A president-elect who willfully ignores the unanimous conclusion of our intelligence community regarding Russian hacking based on nothing more than his insistence on getting “credit” for his victory; who appointed a conspiratorialist temperamentally and intellectually unqualified for the national security adviser post; who expresses abnormal admiration for Russia; who threatens the stability of NATO; and who seems infatuated with starting a trade war with China presents unique challenges to the U.S. military, intelligence community and Congress.
The military may be confronted with conflicting demands, illegal orders and nonsensical policies. Civilian control is a long-held principle of our system, but there are limits to compliance with orders from civilians. The military will need to learn to deflect, absorb, push back against and at times refuse Donald Trump’s dictates. The intelligence community has already gotten a taste of a president who will ignore its conclusions and publicly attack its integrity. These are substantial, unique challenges in many cases.
Congress has its hands full as well. As we know from the Barack Obama years, Congress has limited tools to restrain the commander in chief. Confronted with a president bent on accommodating a hostile power (Iran, Russia), Congress finds it difficult to spur the executive branch to action. Even more than the power of the purse (which generally presents Congress with the unpalatable choice of cutting off funds during a conflict) its main tools are the power of confirmation and of oversight. Congress has generally afforded wide berth to presidents in selecting their advisers, but that has been premised on the assumption that the commander in chief has a level of foreign policy sophistication, respect for foreign policy professionals, appreciation for U.S. values and reverence for constitutional limits. If literally none of these is a given, Congress should rethink its practice of deference to the president.
Trump’s announced indifference to intelligence findings and refusal to take regular briefings, his lack of understanding of U.S. obligations (e.g. NATO), contempt for human rights and affection for dictators, we would argue, requires a different approach. It may be too much to hope that every nominee will look like James N. Mattis, but both parties have an unusual responsibility to exercise extreme caution in considering Trump’s nominees. Republicans, especially on national security, need to take off their partisan hats and concern themselves not just with policy but with the preservation of American values and institutions.
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Without even addressing matters of ideology, Congress should demand that national security realm nominees demonstrate a deep understanding of their assigned responsibilities, bring some experience in government and most importantly exhibit good judgment and a refusal to bend with political winds and ignore reality. Some considerations that normally don’t enter the discussion need to be raised:
▪ Will they speak sense and truth to the president?
▪ What would provoke them to resign?
▪ What guarantees have they been given about their ability to hire their deputies and assistants?
▪ What principles of U.S. foreign policy are inviolate?
▪ What is their view of policy consultation with Congress?
In short, we should be looking not merely for qualified men and women, but courageous ones whose dedication to the country, honesty and conscience will take precedence over blind loyalty to the president. We should be looking to prevent careerists — those whose greatest ambition is to remain in positions of power — from dominating the ranks of Trump’s political appointees. In other words, character must play as much a role as experience for those who will work for a president who is bound by no intellectual, moral or legal norms. Republicans have yet to appreciate this fully.