ignoring a wall of opposite expert advice, President Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of American troops from the Syrian-Turkish border last week, exposing our erstwhile Kurdish allies to Turkish attack.
An entirely predictable cascade of calamity ensued — the attack commenced, Turkey rolled into Syrian territory, the Kurds quickly allied themselves with our enemies there (Syrian President Assad and his Russian backers) and began bracing themselves for ethnic cleansing. America had thrown a loyal ally to the wolves. Our adversaries around the world (ISIS, the Taliban, North Korea, etc.) took heart. Our friends despaired. This was all preventable, entirely predictable, and was justly condemned worldwide, even in some instances by Trump’s most reliably toad-ish Republican allies.
None of it surprised me. Trump’s decision illustrated, as if on cue, the central point of my essay “General Chaos” in the current issue of The Atlantic. I had spent months interviewing top military officers up and down the ranks to get a sense of what it has been like to serve this fickle commander in chief, and ultimately focused on four flag officers, three of whom had served Trump directly and one who retired shortly before he took office. Their experience and insights were alarming.
Here is a president who presides over perhaps the world’s most sophisticated system for intelligence-gathering and analysis — the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, NSA, etc. — yet prefers to take his briefings from Fox News; who distrusts expertise, doesn’t read, has no patience for policy details, and who is instinctively contrary. While mouthing pious respect and admiration for the military, he has no experience or knowledge of its culture or ethics, and routinely subverts commanders in the field, both by issuing ill-considered orders that interfere with ongoing missions and by undermining the Pentagon’s efforts to police its own ranks.
Defenders of Trump’s unorthodoxy argue, correctly, that no amount of expertise in world affairs ensures against mistakes. We do not elect presidents to be led by their advisers and policy experts. The same deep well of foreign policy expertise, after all, advised President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003 on the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction — he did not.
Some of Trump’s defenders go beyond this. They disparage the very notion of expertise. Trump has said he knows more “than the generals,” and routinely insults and fires those who challenge him. Some believe that the military and intelligence community is actually the enemy, the “Deep State,” conspiring to subvert him. Trump has encouraged this belief. Lastly, his defenders claim his very unpredictability is a good thing; it keeps our enemies off-balance.
The generals I interviewed served under a variety of presidents and have spent their lives studiously avoiding partisan politics. They spoke about Trump reluctantly, out of deep concern. Any suggestion that they have conspired to undermine any president is a baseless insult — in fact, three of the four worked hard to support him, even while disagreeing with his approach. Unpredictability, they stressed, can be an effective tactic, but it’s dangerous as a strategy. It leads to confusion and often to disaster — misunderstanding has often led to war. All agreed that no president should be led by expert advice, theirs or anyone else’s. What shocked them was Trump’s failure even to consult it. To ignore the deep well of experience and expertise at the White House’s disposal is simply to choose ignorance.
Last week’s fiasco was just the most recent example. For the first half of Trump’s term, military officers have scrambled to prevent tragedy in the wake of his sudden solo pronouncements. The most egregious was his order to attack Iran after its forces downed an American drone in June. This could easily have ignited a broad regional conflict, one that might have drawn America into an open-ended bloody war. Trump reversed himself minutes before the attack, but one of the generals I interviewed asked with astonishment, “How did we even get to that point?,” arguing that no sensible consideration of options would have included going to war over a downed drone.
Trump’s ignorance on military questions goes beyond failing to anticipate the consequences of his decisions. His moves have hurt ongoing military operations, and actually helped our enemies.
“He doesn’t understand the warrior ethos,” said one former top-ranking general, “values . . . like trust and self-sacrifice that allow our profession to maintain our self-respect and to be respected by others.”
It helps explain why so many military officers were so horrified by the sudden and complete betrayal of our loyal Kurdish allies — Trump has taken to publicly disparaging them. And it explains their alarm over presidential interference with the prosecution of soldiers accused of war crimes — such as Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who won Trump’s approval after being accused by his own men of murdering a teenage prisoner and shooting unarmed civilians. Trump apparently sees little difference between killing enemies in combat and killing in general — “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he tweeted.
This is not just a moral concern. “Man, if the warrior ethos gets misconstrued to kill them all . . . ” said the general, his voice trailing off in dismay. “If you treat civilians disrespectfully, you’re working for the enemy! He doesn’t understand.”
“The hardest part,” another of the generals told me, “is that he may be president for another five years.”
Mark Bowden is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. His books include “Black Hawk Down” and, most recently, “The Last Stone.” A version of this column appeared in the November edition of The Atlantic.