June 21, 2017–What does it mean when the President of the United States, faced with a major military decision bequeathed to him by his predecessor, turns around and tells the secretary of defense to make the decision by himself? What does it say when the White House stays silent on the matter and the news appears in a simple Pentagon press release of an afternoon?
In most presidencies the chief executive–the nation’s top politician and party leader too–is anxious to garner the credit for every important development. White House spin doctors are out the gate ahead of agency flacks, and, in fact, the White House often dictates the media roll out strategy for how something will be presented to the public. So far, in this area the Trump administration has exhibited little cohesion. This is not just a matter of the method of employing Sean Spicer. Or of the minimally-informative, mis-spelled, ungrammatical, approach of the White House press office. (Though, hopefully, Spicer’s move to a more strategic role in the White House communications operation may have a positive effect.)
No, the Pentagon press release signified that Secretary of Defense James Mattis will be in the driver’s seat rather than President Trump. The question of whether to send three thousand–or five thousand–reinforcements to Afghanistan has been on the president’s desk since Barack Obama held the office, and Obama did not want to tie the hands of his successor. Now Trump, too, has passed the buck.
Major alternative explanations for this are two. One is that the Trump White House has decided that Afghanistan is headed for disaster and it wants the responsibility for the United States part in that to go somewhere else. The other possibility is that President Trump is conceding that he knows little of military affairs so is willing to outsource the decisionmaking in this area. If the latter is true it may indicate the start of a new method, radically altering the understanding of “cabinet government.” The president as a CEO, essentially cheering on his lieutenants.
Given what we know of Mr. Trump’s sense of self-importance I have to incline to the first alternative. But the other is possible too, and if the cabinet were populated by more knowledgeable, more skillful officials–like General Mattis–that might be good news for Americans. Stay tuned.